Raptors 905 finding wins and chemistry amidst roster churn

11 mins read
Photo credit: Trung Ho/TrungHo.ca
Photo credit: Trung Ho/TrungHo.ca

“I was not prepared for the level of change that this league offers.”

Raptors 905 head coach Jama Mahlalela was chatting with media before the 905’s eventual 110-108 win over the Wisconsin Herd on February 20. He knew what the G-League would hold when he took the head coaching job, but he didn’t know it. Of course, the constant churn of G-League rosters is a feature, not a bug, of the NBA’s development league. If G-League franchises are extremely successful, like the 905 has been thus far in its young history, they will paradoxically return fewer players year over year. It’s the opposite of the NBA, where high player retention correlates with longterm success. Players usually play in the G-League specifically to facilitate moving on elsewhere. Still, this 905 season has been especially capricious, even by G-League standards.

“If you cannot deal with change, we cannot have these jobs,” Mahlalela continued. “But the ultimate point is when the ball goes up, whoever you have on your side, and your coaching staff, you be as prepared as you can for the game, and you give everything you have.”

“It’s a constant carousel of change, and you gotta get on the ride and go with it.”

The Herd game marked the 20th different starting lineup of the season for the 905. Mahlalela was startled by that statistic when told after the game, but it makes some intuitive sense. The 905 were missing top scorer and potential G-League MVP in Chris Boucher, who is with the Raptors. Malcolm Miller, a sweet-shooting wing also sporting a shiny new NBA contract, was likewise gone. Third-leading scorer Josh Adams – who has only been with the team a month – was gone for FIBA qualifications with Team USA.

The list of roster changes this season is long. Along with microwave scorer Adams, the new additions since the start of the season include Jordan Howard, Rodney Pryor, MiKyle McIntosh, and Derek Cooke Jr. The 905 haven’t just added bit players at the end of the bench; Howard, Adams, McIntosh, and Cooke Jr. have all started for the 905 at varying times. When G-League teams shift so dramatically, players need to be incorporated into the family on and off the court.

Off the court, there’s a number of ways that players make sure new teammates feel welcome. A variety of players mentioned one mechanism for incorporating new teammates as the team’s group chat, apparently called Killers. 

“First we add them in our group chat. There’s only one. There’s only one with us,” said Myck Kabongo. “We add them in our group chat. Welcome them that way. We’re a team that’s together, you know what I’m saying.”

“We got one group chat,” agreed Duane Notice. “It’s called Killers. That’s what we want to be all season. I don’t know if guys have their own separate group chats. If they do, I’m not invited.”

Notice is also one of the only local players on the team. His family lives in Toronto, and he also offers his family home as a means of acclimatizing non-Canadian players who lack nuclear families in Toronto.

“Me being Jamaican, I try to bring some of my friends to my mom’s house for some home-cooked meals,” said Notice. “Just to get that West Indian vibe because West Indians is a big culture in Canada, and Toronto just being a big melting pot. Other than that, just helping them be around my family so they can feel like they’re at home.”

Jordan Loyd emphasized food as a means of bonding with new teammates.

“We all pretty tight,” he said. “When we travel, when we land, we all go get something to eat together. The biggest thing is going out to get something to eat. We might go out (in Toronto) sometimes, it’s been cold, but I might just say let’s go somewhere and have a good time. But when we travel, we do a good job of grabbing some food together and just hanging out.”

Christian Watford, who has been around the G-League longest and previously played for the Maine Red Claws, Reno Bighorns, and Fort Wayne Mad Ants (as well as the 905 for half of 2016-17), always knows the best places to eat on the road.

Everyone mentioned the same key words in regards to bonding with new teammates. The 905 feels like a family, and guys are respectful of each other. Most importantly, they are all tethered to the same grind. The G-League is not the NBA. The comfort provided to players, let alone the fame and wealth, pales in comparison. Everyone is running on the same treadmill in the G-League, and players respect each others’ hustle.

One obstacle on the ephemeral road to chemistry is the same in the G-League as it is in the NBA; front offices will alter the roster in search of upgrades. The 905 had a variety of flaws to start the season, so they’ve made an abnormally large number of roster changes in hopes of fixing their problems. It’s a testament to general manager Chad Sanders that they identified an early flaw with the roster – shooting – and went out and fixed it.

From the start of the season to the end of 2018, the 905 shot a woeful 32.5 percent from deep. They certainly got up their shots, 35.7 triples per game, good for fourth in the league. But they just missed so darn many. Before December 31, since-departed players Deng Adel, Kay Felder, Roger Moute a Bidias, Khadeem Lattin, and Uche Ofoegbu combined to shoot 48-for-180, or 26.7 percent from deep.

Since the turn of the calendar year, the 905 have shot a more respectable 36.4 percent from deep. They’ve added marksmen in Howard, Pryor, and Adams, who have shot 69-for-175, or 39.4 percent, since January 1. Howard especially is a gunner. Though undersized, his ability to pull-up from anywhere is integral to the 905’s offensive spacing. Against the Herd, he led a solo fast-break midway through the third quarter. That he had no teammates alongside him, and that there were multiple defenders within arms’ reach, didn’t matter. He pulled up and drained a contested triple to extend the 905’s lead.

“That’s his shot,” said Mahlalela of the decision after the game. “Listen, the guy can shoot. He’s made a bunch of them now for us. Him uncontested, I’m telling him let it fly, whatever you want. And if you’re light contested, you can let it fly. And if you’re heavily contested, you can maybe let that one fly, too. He’s a good shooter and he can turn the game around with his offense, so if he sees daylight at the 3-point line, let that thing fly, for sure.”

“It took me a little while, but honestly, when I came in, they knew the player I was,” agreed Howard. “Coming out of college, (shooting is) what I did. Coming here, that’s the biggest thing for a player, is the coaches empower a player and give them confidence. Me coming here, and for them to allow me to (pull up like that), it just makes me appreciate it and gives me all the confidence, which is the biggest thing for a player.”

Chemistry on the court won’t always fit together as easily as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Guys who shuttle back and forth to the NBA, like Loyd, Boucher, or Miller, will sometimes screw up plays trying to do too much. Imports Howard and Adams are both natural gunners, and the 905 need to get both plenty of shots to use them properly. When Boucher isn’t available, the 905 don’t have any bigs who can initiate the offense. But so far, the new 905 roster has developed dramatically more chemistry than could reasonably be expected.

They say that families that eat together stay together. The saying holds true for the 905, especially with all of their talk of sporting familial relations. Whether the 905 find themselves dining at Notice’s house in the GTA, or on the road at a restaurant that C-Wat suggested, the team stays together. Members change, sure. But the concept of family is an institutional value housed within the 905 itself, rather than belonging to any single player.

Despite the novelty of the season, the 905 find themselves 23-15, second in the East. The team has improved dramatically since the start of the season, and they have learned to win no matter which random assortment of players is available. That’s just a normal day in the life of the G-League, where almost every guy’s goal is to play his way out of the league. It seems that the only constant is inconsistence for the 905. Jama Mahlalela wouldn’t have it any other way.

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