Photo credit: MattAzevedo.com
Will Sheehey barely had time to let the sweat dry after his final Summer League game with the Toronto Raptors. E.J. Singler was just returning from a honeymoon in Italy. Christian Watford had quite literally gotten married the day prior. The timing wasn’t perfect, but as the trio of Raptors 905 players reconnected in Las Vegas last weekend, fatigue was set aside for a uniting focus: Winning The Basketball Tournament, the 64-team, $2-million, winner-take-all event that’s grown into one of the marquee basketball events of the summer circuit.
Suiting up for Armored Athlete, the 905ers hit the ground running, blowing out The Pearl 31’s in their opener and then punching their ticket to the Super 16 with a narrow victory over Team 23. With little time to practice together, Armored Athlete were banking on the familiarity bred from a season with those three together, from some holdovers from the last two tournaments (the AA team made the Super 16 a year ago and the final eight the year prior), and from some smaller relationships within the roster (Jalen Reynolds was in Summer League with Sheehey, there are several Indiana alum, and Malcolm Miller was a part of the roster before signing with the Raptors and spraining his ankle) to give them some early momentum.
“I think when you look at these teams in the tournament, the ones that always make the next round or whatever are the teams that played together,” Sheehey says. “There are a lot of alumni teams, so guys that played together in college, there’s the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, they have an alumni team. We should have tried to get the Raptors 905 team, but Stack would have to sacrifice coming to coach, and who knows what would happen? Maybe we’ll do it next year. But yeah, the teams that have played together really have an advantage.”
(An aside: Convincing Jerry Stackhouse to coach a 905 alumni team in this event would probably be as easy as offering him a player-coach role.)
Things get tougher from here, with AA drawing one-seed and last year’s runner-up, Colorado’s alumni team, in the next round. They’ll be without Singler, too, as the games shift from ESPN 3 to ESPN 2 and the expected monetary return of each make or miss becomes painfully more obvious. Beat Colorado and win again Sunday, and the 905ers could be staring down a final four in Baltimore with life- and career-changing money on the line.
The way AA have agreed to split the prize, should they win, could have a significant impact on where Sheehey, Singler, and Watford go from here. All three would receive a $135,000 cut, which could be the difference between being able to handle another season at a paltry G-League salary or the need to head back overseas for a larger pay-day.
“100 percent, yeah. It would be a huge game-changer,” Sheehay says. “Then you can focus on just the opportunities instead of the money. Because a lot of times when deciding where you’re gonna play, it has a lot to do with the money and the contracts that are being offered. The best opportunity for basketball and development is the G-League, just because you’re under a finer microscope, NBA teams are around. But for pay and for your own well-being, Europe is where you’ve gotta go.”
Last year, G-League players topped out at $26,000, while international deals for players like Sheehey and Singler easily reach six figures. Even in the case of Singler, who received a $50,000 guarantee to go to training camp with the Raptors, there’s a lot of money left on the table playing in the G-League. That changes quickly with an NBA call-up, which is the argument for staying, but absent a two-way contract that could pay up to $279,000 this year, it will remain tough for players to do back-to-back seasons accepting a lower salary. Adding $135,000 to their accounts before making that decision is a big deal.
Neither Sheehey or Singler are expected back with the 905 this coming season. Sheehey struggled to shoot the ball in Summer Legaue, his first action since dislocating his elbow toward the end of the 905 season, though he immediately shook off that cold streak in The Tournament. Singler, meanwhile, has been in the Raptors program for over a year and done consecutive G-League campaigns. Both are solid and versatile pieces, but the Raptors have made a few development plays at the wings with the likes of Miller and Alfonzo McKinnie, and the nature of the G-League as currently constructed includes a lot of prospect turnover. If they can’t follow their 905 championship with a TBT title, they’re looking to maybe do so together overseas.
“It was good to team up with E.J. again and play in this tournament, so that was fun. Brought back some good memories,” Sheehey says. “He’s definitely one of my guys. We’re trying to work together to maybe try to get on the same European team or something, with the Raptors thing not working out. We’ll see.”
How winning TBT might change that is unclear for right now. Short Singler this weekend, AA will be relying on their impressive depth rather than carried-over cohesion, hoping a pair of games together has forged enough of a bond to compete with a successful alumni team. And the stakes are higher than just a $2-million shared prize for the champions. Odd though it may have seemed when TBT launched a few years back, the tournament now stands to have a potentially dramatic impact on the career paths of a handful of players still trying to get a foot in the NBA door.