Report: Nuggets to sign Axel Toupane to 10-day contract

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The Denver Nuggets are signing Raptors 905 forward Axel Toupane to a 10-day contract, Shams Charania of The Vertical reports.

This is a great move for the Nuggets, who just lost Danilo Gallinari to torn ligaments in his ankle and who are firmly out of the playoff race for 2015-16. Taking a flier on a D-Leaguer makes sense, and the 23-year-old Toupane can help fill in on the wing and possibly with some of Gallinari’s small-ball power forward responsibilities.

Naturally a small forward, the 6-foot-7 Toupane has played some four for the 905 this season, emerging as a potential four-position defender. Often drawing the assignment opposite opposing point guards – he was the primary defender in Jimmer Fredette’s 4-of-21 shooting night two weeks ago – Toupane has the lateral quickness to hang with guards and the strength in the lower half to hold his own on the block, at least against the power-three type of forwards. He’s only listed at 200 pounds, so the Nuggets may opt to keep him on the perimeter, where is 6-foot-10.25 wingspan creates serious issues for opposing ball-handlers. At the very least, he’ll be able to switch on to pick-and-pop fours as the pick-and-roll defense dictates, something he’s done to strong effect against stretchy bigs like Nick Minnerath recently.

“That’s the versatility of Axel,” head coach Jesse Mermuys said last week. “I think that’s why NBA teams should give him a look, because he can guard one through four. That’s a big time asset. With his size and strength for him to be able to move his feet well enough to stay in front of point guards and do a good job there, and switch pick and rolls, is a big time asset for any NBA team.”

Toupane has long looked like the prototypical defender the Toronto Raptors organization is trying to find and develop. He’s fast, long, athletic, and can switch across multiple positions, and his potential on that end was high enough that there was some concern he could be claimed on waivers when the Raptors cut him before the season.

READ MORE: Axel Toupane setting the mold for Raptors 905 defenders

He cleared, and the Raptors made him an affiliate player and a core part of the 905, where he’s grown tremendously since the beginning of the season. Initially an inconsistent defender with poor shot selection, Toupane really found a groove around the holidays and has emerged as the team’s best player in the absence of injured All-Star big man Ronald Roberts.

“He’s playing at a high level for us,” Mermuys said. “He’s been playing at a high level. I take my hat off to him, he took the coaching, he took the criticism, and I was on him pretty hard. And he’s been able to make some changes and really kind of settle into a big time role for us.”

Because of the slow start as he grow accustomed to the North American game, Toupane’s numbers on the season don’t jump off the page. He’s averaging 14.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 3.6 assists while shooting 42.9 percent from the floor and 31.3 percent from long-range, but those numbers have improved a great deal of late. Since Dec. 31, he’s averaging 16.7 points on 44.7 percent shooting, along with 5.1 rebounds and, most impressive, 4.2 assists.

“I just had to get used to American basketball,” Toupane iterated to Raptors Republic last week. “Once I did that, it’s still basketball. I can do pretty much everything. I just had to get used to it. When you come and you’re new, you don’t want to do too much because you don’t want to turn the ball over or you don’t know how the referees are going to call it, but once I figured all of this out, then I just play my game.”

It’s his growth as a playmaker that’s stood out most in recent weeks, with the long-time French-league sixth man embracing that role for the 905. Mermuys has the ball in Toupane’s hands a great deal when he props up reserve-heavy units, and opposing defenses are unable to keep him away from the rim, where he can finish with both hands, and off the free-throw line. He’s begun using that additional attention to help create for teammates.
He also has some nice moves of his own, and the 905 have been aggressive in using his passing and cutting to cause havoc on the move.
The results have been striking, with Toupane looking far more polished on the offensive end than he did at summer league or even earlier in the year. It’s become common for him to put up 20, even 30 points, or dish five assists, or get to the line 10 times and put opposing bigs into foul trouble. His defense has continued to improve, too, a key factor in the 905 improving to seventh in the D-League on that end of the floor despite surrendering a ton of points off of turnovers.
Turnovers is probably the one area Toupane needs to improve in most, but a lot of his miscues are of the acceptable variety as he learns to see passing lanes and make plays off the bounce. He’s still a little raw beyond going right at the rim, but he’s getting there, and given how much his role has grown compared to his last season with Strasbourg, it’s probably safe to expect he’ll continue to improve.

The Nuggets aren’t going to ask Toupane to create a ton, anyway, at least initially. It’s important that he’s shown an ability to attack out of the corners, as that’s probably where he’ll be stationed often, if he sees the floor. He’s also hitting 36.7 percent of his corner threes, a much more encouraging mark than his overall 3-point percentage thanks to a 3-of-25 mark above the break.

If he can keep that up, the term 3-and-D is going to be attached to him pretty quickly, and the defense is certainly ready for a challenge at the next level.

“Yeah, that’s what I think<” Toupane said hardly a week ago. “But I’m not the one that decides, so I can’t say anything else. I just believe in myself, and I think I can play in the NBA. Hopefully I get called up soon.”

Toupane’s getting his wish, and the 905 will surely be happy for him. It’s a bit of a strange position to be in, developing a player and then losing him to another NBA team without any compensation, but the organization sees that as a victory and a sign that what they’re doing in Mississauga is working.

“I hope they all get called up,” Mermuys said in January. “It’s a good problem to have because it means that our guys are good enough for the NBA,” Tolzman added.

If Toupane isn’t re-signed after his initial 10-day expires, he’ll return to the 905. In the meantime, they’ll make do without him and hope they don’t see him again, at least until the offseason.

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