Sim Bhullar didn’t travel with Raptors 905 for the very first game in franchise history. It was Nov. 14, and the hulking Canadian was conspicuous in his absence. He’d play when the team held its first home game less than a week later, but would once again stay in Mississauga when the 905 went back on the road the following day. By the time the 905 returned home for their first sustained home stretch, Bhullar, thought from the outside to be a major part of the franchise’s inaugural season, had played 14 minutes through the team’s first five games.
The 905 had opted to keep Bhullar at home in order to work on his conditioning. At 7-foot-5 and 360 pounds, Bhullar’s never going to be svelte, but the organization believed he needed extended work at an elementary fitness level for him to have any chance of being a productive piece of the team. This wasn’t the 905 keeping him in Mississauga to run on the treadmill, because simply being able to jog up and down the court wouldn’t be enough – Bhullar needed to improve his functional conditioning and athleticism in order to fill the role the 905 envisioned for him.
That may have been surprising for fans who saw Bhullar average 25.8 minutes over 39 games for Reno last season, but all minutes aren’t created equal. Reno plays a break-neck pace and their system asked Bhullar simply to protect the rim, grab defensive rebounds, and stay put while the offense pushed the tempo and fired up quick shots. It was rare that Bhullar entered an opposing team’s half outside of dead-ball scenarios, let alone their paint. He still averaged 10.3 points on 72.7-percent shooting, but his utility was limited by the role Reno placed him in, a role that probably did his long-term development a bit of a disservice by working around his weaknesses rather than improving them.
So that’s what the 905 set out to do, keeping Bhullar off the road in order to get him into a routine and developing good, consistent habits. When he did play initially, it was in small minutes. He averaged 13.1 minutes of playing time over his first nine appearances, all at home, and he cracked the 20-minute mark just twice. He averaged 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds in that time, flashing the obvious potential that comes with being so large and slowly looking more energetic and engaged.
And then, as they say, “New year, new me.”
Bhullar sat out the team’s first game of 2016, then traveled with the team for the first time for the D-League Showcase in Santa Cruz. After two months of ironing out his lifestyle and regimen, Bhullar was deemed ready to hit the road, a pretty major development for him. He speaks highly of the team’s decision to bring him along in this manner, and the results are beginning to show beyond just travel.
“Taking the time off from the road games helped me out a lot,” Bhullar said last week, admitting that travelling is a positive and a slight negative because of “twin beds and stuff.” “Just showing me what it really was about and taking the time off and becoming a better player. I’m doing the right things off the court, and I think that’s really affected my game.”
In the time since, Bhullar’s playing time, role, and importance have all grown.
Traveling was just the beginning – after a few games playing small minutes on the road, Bhullar’s become a major factor for the team, his minutes rising accordingly. He’s grabbed double-digit rebounds in eight consecutive outings, posting a double-double in seven of those, including his last six games. Since the beginning of February, he’s averaging 16 points and 12.4 rebounds, picking up the slack on the defensive glass in the absence of injured All-Star Ronald Roberts. He’s shooting 68.1 percent in that span, too, and he’s pushed his Net Rating for the season up to a robust plus-20.9 – the 905, 15-23 on the year and outscored by 1.7 points per-100 possessions, have bludgeoned opponents with Bhullar on the court.
His growth has been a large part of the reason the 905 have taken off in the new year, even without the benefit of many Toronto Raptors on assignment. His performance over the last month is touching his best-case scenario for the entire season, and not even head coach Jesse Mermuys seems to have expected such expeditious improvements.
“Am I surprised? Yes,” Mermuys says. “Those are major minutes. I didn’t know if we would get there to those type of minutes in this first season, especially from where he started and the restrictions that were on.”
Mermuys admits that he’s giving Bhullar more leash than he may for another prospect, which is important to note. Bhullar isn’t dominating, and he still has a ways to go, to be sure, even on the conditioning front. He struggles to get back in transition defense at times, and he’ll occasionally bristle when teammates get on him about it during games. But Mermuys recognizes those instances are becoming less frequent and because he’s “such a presence for us” when he is able to get in position, the coach accepts that bit of trade-off.
As Bhullar’s improved, his teammates have gotten better at making use of his size. Axel Toupane seems to enjoy nothing more than snugly operating around a Bhullar screen or working a give-and-go off his hip.
The 905 shooters, too, know to stay ready when the ball goes into Bhullar on the block, because the center is quite a gifted passer. He’s gotten better at reacting to double-teams and protecting the ball, and he stays aware of cutting action around him.
After setting screens, Bhullar can be a terror rolling to the rim. Ball-handlers would be well-served keeping their passes high to prevent Bhullar from having to reach on the move, but he has decent hands and hardly has to jump to finish.
Most D-League teams play small as it is, and so it’s little wonder a more functional Bhullar is once again shooting nearly 70 percent (69.3) from the floor this year. Opponents don’t have the bodies to push him out of the paint or bump him on a dive, and while he does make things a little difficult for the team’s dribble penetration – defenders abandon him pretty freely if he’s not directly involved in an action – he represents a decent safety valve if a trap comes.
“It’s me being in the right spots and my teammates involving me more in the game and getting me the ball where I’m more effective, around the basket,” Bhullar says. “They’re doing a good job of using me effectively, and I’m playing so much better than I was earlier in the year.”
They’re certainly not going to get him the ball away from the basket, because even though he can pass from the elbows, he’s no threat to put it on the floor, and even dribble hand-offs can be a turnover risk. There’s work still to be done on that end, but Bhullar’s putting in that requisite work and he’s getting better by the week.
That’s the case on defense, too, though he’s slid a little on that end of the floor in the past week or so.
Bhullar’s size is always going to be a major issue for opposing ball-handlers, but that size comes with poor lateral quickness, which can make it easy to turn Bhullar around when he shades too heavily toward a guard after dropping back. The 905 are using Bhullar very conservatively on defense, tethering him to the restricted area for the most part in an exaggerated version of the Raptors’ drop-back defense. Bhullar’s only averaging 1.2 blocks on the year, way down from the 3.9 he averaged last year, and even his current hot stretch has only seen him average 1.4.
His contribution can’t be measured just by blocks, though. His presence seriously deters teams from attacking the rim, and that’s goal number one of the defensive system at both levels of the organization. The 905 defense has been quite stout when able to set in the half-court, and Bhullar’s doing a better job than expected causing guards trouble when he has to move with them rather than just stand under the rim.
Because he’s done well in that regard, the 905 have begun asking him to come higher in the pick-and-roll, a risky but necessary next step for his defense. That’s part of why the conditioning stint extended beyond just simple cardio work – he needs to get quicker and more agile, and the 905 have focused on building functional athleticism for that purpose. He’s still lumbering in those scenarios, and opponents are going to try to go at him if the team’s rotations aren’t perfect – he’s not going to recover laterally if asked to turn from the ball-handler to someone coming in from the dunker spot – but even being able to help protect penetration at the low elbow is a pretty big change.
“That’s hard to do for a man that size,” Mermuys says. “Same with JV (Jonas Valanciunas). Those big guys, it’s hard to do. But he is capable of doing it. The game has gotten to such a faster pace…there’s more pick and rolls, which makes it a lot harder on these big guys to stay on the court. Part of that i,s if you can punish them on the other end, we’ll keep you out there, but you’ve gotta be able to hold water down here with all these pick and rolls. And he’s been able to do that at times and at other times he hasn’t been able to cover ground like we need him to do.”
The improvements are encouraging and speak to just how well the D-League setup can work. The Raptors don’t have an NBA claim to Bhullar preventing him from signing elsewhere, and there are probably a few teams who might want to see what a player this size could look like on a 10-day contract. Personally, I think it would be short-sighted for Bhullar to jump back to the end of an NBA bench, as the process in Mississauga seems to be working, and his game isn’t ready. He still has plenty of road left to cover, and his margin for error on the conditioning front is always going to be slim – routine is probably the best thing for him, and the 905 have done well by him in putting his development ahead of short-term team goals, even though the organization may not see the benefits of it down the line.
For now, Bhullar’s improving by the week, helping lift the play of the 905 in the process. He’s well ahead of schedule in that regard, and the future is beginning to look brighter for a 23-year-old who couldn’t get on a D-League court just a few short months ago.