Recent entropy highlights early effectiveness of Raptors 905 program

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When E.J. Singler and Davion Berry check in for the first time as members of Raptors 905 on Friday, they’ll make 16 different players who have suited up for the 905 in the last two weeks. If Ronald Roberts and DeAndre Daniels make their returns from injury, that number will be 18. It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks in Mississauga, and that entropy is a sign that the Toronto Raptors’ foray into the D-League has been an unquestioned success in Year One.

It’s worth starting where most fans will notice the value first: With the parent club.

On Feb. 28, the Raptors opted to sit Kyle Lowry for rest. Delon Wright started in his place, earning 31 minutes of burn, nearly doubling his season total in one night. He was solid, contributing 13 points and six assists while showing improved confidence in his jump shot and making a few of the highlight reel passes that were advertised. His pick-and-roll defense left something to be desired, but for the most part, Wright, a completely untested rookie in his first serious playing time since Dec. 22, acquitted himself well.

The 31 minutes, it turns out, weren’t all that extreme for Wright, because he’d been given the opportunity to keep fresh with the 905. Wright hadn’t been in the D-League since Jan. 18 but had played 12 games there to that point, averaging 36.6 minutes. That playing time helped keep his conditioning up while also presenting him an opportunity to refine his game, particularly with respect to pulling up for jumpers when given space over screens and spotting up off the ball.

“I think that it helped me gaining confidence down here,” Wright said over the weekend. “Going up there, trying to have that same confidence. It’s kind of the same game, just different players.”

Wright returned to the D-League on Saturday, playing a season-high 45 minutes in order to continue staying in top shape in the event Lowry is deemed to need another rest. The D-League as an asset in this regard, alone – keeping bench players in peak game conditioning in the event they’re called upon – would be benefit enough to warrant the investment.

Similarly, Lucas Nogueira saw unexpected run on March 2 against Utah, providing five minutes of energy in the second quarter to help shift the momentum of the game. It was likewise his first important playing time in weeks, and while Nogueira hadn’t undergone quite as large a workload with the 905 – seven games to that point, and none since Jan. 27 – a previous D-League stretch had him ready when called upon after Jonas Valanciunas hit the shelf. Nogueira could probably be getting more out of his D-League time in terms of showing a consistent defensive effort and proving himself too advanced for that level, but just seeing regular action is important, and Nogueira was right back down Thursday to keep fresh, given limited minutes Saturday in case he was needed Sunday.

While Nogueira and Wright have been working on their games and conditioning, Norman Powell has taken his time in the D-League as an opportunity to take major strides as a player. The spectre of “it’s just D-League competition” hung over his 24.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 2.1 steals per-game, but the improvements he made – as a shooter, as a playmaker off the bounce, and as a decision-maker – felt real. He held his own defensively in a four-game stint as a starter while James Johnson was out injured in early February, and then surprisingly drew a start last Friday against Portland.

Looking to build off of a 36-12-6 game with the 905 a night prior, Powell provided solid defense opposite C.J. McCollum for the second time this season while also contributing a pair of threes. He was all smiles after the game, and while Bismack Biyombo bellowed that Powell takes “Too many damn shots!” with the 905, Powell is appreciative of the opportunity the D-League has afforded him.

“Me and Cory (Joseph) talk all the time. He’s been really good keeping me motivate and talking to me through the whole year,” Powell said. “It’s just a process, to be able to take that grind, go down and harness and hone your skills in the D-League, come back and show it in an NBA game, like he did with the Spurs, is something, I’m in a particular situation, the same thing. It’s just the process and embracing it and going at it 100 percent and learning.”

Powell’s been impressing since pre-draft workouts and was a star at summer league. Still, the No. 46 overall pick drawing six starts – he got the nod again Tuesday – for the two-seed in the Eastern Conference is pretty remarkable. There’s no telling if he would have come this far without the chance to build on practices and workouts with actual live-game action with the 905, and there’s no telling if he and his counterparts in the D-League detachment would have proven as capable of spot minutes had they been riding the bench all season.

“He’s growing. He’s a young kid, all of our young guys are growing,” head coach Dwane Casey said last week. “They’re not a finished product by any means. But these moments here, the other night with Lucas, tonight with Norm, are big growing steps for these guys, to come in and get experience in a big game, a close game. That’s how it’s going to be. Next game it might be Delon. Like I told them, just be ready, you’re gonna have to be ready, because you never know when your time is gonna come.”

The 905 are also benefiting other NBA teams, which is a bit of a Pyrrhic victory.

Part of the roster upheaval at the Hershey Centre has been due to the loss of two players to the NBA. The Minnesota Timverwolves signed Greg Smith to a 10-day contract, while Axel Toupane got one with the Denver Nuggets. They’re entirely different cases, but both stand to show how the process is working.

In Smith’s case, the 905 surely come out looking favorably with agents. Players don’t have to go to the D-League, obviously, and in helping get a four-year NBA veteran back to the league through a showcase stint, they probably improved the likelihood of some of their Returning Rights players giving consideration to a 905 stretch. Smith joined the 905 in January, playing 17 games that coincided with a strong stretch of play for the team, and after not playing at all for the first half of the season, Smith’s been able to hit the ground running with Minnesota, playing 53 minutes over his first five games (despite an uncomfortable-looking ingrown toenail).

For Toupane, the 905 have presented an opportunity, like with Powell, to grow a great deal as a player. He entered the season with plenty of experience in the French league and with the Raptors at summer league and in training camp, but he took some time to adjust to the North American style at both ends of the floor. As the season’s wore on, he’s not only established himself as a three-, maybe four-position defender, but a quality corner 3-point shooter and a capable secondary ball-handler. The Nuggets are giving him plenty of run with 33 minutes over three outings, and he’s responded with some high-quality defensive possessions and a big transition dunk on Tuesday. For younger players looking to use the D-League as a stepping stone to the NBA, again, the 905 have shown well.

Those losses, as they could be perceived from the outside, take a toll.

“You lose Greg and Axel, which were, in this last stretch, a huge part of what we were doing on both sides of the basketball,” 905 coach Jesse Mermuys said last week. “That’s just a part of it, and every team’s dealing with it. We just didn’t do a good job, in this last game in particular, of dealing with it.”

But they’ve also presented an opportunity for others to step up.

Keanau Post and Ashton Smith might not be familiar faces to fans, but they’re familiar faces to the Raptors’ organization. Both fought their way on to the 905 roster through open tryouts – Smith was briefly cut before being reacquired – and each is a player the team was familiar with, having been brought in during previous offseasons as bodies for other players to workout against. Being able to identify off-the-radar talent – Canadian talent, no less – is a great means of establishing a floor at the end of the roster and furthering the team’s goal of instilling a hard-working, defense-first culture.

Neither has seen a great deal of run outside of spot duty this season, though that’s hardly discouraging. With the roster thinned out, Mermuys has called on Smith more and more as a defensive tone-setter, and the Scarborough native has earned double-digit minutes four times in the last month. Post, meanwhile, has long been called on for short minutes when the team deems an upgrade in defensive communication is necessary, with the Victoria native shouting out directions from the pivot.

Even if both players shift back to their deep-reserve roles as assignees come down and the deadline acquisitions get comfortable, their ability to step in hasn’t gone unappreciated.

“We’ve known them. But they’ve made some really huge strides being able to be with us in an organized situation with our team,” Mermuys says. “We’re fans of them and we want to see them grow and reach their potential like everyone else, and we want to keep them in our program as long as we can as long as they’re moving forward.”

Michale Kyser is a step above those two on the organizational hierarchy, having been brought in for summer league as a potential multi-position defender in the mold of “frontcourt Toupane.” He’s a longer-term project, but he was called on Saturday with the roster thin, posting a double-double in a career-high 34 minutes and bringing a great deal of energy. Shannon Scott, another affiliate player from summer league and training camp, had one of his best offensive outings, too, scoring 19 points and tying a season-high with three triples.

The tumult has helped the organization learn more about itself and the D-League.

Losing several players is something the Raptors unquestionably see as a win. The thin roster is an unfortunate fallout, and so the 905 were busy at Friday’s trade deadline to restock the roster. Out went Melvin Johnson III, the returning rights to Abdul Gaddy, and two draft picks, and in came Berry, Singler, and another pick. Prior to the All-Star break, the 905 also added eventual Slam Dunk champion John Jordan.

“DT was moving and shaking,” Mermuys says of general manager Dan Tolzman. And he has been, all season.

Tolzman recognized quickly that the value of the expansion draft wasn’t necessarily the players he could acquire – Scott Suggs is the only player on the roster acquired in that draft – but the currency he could acquire, freeing him up to make other moves down the line.

“My thinking was if I can just get as many valuable players as I can, maybe I can turn them into picks during the season,” Tolzman said Saturday. “So I’ve been able to turn those into picks, so then I kind of had a little stash coming into the trade deadline. It worked out to where we got a couple of players by moving picks, we still have a pick in all the rounds I gave up.”

The 905 don’t have a first-round pick thanks to the cost of acquiring Roberts, a no-brainer addition, but they have one in the second, three in the fourth, and one in the fifth. They’ve also traded the Returning Rights to eight players selected in the expansion draft, pairing them with four picks to land Roberts, Bhullar, Jordan, Berry, and six other picks. It’s a lot of moving parts, and Tolzman learned in the team’s inaugural draft that things are far more uncertain than in the NBA, and known commodities like Berry and Singler can be more important in building toward future years than a war chest of draft picks.

“Hopefully we can have some success next year with them, as well, not just for this next month,” he says. “That’s kind of the hope. We’ll see if we can, over the next month – and it’s not just those two, it’s the whole – convince them that this is something they want to return to…I almost would feel more comfortable with good, returning rights to the guys we picked up as well as the guys we have on our current roster, than gambling on four or five guys in the draft next year.”

If nothing else, the roster churn has taught the 905 front office a great deal in short order.

The setup is providing benefits across the board.

Similar to Powell and Toupane, Bruno Caboclo and Sim Bhullar have been benefiting from the team’s existence a great deal. Caboclo’s on a slow track to the NBA but moving forward, while Bhullar’s taken tremendous strides as a functionally conditioned, 350-pound weapon.

Were it not for a knee injury, Roberts almost surely would have joined Toupane and Smith in the NBA by now. Suggs could do the same soon, too, having established himself as one of the more poised offensive weapons and 3-point shooters in the D-League. The Raptors are also benefiting from the chance to bring Daniels along in his recovery from offseason foot surgery, away from the pressures (or burnt entry-level years) of the NBA.

The 905 have improved on the court as the season’s gone along, getting out of the basement with a 15-25 record. That’s important for the players and the staff and the psyche of the locker room, but looking at the standings would miss the far more important products of a strong inaugural season in Mississauga. This team is already helping develop NBA talent, get players back to the NBA, get players a chance in the league, identify potential long-term talent, and provide an environment for injury rehabilitation. That’s a pretty good first kick at the can.

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