Bret Hart shoutout for FVV | Ujiri is Lowry’s big brother | LOB is touring Africa
— Giants of Africa (@GiantsOfAfrica) August 11, 2019
"Taking the Trophy back to where it all began gave me chills. I would not change anything about my youth. WOW. Zaria!!!! Seeing all my friends and teammates, house where I lived, was such a joy. Thank you Coach OBJ, for bringing ball in my life."
– Masai pic.twitter.com/QZnX0sF6EZ
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) August 11, 2019
One — Depth is an issue
Between Chris Boucher withdrawing at the last minute, and Kelly Olynyk suffering a knee bruise in Wednesday’s game, the Canadians found themselves extremely shorthanded in the frontcourt.
The problem only worsened early in the fourth quarter when Kyle Wiltjer limped off with what appeared to be an ankle sprain, leaving Nick Nurse with just three bigs at his disposal in Khem Birch, Thomas Scrubb and recent call-up Owen Klassen.
As it stands, Birch is already playing a huge role for Canada in the upcoming World Cup. He is the team’s only true rim protector, and the only pick-and-roll target capable of finishing above the rim in traffic. Birch has also tried his hand at a few post-ups, but his handle is loose and it leaves him prone to turnovers. But with the team in dire straits, Birch will be given as much responsibility as he can handle.
Past that, the Canadians will be relying on limited players like Scrubb, and a last-second addition in Klassen, who appears to be mostly a ground-bound banger in the mold of Aron Baynes. Neither is starting-calibre at the international level, but Nurse’s hands are tied. And with such limited options in the frontcourt, Team Canada will need huge efforts from their perimeter players to have any hope of advancing.
It’s no secret that Gasol is a tremendous passing big man. In the short amount of time he’s spent with the Raptors, he’s been able to showcase his knack for finding the open guy and carve out passing lanes that don’t appear to be available.
With the focal point of the team’s offence gone, Nurse could utilize Gasol’s passing ability even more.
According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Gasol has led the league in elbow touches every season since 2013-14 when the NBA began tracking the stat. While that didn’t change last season, it could have if Gasol spent the full season with Toronto.
Gasol had 616 elbow touches last year – 57 more than crafty All-Star Nikola Jokic, who finished second in the category. But those numbers can be deceiving. Whereas Gasol averaged 8.7 elbow touches over 53 games with the Memphis Grizzlies, he averaged only 6.0 elbow touches per game after being traded to the Raptors.
His assists per game averages followed suit – he averaged 4.7 assists per game with the Grizzlies and 3.9 per game with the Raptors.
Gasol’s usage rate also dropped with the Raptors, going from 22.3% in Memphis to 16.3% in Toronto.
The playmaking centre has proved that teams can be successful when playing through him – the Grizzlies did it for years during their “Grit and Grind” era. So how can Nurse get the most out of the 34-year-old?
More high-post and elbow touches are a good start.
Ujiri famously made the blockbuster trade to acquire Kawhi Leonard in the summer of 2018, but it came at a cost: sending franchise icon —and Lowry’s best friend — DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs.
The relationship between the two men seemed to reach a boiling point in December, when Lowry had some curt words about his connection with Ujiri. The two had what Ujiri described as a “tough” one-on-one discussion in February to clear the air and mend fences.
So to see Lowry helping his team president in his time of need was particularly powerful.
“To me, those moments happen naturally, there’s nothing made up,” Ujiri said in an interview with Business Insider. “That’s just how it is. It was very genuine. He came to get me. All the stuff I was going through … it was awesome.
“Everybody looks at when Kyle was upset because of the trade, but we have always had a big brother relationship. He’s never been a rude or disrespectful person. He is quiet, wanting it to be business-like, and was obviously hurt by that trade. But we’ve always had a bond in some kind of way.”
The Raptors players will be heading to Laval University for their training camp causing a buzz throughout the city.
It’s the first time the team will host its annual training camp in the province, which was in the works before the Raptors’ historic playoff run.
“They came here to visit in March and they were very pleased with what they saw, the facilities – the court itself but also all the rooms around that are good for them, like the physiotherapy room,” said Laval University communications and marketing director Daniel Veilleux. “The access also for the players, because they want some discretion when they’re here, so everything was perfect for them.”
The Raptors will train behind closed doors at the university from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2, but on Oct. 3 their practice will be open to the public.
“There’s an intra-team game, so it’s only the Raptors – it’s not an exhibition game with another team – and the public will have access,” said Veilleux.
The Laval University Rouge et Or’s men’s team coach Nathan Grant said he’s excited for the visit. Grant was hired in the spring and said basketball is more popular in the provincial capital than many may think.
“Just over the last month or so I’ve been trying to find a new house, a new home here in Quebec,and, as we’re going through the streets, driving around to go and visit homes, there was a basketball net up at almost every single house that we drove by,” he said. “People are really starting to get into the whole basketball fever in Quebec City.”
Narrowing his concern to his country, Nigeria, Ujiri advised that the change must start with the appointment of sports ministers. “We have to put people who are experts in sports. As sports ministers,” he said, wondering, “why do they appoint people who do not have any knowledge in sports as ministers?”
He observed sadly, that the national stadium, Lagos was an eyesore and lamented its present state of decay. “Let us lock that place for about two years and refurbish it to world standard. That stadium can generate a lot of employment for the youth, revive business around the area and encourage our national teams. That place can also house standard hotels and lots more.”
Ujiri still finds it hard to believe he midwifed a team from outside America to win an NBA title.
“I still pinch myself to know if it is actually real that we are the 2019 NBA champions. I still ask my wife, if I was still in a dream land. It shows that there are no limits to what anybody can achieve. It should inspire millions of youths in Africa,” he said.
“With Pascal Siakam, obviously the African background helped quite a bit … but it’s all him,” Ujiri told Business Insider.
“It’s all him becoming the player he has become. All we did was have a spot and drafted him at 27. Not many people could tell. Did we know his potential was this high? I don’t know … but you could see he had a feel, a passion, and a drive that is different to everybody else.
“The one thing I say about African kids is that sometimes we come and we just want to be role players … he came in and wanted to be a star. That was his goal, to be a star, and to win the league. And that’s what he has shown.”
But Siakam wasn’t the only defensive recruit to make a substantial impact in Toronto’s first championship-winning NBA team, as Ujiri also added Marc Gasol, the 7-foot-1 Spanish center, to the roster in the middle of the season.
“I was really wary about mid-season trades because the team needs training camp, you need to prepare, and you need to come together,” Ujiri told Business Insider.
“But he is just one of those guys who is smarter than most. He can adapt so easily, is such a selfless person, and an unbelievable human being.
“His basketball skills match almost any style you want to play. We really studied it, and we said, ‘You know what? We’re going to take this chance.'”
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