Shaquille Keith knew the drill. Pay your $225, go through group warm-ups, and show off your skills in some elementary drills to separate yourself from the pack. From there, the coaches will know to keep a closer eye on you as Raptors 905 open tryout splits into more focused, game-oriented sessions. And then you show them what they’re looking for.
Things didn’t turn out exactly how Keith hoped a year ago, when the 905 selected him in the fifth round of the draft. He went to training camp but watched as three of the five players who received camp invites from an open tryout – Walter Pitchford, Keanau Post, and Ashton Smith – made the roster to start the year. Keith was the final cut, and he’d have to watch as Post and Smith lasted the entire season with the team, save for a brief cut-and-re-sign for Smith. And while Post had his rights snatched up in the expansion draft, Smith figures to have parlayed last year’s open tryout into a multi-year run with a team just down the road from where he grew up.
“I mean, it’s a shocker,” Keith said of being cut. “Everybody wants to play in their hometown, right? Mississauga is right there and being a part of the first D-League team in Toronto is definitely something everybody wants to do.”
Keith, meanwhile, impressed enough to make inroads with the Raptors organization. Open tryouts and training camp, even at the D-League level, aren’t taking place just to go through the motions, and the team’s familiarity with Keith reared it’s head at draft time, when he was used as an extra body at pre-draft workout sessions. Nobody is ever “just a guy,” and Keith spent a season in the NBL further refining his game and making sure he was in sight, and therefore, in mind for this summer.
When the 905 announced another open tryout for September 10, participating was an obvious choice for Keith, and his experience with a training camp under his belt proved to be an advantage in the open session.
“Definitely. A lot of the things I’m very familiar with, and I had a chance in the offseason while I was in the part of the squad to work on these things,” Keith said. “That’s something that I’ve been here demonstrating in the drills. I did learn a lot from last year and I’m utilizing that to the best of my ability.”
He was also using it for motivation. Setting out to show his catch-and-shoot game has improved, Keith chuckled with an “Oh, definitely,” when asked if he was able to send the message about his jumper in the early part of drills. The Toronto product is itching for another chance to make the 905, and if a shortlist were to be made of who the team’s likely camp invites are, Keith would make the top three.
Across the court, the other two names atop that likely list were embattled in an exciting one-on-one showcase within the context of a smaller game. Greg Morrow, announced as the number one pick in the 2016 NBL draft the day prior, scrambled to get up in the shooting motion of Negus Webster-Chan, who spent the bulk of the day shooting the lights out. Morrow’s familiar enough with Webster-Chan’s game to know not to give him much space, but the London native watched a few long jumpers get drained in his eye despite his best efforts.
“I’ve played against Negus before. I know he’s a good player and I know he has a tendency to play very well against me,” Morrow conceded, though he wasn’t willing to admit defeat at the halfway point of the day. “I know I can’t give him that much space. But I think I got some buckets on him towards the end, so it was pretty even at the end.”
Morrow’s case to crack the 905 is an interesting one, as he doesn’t boast the NCAA pedigree of some of his counterparts. A five-year senior at Western, Morrow certainly warranted being the top pick in the NBL after averaging 24 points on 52.2 percent shooting in his final campaign as a Mustang. Gaudy numbers aside, Morrow’s focus was on hustle plays and defense, the type of contributions a 12th-man at the D-League level needs to contribute, as Smith did last season. If Morrow did enough to earn a camp invite, it may draw a greater focus on Canadian college ball as a resource for D-League talent in the future.
“I think it would be a good look for the CIS,” Morrow said. “There are some good, talented players in the CIS. There are players who are capable of playing at a high level.”
If Morrow doesn’t make the team, he’ll probably do what Keith and Webster-Chan did last year – head to the NBL and continue to improve. In the case of Wesbter-Chan, the stand-out performer during the open portion of the tryout, the NBL didn’t afford much opportunity to play, but he clearly drew the attention of the Raptors’ organization (the connection the Raptors have to Hawaii, which also saw Stefan Jankovic work out with the team twice, certainly didn’t hurt, either). Like Keith, Webster-Chan was on-hand as an extra body during pre-draft workouts, likely helping stretch out some of the other forwards at the defensive end with a smooth 3-point stroke that appears to have extended in range.
Webster-Chan also had the benefit of speaking with Smith about the process, laughing when asked if he’s challenging for Smith’s spot.
“Yeah, it’s always a challenge,” he said. “I talked to Ashton a couple times – we’re from the same area, you know, from Scarborough. He gave me some advice to just play hard and do what you do.”
If it seems as though the standouts were perhaps a little obvious heading in, that’s fair – some of the names weren’t in attendance by accident. That includes Shaw product Curtis Hines, who’s been waiting two years in the D-League player pool to catch on with a team. The 27-year-old guard found his way from North Carolina to Toronto through a connection that may serve him well, one that was rekindled at a serendipitous family event this summer.
Running into head coach Jerry Stackhouse is certainly a bit of good fortune.
“He was at a family reunion in July,” Hines recalled. “And he seen me play with his family actually in his AAU team that’s based out of Georgia. They would come down for the family reunion, and I played, and he liked my game. He always heard about me, but he was just asking was I still playing, and I said ‘Yes sir,’ and he said he was going to keep me in contact. Around Aug. 15, he sent me a text that he got a job with the Raptors 905, and I should come down for a tryout, that it was a great opportunity for me.”
Again, nobody is ever “just a guy.” Except for maybe Rahul Kapil, who won a Twitter contest to have his tryout paid for by Jared Sullinger. Kapil perhaps didn’t have the experience or the skill level to keep up with the impressive amount of local talent at the tryout, but he got to show off his love for the game – “What I lack in talent I bring in heart” – and may have found himself a new favorite player in the process in Sullinger.
— Zyzz-Jozay (@WeTheNorth11) September 8, 2016
“I’m glad he didn’t have to pay,” Stackhouse quipped, later showing appreciation for the amount of passion Kapil and a host of others brought to the proceedings. “He wasn’t bad.”
The new 905 coach did walk away pleased with the general level of talent on display, and while he wouldn’t tip his hand – the 905 can’t risk one of their camp invites getting scooped up by a competing team – it’s clear there are plans for at least some of these players.
“We hope so,” Stackhouse said. “There’s some talent here. There really is… Obviously, our assignment guys are the priority, making sure that they get better. When they’re not on assignment, we still want to be competitive and we want to give ourselves a good chance to win. We want guys who can come in and help us win.”
If even one of the players trying out can replicate the seasons Smith and Post had, a suddenly thinned-out Raptors 905 herd could have reinforcements – and some additional local flavor – on the way.