Axel Toupane setting the mold for Raptors 905 defenders

When Norman Powell is on assignment, Axel Toupane switches freely between the forward positions. If Bruno Caboclo’s with the D-League club, Toupane may find himself picking up any of three positions in transition defense. He’ll guard as many as four positions over the course of some games, and if the Toronto Raptors assign multiple players to Raptors 905, Toupane will move to the bench and lead the second unit as a point forward, subbing in without concern for a traditional position.

Toupane may be French, but he’s proving to be a Swiss Army Knife for head coach Jesse Mermuys. In other words, he’s exactly what the 905 envisioned when they set out to create their inaugural roster ahead of the 2015-16 season.

“Exactly,” 905 general manager Dan Tolzman says when asked if Toupane is “the blueprint” for what the 905 are doing. “With this league, there are so many versatile, undersized players. Positions are kind of going out. As many guys as you can match up with as possible, it helps. It’s kind of the way the NBA is trending.”

The ability to play and guard multiple spots opens up rotation flexibility for a coach and roster-building flexibility for management. The Raptors are hoping to build Caboclo into a multi-position player, added DeMarre Carroll and still chased Wesley Matthews in an attempt to circumvent positional basketball, and they’ve targeted players like Michael Kyser and DeAndre Daniels, who fit a position-free mold, at the D-League level. Finding versatile, defense-first pieces is a clear organizational edict, one that’s taking root at the ground level.

“In today’s NBA, with everybody going small, it’s vital,” Mermuys says. “You’ve gotta have that guy. You need that guy at your disposal.”

It’s little surprise, in retrospect, that the Raptors have been following Toupane for so long, then. He went undrafted in 2014 after testing the waters in 2013, something he called “a big deception” given his own personal expectations of at least getting the draft-and-stash treatment. The Raptors followed his progress closely, and Raptors director of global scouting Patrick Engelbrecht watched Toupane multiple times last season. After an impressive summer league stint, Toupane was given a $25,000 guarantee to attend training camp, and that guarantee, along with some discussions with Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri and executive vice president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman, convinced Toupane to opt for the D-League over more lucrative overseas opportunities.

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The draw with the D-League, for all players, is proximity to the NBA and a chance to get noticed. Despite modest numbers, the organization believesToupane is close. Tolzman confirmed to Raptors Republic that there was some thought he could be claimed when the Raptors waived him out of camp and that multiple teams have asked about him since. “He’s a guy that’s on the cusp of the NBA,” Tolzman says. “They think I can be an NBA player soon,” Toupane confirms.

Defense is going to be what gets him an eventual look, and the fact that he can guard multiple positions opens up the number of potential teams he could be a fit for. Locking opposing players down may not stand out to the average fan, but it’s getting noticed. He’s improving as the year goes along, too, as he adjusts to the rules of the North American game and navigates the subtle differences in team defense.

“Axel doesn’t have to score a point to increase his NBA prospects,” Mermuys says. “At the NBA level, you can’t guard a guy with one guy. And it’s the same down here, but if you can show that you made that guy work for everything, and you can show that you impacted the game defensively, I think in today’s NBA, that’s his ticket.”

Toupane is a standout in that regard. While the 905 are focused on building a team defense from the ground up, Toupane is their perimeter stopper. The 905 are a mid-level defense and they defend slightly better with Toupane on the bench, but there’s some noise there due to rotations in a small 15-game sample. It’s the 23-year-old Toupane who gets the call against the best opposing wings, particularly if Powell’s unavailable, and he uses his 6-foot-10.5 wingspan and impressive lateral quickness to great effect on the perimeter. If it seems odd for a 6-foot-6.5 player to switch into the post, too, Toupane’s 8-foot-8 standing reach and standing as one of the team’s stronger players makes it easier to understand.

“That’s new for me,” Toupane says. “I’ve never played the four in my life. Never, ever. But I don’t care, I just want to be on the court and have the ball and make plays.”

Having the ball is something that’s been a reality more often than perhaps expected for Toupane. He’s not a primary option when bumped to the starting unit but is often the bench’s primary initiator. Toupane’s averaging 12.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists, showing major strides as a facilitator and at attacking closeouts. The latter is important, because teams aren’t respecting Toupane’s 30.2-percent mark from long-range, even if he projects as a better shooter than that. Faced with a late close, Toupane has no issue putting the ball on the floor for a foray to the rim or to create a dump-off to a big if the help defense comes.

Those are important developments, and they’re made possible in part by Mermuys staggering the rotations and having Toupane prop up bench-heavy groups. It’s a familiar spot in the rotation for Toupane, who was seeing action with Strasbourg IG in the top French league at a relatively young age as far back as 2011-12, albeit one with more responsibility now.

“I was coming off the bench for the last three years in France, so I’m kind of used to it,” Toupane says of the sixth-man role. “In France, we had a lot of good players, so I didn’t have (as big a) role. I love it. That’s how I’m used to playing since I’m young, it’s not a big adjustment.”

Role certainty and familiarity is another draw for NBA clubs looking for players who can make seamless transitions to the next level. Toupane’s offense – he’s shooting 41.9 percent from the floor – has room for refinement, but he’s already doing the things well he’d be tasked with doing in the NBA. That might be more a consideration for the offseason than the stretch run of 2015-16, given how few teams enter call-up season with roster spots. Still, it’s a consideration that makes Toupane an option for NBA teams if a need comes up, no matter the position.

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