Raptors905 Columns

Raptors 905 aim to take a leap in second season

If you’re interested in attending the 905 opener, you can use this link and promo code REPUBLIC905 to get a few bucks off.

Last March, Raptors 905 were picking up steam despite obstacle after obstacle being thrown in their way. A pair of D-Leaguers graduated to the NBA, the parent club Toronto Raptors needed the 905’s best player, Norman Powell, for important minutes, and the team’s All-Star, Ronald Roberts, was out for the year. Still, they kept improving, making a late-season push to a 23-27 record that was not only respectable for an expansion franchise but a clear sign that in Year One, the organization’s D-League experiment was working.

Fast-forward eight months, and there is a great deal more calm around the 905 than at this time last year. MLSE pushed hard for a D-League expansion franchise to arrive in a hurry, and the end result was little lead-time to prepare not only a schedule (the 905 often conflicted with the Raptors in 2015-16) but a roster. General manager Dan Tolzman and his team were scrambling just to secure 12 players who could fill the uniform, without an entire offseason to plan and coordinate, and with little in the way of returning rights players who intended to be anything more than trade chips, save for Scott Suggs. This time around, the schedule long-since taken care of, a full staff in place, and an entire offseason of lead-time to work players out, conduct open tryouts, to plan around the Raptors’ own plans for Summer League and training camp, and everything feels more copacetic.

“That first year of experience, and on top of that the ability to build the roster with a year under your belt, with a better cupboard of returning players,” Tolzman says of what’s changed in a year. “And after having a couple call-ups last year, we had a lot more free agent type guys that were interested in our situation because they liked the way that we develop and showed we can get guys to the league. All that stuff together, building this roster and putting this roster together, we feel it’s a little bit stronger than the same time where we were last year, where it was kind of like chickens with their heads cut off just trying to field a team.”

Considering how well things went despite the entropy in the team’s freshman campaign, expectations have extended higher for their second time through the league. Building a team still isn’t easy – several returning rights players opted to head overseas, the draft remains a “wild card,” in Tolzmans’ estimation, and head coach Jerry Stackhouse took over for Jesse Mermuys, who took a promotion ts the second chair next to Luke Walton’s with the Los Angeles Lakers – but there’s a much more focused path this time around.

There’s also just a lot of talent, as far as D-League rosters go, which goes an awful long way in insulating a team against eventual call-ups. Jarrod Uthoff was considered among the top undrafted players and joins the team as an Affiliate Player, as does Yanick Moreira, who projects to be one of the better interior defenders on the junior circuit. Brady Heslip, who once threatened to obliterate the D-League 3-point record before heading overseas midseason, was acquired in the offseason and will look to build on a strong Raptors camp where he showed improved point guard skills. E.J. Singler, one of few returners along with reigning Slam Dunk Champion John Jordan, nearly parlayed a strong close to last year’s 905 season into a spot on the NBA roster, and his leadership and familiarity – not to mention the near-Heslip-like shooting – will play a big role on and off the court.

Having that level of talent is a luxury, and it also has the effect of speeding things up for everyone else on the team.

“The returners help. The camp guys help,” says David Gale, one of Stackhouse’s primary assistants and a hold-over from last year’s staff. “We’re definitely more prepared at this point this year than we were last year, because we’ve got guys who know the system.”

There’s also Axel Toupane, who’s back after a tour of duty with the Denver Nuggets and who few in the organization expect to be around too long. The goal, after all, and one the team succeeded with last year, is to get players to the NBA. Until the new CBA comes into effect and NBA teams have more claims to D-Leaguers, the 905 will measure themselves first by how well they position players to make the jump to the next level, which is the entire point of the D-League.

“The goal is to have our guys showcased around the league as much as we can and really do the best to get other NBA teams trying to pluck from our system,” Tolzman says. “I think that’s the ultimate goal, and to get these guys where they ultimately want to be is by far the most important thing.”

That’s a bit of a Pyrrhic victory, and it’s where the depth of high-end talent comes back into play. Losing players to other teams also presents opportunity later, as the 905 have quickly earned a positive reputation for their handling of prospects, which will only attract more talent to the program in turn.

“All these kids have dreams and aspirations of being at the next level, and the ones that we’ve identified are the ones that are right on the precipice of getting there,” Stackhouse says.

It’s why Toupane opted for the 905 over more lucrative oveseas offers, and why convincing Will Sheehey and C.J. Leslie to return to the D-League was possible. That Sheehey and Leslie haven’t been mentioned until now is somewhat astonishing given their track records and what they can bring to the table, and the 905 acquired enormous center Edy Tavares over the weekend to add to the mix. How, exactly, all these talented pieces will fit together isn’t clear just yet without the benefit of regular-season action, but at this level, with the chaos that’s expected to ensue over the next few months, that’s not all that pressing a concern.

“That’s kind of the beauty of the D-League, you don’t need to fit into a simple box like a lot of times you do in the NBA,” Tolzman says. “This is the type of thing where when you’ve got good players, you make it work. However, wherever you can get the most talent on the floor and play together, you design stuff around them because it’s hard to really fill a D-League roster with a ton of talent.”

Raptors 905 decidedly have a ton of talent, and they’ll get some on loan from the Raptors, too. Bruno Caboclo is once again expected to see a great deal of time in Mississauga, and the hope is that he can push his game to an All-Star level in his second full run through. Fred VanVleet is presently doing the back-and-forth for practices, suggesting he could be in line for a Delon Wright-like run with the team where he can display that he’s probably too good for that level (Wright will likely see a rehab stint sometime in December or January). The current plan doesn’t include much time for Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, or Lucas Nogueira given the needs of the parent club, but the rookies will probably see single-game assignments here and there as the schedule allows.

The organization prides itself on players who will “approach an assignment the right way” and look at it as an opportunity more than a demotion, and that’s an easy message to get across when Powell and Nogueira are seeing regular NBA run right now. They planned as if they wouldn’t have any assignments, and any instances of too much talent or too much depth when assignments occur will be one of those “good problems,” in the words of Tolzman, channeling Marlo Stanfield.

That most of the players on the roster short of Jordan and Tavares are capable of manning multiple positions makes juggling at a later date a little easier, and it makes the game a little more fluid in the interim.

“It does, absolutely,” Sheehey says. “You can switch on ball screens, on off the ball screens, and things like that. And when you have guys that are interchangeable, it’s a lot easier on offense as well, because you can just kind of play different spots and see different parts of the floor that you’d never really get to see.”

The strategy options are exciting and important, to be sure, but they’re almost secondary considering the amount of talent on-hand. Last year’s team was talented, too, and Mermuys’ energy and positivity were infectious. Everything is just more settled this time around, through the benefit of experience and time. Stackhouse has had an extended camp thanks to a scheduling quirk, the likely starting lineup have all been working on the system since August (except in the case of Toupane, who learned it a year ago), and there’s no sense of a new surprise or challenge waiting around each corner, except when the team starts succeeding and potentially losing players. Even then, the depth is even strong this time around. It all transpires to set expectations quite high.

In their second season, the 905 are not only hosting the D-League Showcase,  a major accomplishment in its own right, but they’re hoping to host some playoff games, too.

“I can say that we’re definitely pushing for that,” Tolzman says of a postseason appearance. “I think we’re all pretty, I’d say, cautiously optimistic about how the season could go.”

If you’re interested in attending the 905 opener, you can use this link and promo code REPUBLIC905 to get a few bucks off.

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