For two full games, Brady Heslip sat and waited, unused as the Toronto Raptors opened their preseason slate with what amounted to a 16-man rotation. In competition with five others for the 15th and final roster spot, Heslip conceded on media day that showing off his primary source of value to a team can be difficult without game action, and with the team’s impressive guard depth, Heslip was left to keep waiting. Even Wednesday, with Kyle Lowry sitting out to rest and DeMar DeRozan calling it a night after a dominant first half, Heslip was idle into the fourth quarter.
Finally, with 8:56 to play and the Raptors down 90-74 to the Los Angeles Clippers, who were far more engaged and eager following an ugly loss to the Golden State Warriors a night prior, Heslip got his shot. It would be an audition, and working up against a bench-heavy Clippers unit would represent a nice opportunity. Playing alongside the Raptors’ training camp depth unit, too, would allow Heslip to not only run the point, something he’s been working on through the first week-plus of camp, it would also ensure he had the ball in his hands plenty. It would come with qualifiers, but it was a chance.
Less than a minute later, Heslip let fire from 20 feet and found the bottom of the net. From a mechanical standpoint, few jumpers look better, smoother, or quicker. The book on Heslip is that he has only one NBA skill, and he’s an interesting case study given just how singularly talented he is with that skill, and how important it can be to the flow of a game. An elite shooter, especially one capable of getting their own shot off, can key a run and disrupt an opponent, and if said shooter can help others around him with the attention he draws, that one NBA skill can have a major impact on a game, even if it’s only on the occasion the shooter heats up.
“My mentality is, if they are going to leave me open, I’m going to shoot it,” Heslip said after the game, declining to acknowledge that being “left” open was a lot of his and his teammates’ doing.
The final eight minutes of the game would include a lot of Heslip doing more of that – coming up over a Lucas Nogueira screen to let fly from long-range, or snaking to the elbow to create space to fire up a mid-range attempt. As Heslip heated up, the attention the Clippers paid him grew, and the Canadian used that additional attention to get to the line for a pair and dish two assists. This wasn’t a one-dimensional Heslip that averaged just one assists in 31 D-League minutes two years ago or 1.1 in 29 minutes last season, it was a Heslip who seemed to have a newfound appreciation of how his gravitational pull can open up the game for others around him. That Heslip had a direct hand in 19 points (he set up Drew Crawford and Bruno Caboclo for threes) in nine minutes while hitting just a single triple of his own shows a lot of growth for the Baylor product, even with the usual small-sample and preseason caveats applied.
These also weren’t garbage baskets in a white-flag blowout, with the Heslip-led bench group railing off a 19-0 run to turn an 18-point deficit into a one-point lead late. The Raptors put the Clippers back on their heels and took a 91-90 lead late, and while they didn’t manage to hold on – a great two-way stretch by Diamond Stone and some timely execution by Raymond Felton and Wesley Johnson prevented it – this bench group brought a ton of heart and energy. Crawford and E.J. Singler are trying to show they can bring this type of energy and the hustle plays that facilitate a comeback, Heslip is trying to show his shooting can change a game quickly, Caboclo is trying to show he can keep up with the speed of the NBA for long stretches, and Nogueira is trying to show he can play a role that extends beyond flashy highlights like the ludicrous dish on the diver he threw to Caboclo. For a night, it was mission accomplished almost across the board, and it wasn’t lost on the head coach, especially on a night when so few of his regulars had (extremely Chris Jericho voice)…it.
“I really was proud of how the young guys came out and competed,” Dwane Casey said.
That doesn’t make Casey’s decision any easier, though. Fred VanVleet was fine in a starting role with Lowry out, too, and Heslip was flanked by a solid outing from Singler. Crawford, too, has had a strong preseason on the defensive end of the floor. (Jarrod Uthoff remains conspicuous by his absence, and Yanick Moreira never really had much of a shot.) This competition is still very much open, and while Heslip made a best-case scenario statement on Wednesday, there are a number of factors that could play into who wins the role beyond just how the candidates look in limited preseason action. And Heslip still hasn’t answered questions about his ability to guard at this level, which he may not get a chance to do in the preseason.
His one preternatural skill, though, and the impact that can flow from it, was on full display. That’s a win for the 26-year-old, however things turn out.
This isn’t meant to focus only on the final five who made the comeback, but it was quite an ugly game up to that point, and the Quick Reaction is there if you need additional details. The Raptors came out flat, DeRozan was the only one who was really on at either end, and the performances varied from as-expected to mildly disappointing. Nights like these are going to happen, especially in the preseason, and it’s batter that the Raptors struggle on the defensive end now than in a few weeks. That side of the ball was concerning, though, and it’s probably not going to be a pretty week of practice when the Raptors return home.