Step 1: Raptors make a pick.
Step 2: Experts on TV react with incredulity or snide remarks.
Step 3: Fan base is aghast that their team took an international player or lesser known underclassman.
Step 4: Local media comes to the defence of the team (often with the ‘I think the GM knows more than you’ argument).
Step 5: A few dissenting Raptors fans begin to loudly defend a player that they’ve barely — if ever — seen play.
Step 6: Fans increasingly talk themselves into the player over the course of the summer, sometimes going so far as to talk about how the newcomer will displace his positional incumbent upon arrival.
Step 7: Fans and the local media begin to walk in lockstep in deriding the head coach for not giving the player more minutes.
Step 8: Things begin to normalize once the draftee has played a year for the club and becomes just another NBA player, one that has to live and die based on his actual skills and performance like every other player in the NBA.
Step 9: Experts, local media and fans begin eyeing the next NBA draft.
Step 10: Raptors make a pick.
This is a cycle that has been tacitly nurtured over years by an organization that rarely does what is expected of them on draft night — a tradition that dates back to Toronto’s first-ever draft pick of Damon Stoudamire in 1995 and extends to last night’s selection of Bruno Caboclo with the club’s 20th-overall first round pick. The Raptors are traditionally one of the hardest organizations to pin down on draft night, and while that generally works in the team’s favour as it pertains to getting the guy that they want, it also creates a lot of angst amongst fans (and some members of the media) that are haunted by the perception that their team is seen as some sort of ‘outsider’ and wish that the organization would just do what was expected of them for once instead of drawing all sorts of attention to itself by being such an unapologetic weirdo.
The truth is, though, I’ve grown to love how weird Toronto is on draft night. I love that the organization has begun to make it’s outsider status it’s calling card, with campaigns like We The North and “Fuck Brooklyn” being perhaps the most declarative statements in that regard. I love how they make draft picks that visibly piss off the vaguely xenophobic draft night panel on ESPN. I love that the club went so far into left field last night that Adrian Wojnarowski couldn’t find them. The only part I don’t love is how reluctant Toronto’s fans are to jump on the weirdo train with them.
The last three drafts that Toronto has participated in have largely solidified my adoration for Toronto’s bonkers draft nights. I had zero idea that the Raptors were seriously targeting Jonas Valanciunas back in 2011, and while I’d seen him play I was nowhere near as familiar with him as I was with Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight, both players that were unexpectedly available when Toronto picked fifth that year. Ditto Terrence Ross, who I’d seen play a little but was far more comfortable with Austin Rivers and Jeremy Lamb. With each passing year of totally unexpected picks, though, I became more and more enraptured with the idea that the Raptors looked like they were trolling the NBA, and then I grew even more impressed with the fact that these players kept proving that they were, in fact, better than group of guys that the Raptors were supposed to have missed on.
And Caboclo is like the acme of Weirdo Mountain. The Raptors actually managed to fall in love with a player that is a ghost on the internet and YouTube, a near-impossibility in the year 2014. This is a player that most people who are paid to follow the NBA didn’t even know existed. The narrative that emerged almost immediately was that the Raptors went hunting through the Brazilian rainforest, came upon a ludicrous physical specimen and decided to secretly smuggle him back to Canada. It’s such an odd-ball situation that the most common post-draft grade that the Raptors have been receiving has been an ‘incomplete’ — that’s how little the NBA cognoscenti know about this guy. Will he ever be able to make a notable impact at the NBA level? I don’t know, but I also don’t know if Tyler Ennis, Jordan Adams or Rodney Hood will either. Seriously, we’re talking about the bottom-third of the NBA draft, here. We’re talking about hunting for a 9th or 10th guy in the rotation. I’m not trying to devalue the importance of the NBA draft, it’s vitally important to team-building, but of late the Raptors have had success marching to the beat of their own drum and I’m learning to love that funky oddball rhythm.
I wish the Raptors fan base would love the chaos as much as I do. Toronto fans have always fought against their outsider status, constantly begging for more American attention, coverage and praise. The fact is, though, that the Raptors are the only team in the NBA to play outside of America, so no matter how badly some want to fight against it, they are outsiders. Toronto will never be indistinguishable from Chicago, Phoenix or Milwaukee. No matter how different those markets may be, they are all united by a single nationality. Toronto’s organization has taken steps to embrace their distinction, but the fans still seem unable to shake the need to normalize. Well here’s the truth: normal teams don’t win in the NBA. Team’s have to be willing to be bold, to be daring and to be weird. Begging to play in the same sandbox with everyone else just gets you stuck in the same sandbox with everyone else. The Raptors wanna get weird? Get weird with them. Get excited when the Raptors zig on draft night when everyone expected them to zag. Break the cycle, embrace the weird picks and boo the expected picks. It’s not like anyone has any certainty about which players will pan out anyway (sorry if that goes against absurd notion that there is some sort of infallible science behind the NBA draft). The Raptors have been making strong headway of late by being weird and it’s time to celebrate that draft night tradition rather than continuing to bristle at it. Sure, not every weird pick will pan out, but not every safe pick will either, and at the end of the day if you’re gonna strike out wouldn’t you rather strike out swinging for the fences?
Plus, I don’t know if anyone has pointed this out to you fans yet, but you’re weird. Raptors fans are just a weird collection of people, and it’s wonderful. Thousands of you stood outside, in the rain, to watching your team play on a big TV hanging from the side of an arena instead of watching warm, and dry, on your own TV. That’s wonderfully weird. Draft night should be the perfect marriage between weird picks and weird fans, but the connection isn’t manifesting. I’ll tell you want, though: on June 25th, 2015, I’ll be loudly cheering for the Raptors to make everyone else shake their heads in confusion, and I hope one or two of you will join in and cheer alongside me.