Photo credit: MattAzevedo.com.
Brady Heslip’s game plan coming into the 2016-17 season was straightforward — become recognized as a point guard.
His proficiency when squaring up, elevating, and hoisting a ball into a basket, for better or worse, has built the reputation of a basketball marksman — someone with the opposition-deflating ability to get buckets. The Toronto Raptors were willing to see if he could offer more.
“That (playmaking) was the whole point of the year and why I went to training camp with the Raptors,” Heslip said in the locker room before Game 2 of Raptors 905’s first-round playoff series against Canton on Saturday. “It’s something that no one else has really given me a chance to do. Everybody wants me to be a shooter.”
It’s easy to see where “everybody” was coming from. Even this past season, Heslip finished with 182 three-pointers in 48 games. It was the most makes in the D-League and the second-most ever, coming at the fourth-most efficient rate (41.9 percent) among those that attempted at least 200 shots from beyond the arc. He was even better in his last tour of the D-League, knocking down 44.3 percent of nearly 13 attempts per-game. He’s maybe the best shooter in the world not in the NBA.
Usually, the talk about Heslip would stop there. But this season has been different. He’s had 10 games with at least five assists this season, including a pair of nine-assist games. Factor in that Heslip has had to juggle a starter and bench role throughout the season due to the riches of the Raptors franchise at the point guard position, it’s evident that he’s made strides.
When Heslip checked into the 905’s first-ever home playoff game in front of a thunder-stick laden crowd of 4,300, his team had already put their stamp on the game by taking a 26-6 lead with about four minutes remaining in the first quarter. The Heslip of old may have seen this as an opportunity to get his, but instead, he gently tucked in his No.4 jersey and went ahead and did what he’s been focused on all season: Playmaking.
As he dribbled the ball with his right hand after receiving the inbounds, he lifted his left with four fingers raised and promptly handed the ball off to Antwaine Wiggins coming off a curl from the left elbow. There was some two-man game between Wiggins and Pascal Siakam at the right elbow before the play took shape with a post-up for Siakam on the right block. Siakam was quick to recognize the second defender that over-helped, and kicked the ball back out to Wiggins for an open three. While Heslip didn’t get credited with the assist, the play was executed to perfection. These things are subtle. Most things a point guard does are.
There’s more to running point than just calling plays and directing traffic. The point guard is often looked upon as an extension of the coach on the floor, and that leadership needs to carry over off it as well.
“I try to be a leader everyday, in every practice, every game for this team,” Heslip said. “Axel (Toupane) is gone — we’re all happy for him and that’s our brother, he belongs there. We’re down a man but we’ve got to pick each other up and we’re just going to fight just as hard.”
With Toupane deservedly getting called up by the New Orleans Pelicans, Heslip is now the team’s leading scorer and ranks second in assists. Edy Tavares has also become the latest addition to the Cleveland Cavaliers, meaning the 905 are now without their two best players, and needing to lean on Heslip even more.
It’s a role Heslip is experienced in and comfortable with, courtesy of his time in Bosnia in 2015. He signed with Igokea, where he averaged 18.3 points per game in the Bosnian League, and 23.7 point per game in the Adriatic League. He also went on to become the Bosnian Cup Grand Final MVP. The atmosphere he experiences in Europe will likely be more intense than anything he experiences this postseason, with fans there prepared to voice their displeasure in a manner much more divisive than a smattering of boos.
“It helps because I’ve played a lot before with a lot on the line and, you know, over there in Europe there’s a lot of pressure in the playoffs,” he said. “The managers and the team expect you to do well. So being able to win the championship there allows me to just stay calm and treat this game like any other.”
It appears that everything is starting to come together for the 26-year-old Heslip, and that his experiences of the past can genuinely be looked upon as the formative years of who he is now. Gone are the days of worrying about when his number will get called or his final tally on the box score. He’s back competing for a championship like he once did, but doing it in a different way.
“This year, more than any, I didn’t look too much at the stats,” he said. “I just feel like from the beginning of the year till now, I’ve grown so much as a player — as a point guard, just showing a lot of people I can run a team. There’s other great point guards in this league, but none of them have as good a record as we did.”
The 905 have had two players recently rewarded with call-ups to the main stage for winning, and with Heslip now in the spotlight, he could very well be next.