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Ronald Roberts is ready for his showcase

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Ronald Roberts likes Mississauga, but he’d be perfectly content with never going back. For as much as Raptors 905 head coach Jesse Mermuys has enjoyed coaching Roberts, he’d prefer not to do so much longer. And despite Roberts standing as a major asset for the D-League team, general manager Dan Tolzman would be just fine losing him.

To a person, the Toronto Raptors organization seems ready to part ways with Roberts for all the right reasons, and everyone’s hoping there’s an empty seat on the plane Sunday.

As The D-League Showcase tips off in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, all eyes will be on Roberts, perhaps the most likely big-man to get called up to the NBA by the end of the week, if not sooner. The Showcase is a five-day scouting mega-event that will see representatives from all 30 NBA teams and a wealth of European teams converge to get an up-close look at the best the D-League has to offer. Teams can offer 10-day contracts as of Tuesday, and while there are only five open roster spots in the NBA right now, there are 34 non-guaranteed or partially guaranteed contracts that become guaranteed as of Jan. 10, meaning their should be a handful of players waived in the name of flexibility by 5 p.m. on Thursday.

“I’m hoping and praying that Ron gets picked up Day One. He deserves it,” Mermuys said Monday. “He’s worked as hard as he can, he’s done everything that’s asked of him, he’s a great teammate, he’s coachable. And he’s good enough. He’s good enough to play at that level. I’m hoping it happens for him.”

Roberts is decidedly among the best the D-League has to offer. The Raptors organization thought highly enough of him to give him a $75,000 guarantee before summer league concluded, perhaps helping convince him to stay stateside rather than taking a more lucrative opportunity overseas once waived. Roberts said he made that decision because “I feel like I have a foot and a half in the door” in the NBA, and he’s spent the last six weeks trying to bully his way through said door like it’s an opposing post defender.
[aside header=”More Showcase coverage”]
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[/aside]
With 12.6 rebounds per-game, Roberts is second only to Alex Stephenson on the glass among players who have played at least 10 games in the D-League this season. He’s also averaging 17.8 points on 66.2-percent shooting, a mark from the floor that ranks third among all qualified players, and turning away 1.6 shots per-game. None of this is surprising, as Roberts averaged 17.5 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks in 16 games last season, too, shooting 68.9 percent from the field. He has one elite, NBA-level skill: Hauling in more than 21 percent of available rebounds when he’s on the floor. That alone has value, and Roberts’ ability to finish in close off of put-backs and dump-offs makes him an easy fit on most any team.

“The big thing with me is that I can rebound. Every team could use that,” Roberts said Saturday. “I’m getting points off of just playing with energy, I don’t really need stuff run for me.”

Roberts has a good understanding of what his role will be if he does get the call to the NBA: He’s going to be a deep reserve who’s tasked with coming off the bench and scrapping for rebounds and cheap points. That’s what he’s more or less made to do, but he’s put a great deal of time into being able to do more, too.


Defensively, he’s been learning to communicate more when tasked with playing center, something the oft-small 905 have asked of him plenty. He uses his strength well to defend in the post, and he times his weak-side help forays well to contest shots and still remain in good rebounding position. He’s extended his jumper out to the 18-foot range, where it won’t necessarily stretch a defense but can act as a show-me weapon when opponents disrespect it. He’s made an effort to become more economical on the block, trading pump-fakes, step-throughs, and shoulder-to-shoulder bull-rushes for more skilled, footwork-oriented moves, and he’s become a more willing passer from down low.

“I think what he’s done is try to develop his skill level in these last couple of months to catch up to his athleticism and his motor,” Mermuys said.

It’s a tough balance to navigate, trying to improve in areas of relative weakness while also making sure the strengths that will get you a call up are on display. That’s especially true for Roberts because there may be some who see a player who measured 6-foot-7 without shoes at the 2014 Portsmouth Invitational and hold on to some doubt he can play in the post at the next level. But he measured with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, an 8-foot-10 standing reach, and a 40-plus inch vertical jump, allowing him to functionally play much larger than his height indicates. There’s also the endless motor Mermuys mentions, with Roberts providing this energy over 34.2 minutes a night.

He’s been doing this in heavy run for parts of two seasons now, and if anyone remains unconvinced, The Showcase represents a major opportunity to erase any lingering doubts.

“I’m excited, man,” Roberts said Monday. “It makes me think back to this whole summer when I was in the gym two and three times with my brothers. Working out, lifting weights, putting up shots. It always brings me back to that. And I always tell myself: I put in the work. Obviously, this is a big stage, and I’m ready.”

The Showcase was a pivotal time for Roberts last season, but because of entirely different circumstances. After impressing in training camp with the Philadelphia 76ers, Roberts went to the Delaware 87ers to wait for his opportunity. That chance jumped the 10-day window, coming in December when the 76ers called him up…for two days. Roberts didn’t get into a game before being waived and returning to Delaware, and while he didn’t return from The Showcase last year, it wasn’t for the reason he was hoping: The Santa Cruz Warriors acquired him, and he played a pair of games there before heading to the Philippines to close out the season.
[aside header=”Lucas Nogueira on Ronald Roberts”]
“I love the Flight Brother. He’s got bounce. I think he deserves a chance to play in the league. I think he deserves it much. He’s so athletic and he has experience professionally. I think he can play easily in the league but the league is so tough, not everybody has the chance.

And to go to the Dunk Contest in the All-Star Game. I don’t let him participate (in the D-League contest), it’s too easy.”
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“It was weird, man,” Roberts said of getting a brief taste of the NBA only to have it taken away prematurely. “It just shows you how tough the business is. But there’s no point to just being sad about it when other guys are still working really hard.”

This time around, things should be more straightforward. Roster spots are about to open up, and Roberts has numbers that jump off the page. The 905 are struggling as a team, but advanced metrics back up that Roberts isn’t looting in a riot. Because he’s missed a couple of games due to minor ankle and knee injuries, Roberts doesn’t quite have the counting stats of some others, but the woeful, 5-14 905 have outscored opponents by 21.5 points per-100 possessions with Roberts on the floor, and only Jarnell Stokes has a higher VORP with as few minutes as Roberts has played. No matter the metric, Roberts grades out incredibly well, and his style of play is the type to stand out when watching, too.

In other words, he’s going to be impossible to ignore on a big stage, though he recognizes that a call-up won’t necessarily come while he’s in California.

“Hopefully I’m at the top of those scouts’ lists to be called next,” Roberts said. “I’ve been putting myself in a good position to try to make it happen, so let’s see. It would be nice if something happened soon, you just never know. I can’t let it overwhelm me because I’m sitting waiting for a call. It can’t bring me down. I gotta stay focused and keep doing what I’m doing.”

Losing Roberts would be tough for the 905. They’re a young team and he’s been unquestionably their best player, even in comparison to the five NBA assignees who have spent time in Mississauga. The 24-year-old has also taken on a leadership role with a group that doesn’t have a single player over the age of 26. The Raptors are high on him, too, but the organization has no recourse to prevent him from getting called up by another team, unless they decide to cut or trade one of the 15 players on their roster. That’s the reality of the D-League system, which is designed to help both player and team, and parent clubs have no choice but to be OK with that.

“I’m fine with call ups,” Tolzman said Saturday. “It’s a good problem to have because it means that our guys are good enough for the NBA. I’m happy for these guys, that’s why they’re in the D-League, if they play up to their capabilities. Like Ronald, he’s doing exactly that. He’s clearly an NBA player.

“We kind of knew going in, it’s just a matter of time with him. When we had him in training camp, you could tell, he’s right there. There’s no doubt that at some point, it’ll happen, whether it’s at The Showcase or what. Even if he does get a call up, we’ll track him then from the NBA side. We like the guy.”

All it’s going to take to lose him is for one other team to like the guy, too. The 905 probably should have booked Roberts a one-way ticket for Santa Cruz.

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