Raptors905 Columns

Success Despite a Championship Loss

Photo credit: Trung Ho / TrungHo.ca

The Raptors 905 season ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. The Austin Spurs completed the series sweep in the finals in spectacular fashion. The 905 fought and clawed for three quarters, continually pushing the Spurs, battling to draw even, only for the Austin team to pull away. In the fourth quarter, the Spurs flexed on the 905, stretching the lead to more than 30 at one point, on a cavalcade of fast-break dunks and 3s. The game even grew testy at multiple points, with players talking, and even requiring separation. Kennedy Meeks was ejected.

The final game of the season did not invalidate a sweeping parade of successes for the 905. They were, at one point, a 4-9 team that seemingly had no chance at making the finals. Coach Jerry Stackhouse’s ability to change the team’s fortunes speak volumes about his ability as a coach, perhaps even more so than his championship win last year. The 905 players adapted their games massively, to great success. Stackhouse told them what they needed to add, and by and large, the players accomplished every task set in front of them.

Every 905 player is better today than several months ago. Many of them have added specific, concrete skills to their arsenals for the betterment of the team.

Lorenzo Brown became a point guard. His added vision and ability to manipulate the defence allowed the 905 to become a semi-efficient offence in the half court and Lorenzo himself to win league MVP. “Lorenzo, his approach, and how he approached the season, just things he needed to get better at as a point guard, those are things that we set out for, and goals that we set in the earlier part of the season, and I think he’s accomplished them all,” raved Coach Stackhouse before the fateful Spurs game.

He is now an NBA player on a full contract with the Toronto Raptors heading into the playoffs.

Alfonzo McKinnie signed with the Toronto Raptors in training camp with several goals. He knew that he would spend much of the season assigned with the 905, and he would use his time in the G-League to work on a few important skills: shooting and defence.

McKinnie restructured his shot, greatly improving his mechanics. The improved percentages didn’t follow, but he and the team are more confident in his stroke. He also spent time on his defensive awareness and foot-speed, allowing him to better corral speedier perimeter players. Switchability on defence will be key for his progression towards an NBA-viable 3-D wing.

McKinnie knew his goals, and he believed he accomplished them over the course of the 905 season: “Overall I gained confidence, definitely, playing at the 3 spot, guarding the perimeter. I would say that was my biggest growth this year, just being able to guard wing guys, and hit our coverages and get into them, and contain wing guys. You know my ball-handling has gotten better. I went into a little slump on the shooting side, but the mechanics is there.”

McKinnie doesn’t yet know his off-season plans or future in the NBA, but he can be more confident in his future now than when he entered the Raptors training camp a year ago.

Kennedy Meeks entered the season as an NCAA championship winner without obvious NBA prospects. He was an undersized center without shooting range. Meeks has improved tremendously. On offence, he has pushed his range back a few feet. He’s still not a 3-point shooter, but he’s moving in the right direction. He’s a better passer. He’s made the largest strides on defence. He’s a terrific shot-blocker at the G-League level, and he’s improved his ability to slide with attacking jitterbugs without fouling. He is quite mobile for a man his size, and he surprises opposing ball-handlers with his ability to defend them out of the pick-and-roll. Who knows if either of those skills would yet translate to the NBA, but he’s already much better now.

Kaza Keane developed his jump shot. He spent much of the early season as an important piece off the bench running the point guard position. As everyone rounded into health, Keane’s minutes dropped. His shooting never came around, and it took him several months to hit his first 3 of 2018. He never stopped working and knew that shooting would be an important skill to develop when he returned to the court. With Berry injured, Keane stepped up against Austin and managed to drill an important 3 when the game was still contested.

Players have improved their games who weren’t even on G-League radars before the season. Shevon Thompson wasn’t playing organized basketball at all when the 905 traded for his rights, and he is now one of the best bigs in the G-League.

Not everyone will go to the NBA, but the G-League doesn’t exist solely to develop NBA players. Many will go to Europe or China for larger contracts. Like Brady Heslip or Edy Tavares, 905ers improvements can land them larger deals outside of North America. Developing important ball-handling or defensive skills is worth money even in the binary NBA or non-NBA world.

For coach Stack, those relationships are meaningful. “These guys are gonna be part of me for the rest of my life. Hopefully, that’s what we try to foster here. Not just that we’re a basketball team. This game is about relationships, and I think that everyone in there knows they got someone, they got a supporter. I’m gonna be looking and checking for them.”

It’s perhaps a truism to say on a developmental franchise that every player developed their games. But a franchise performing its goal is worthwhile and meaningful! The 905 are terrific. They develop not just their players, but everyone involved.

Perhaps most of all, Jerry Stackhouse has raised his stock. There are a hot-bed of rumours about Stackhouse taking his coaching talents to Orlando, New York, or elsewhere. Of course, Stackhouse wants to coach in the NBA, and it’s maybe most telling about the efficacy of the 905 franchise that he wants to take his staff with him: “I want to try to take as many of these guys [if I do go to the NBA], ’cause I know what they do.” He praise a slew of his coaching and support staff, all the way down to player development and media relations, after the loss.

The 905 lost the championships, and the fourth quarter of the sweep was ugly. It’s upsetting, but everyone with the 905 knows that the future is bright. Coach Stack, as always, said it better than me:

“It’s disappointing for [our players]. It’s not disappointing for me. Obviously, there’s some better days on the horizon for, for all of us.”

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