G-League

Raptors 905 Optimistic About This Decade’s Player Development

MISSISSAUGA, Ont.– New Year’s is often accompanied with a mixed bag of emotions. 

Yearning for the past? Sure. Doubtful about the future? Absolutely. 

You could describe the current 2019/2020 Raptors 905 like the uncertainty one faces when the clock strikes 12 on New Years. After their 112-93 loss to the Agua Caliente Clippers on New Year’s Day, the 905 have a 7-11 record. They sit four back of the final playoff spot in the G League’s Eastern Conference, requiring a prosperous second-half run. 

With 2020 underway, there is hope for the 905. Wednesday’s game marked the first time the 905 had a fully active roster. Injuries have plagued the Raptors 905 for much of the season, so it was a relief to get Sagaba Konate and Justin Reyes back, even if it was on a minutes restriction. 

Moreover, the new decade promises the continuation of a trend that defined the Raptors 905 in the 2010s. In addition to the Toronto Raptors winning an NBA Championship, the league’s lone Canadian team has become the model for player development. 

How Raptors President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri, General Manager Bobby Webster and the organization’s scouting personnel have molded the talent through the 905 into becoming championship-calibre players in the NBA is one of the franchise’s defining success stories. And it is not looking to slow down any time soon. 

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When Masai Ujiri arrived with the Toronto Raptors in 2015, two areas needed to be addressed. One was bringing the Raptors to worldwide relevance. The second was securing a development franchise. 

Conversations of having a player development team were born in 2008 under Raptors President and GM Bryan Colangelo. However, tax and visa issues became obstacles for the Raptors acquiring a G-league franchise. The option of having a Raptors development team in Rochester was the more attractive and cost-effective decision. 

Until Ujiri made true on his promise. In June of 2015, the Raptors were able to successfully bring a development team to Toronto. With the 905’s home being in Mississauga, it paved the way for Ujiri and his scouting personnel to be heavily involved with the formation of talent in a deep, meaningful way. 

“It helps us develop players, I think that’s number one, but we’re also going to use this an experiment,” Ujiri said back in 2015. “We’re going to use this as a guinea pig in some ways, whether it’s modeling our front office or modeling what the coaches are doing, instructing, teaching. We’re going to try everything.” 

With the hiring of Jerry Stackhouse as the head coach, the Raptors 905 took off. But it was the savvy moves that Ujiri made to put players in the 905 that he knew could become future NBA stars. 

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Pascal Siakam was one of those players. Born in Cameroon, the 6’9 power forward was not on the radar of many executives and scouts coming out of New Mexico State. Except for the Toronto Raptors. Ujiri had seen the potential Siakam possessed when he attended one of his “Basketball Without Borders” camps. When the Raptors selected Siakam with the 27th overall pick, Ujiri and his staff knew they got a steal. They could employ Siakam with the 905 to develop his skills, which would hopefully translate to the NBA. 

Siakam would be an integral piece of the Raptors 905’s inaugural G-League Championship. His 23 points and 9 rebounds in the final series against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers would earn the young power forward G-League Finals MVP. 

His success in the G-League would translate to the NBA, particularly in the Raptors championship season. Despite not making the All-Star Game, Siakam was committed to improving, focusing on his defense and ability to shoot mid-range and three-point shots. It all culminated in the NBA Finals, where Siakam recorded a career-high 32 points in Game 1 and a double-double 26 points, 10 rebounds in the championship-clinching Game 6. His Most Improved Player of the Year honours, along with currently leading the Raptors in scoring (25.1 PPG), demonstrate the 905’s influence in developing Siakam as a player and person. 

“Our scouting does an amazing job sending me to places seeing these guys grinding and grinding,” said Ujiri at his end of season press conference. “For Siakam, he had challenges last season but never put his head down. Pascal doesn’t sit back to be a role player and just happy where he is. He has a goal. He wants to be the best.” 

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It wasn’t just Siakam who evolved into NBA talent from the 905. The Raptors got another late draft steal with Norman Powell. Powell was selected with the 46th overall pick by the Milwaukee Bucks, before getting traded to the Raptors. 

With the 905, Powell learned to become the energy guy who could score. Once he got with the Raptors, the shooting guard would supply the secondary scoring complimenting Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan. Who could forget when “Playoff Powell” emerged in 2017, when he scored a career playoff-high 25 points in Game 5 of the Raptors first-round series against the Bucks. 

It is a credit to Raptors management for doing their homework, constantly going to city to city to scout future talent. When no team selected Fred VanVleet in the 2016 NBA Draft, the Raptors took a chance with a summer league contract. It would eventually turn into a multi-year deal and the rest is history. 

For someone painted as “too small” to play basketball, VanVleet emerged as one of the toughest guards in the league. He played alongside Siakam with the 905 en route to the G-League Championship. In critical moments of the Raptors championship run, it was VanVleet who would raise the confidence of the team with his clutch shots. His 22 points (12 in the fourth quarter) in Game 6 against the Golden State Warriors cemented VanVleet’s legacy, contributing to the championship DNA of this team that remains today. 

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With the new decade underway, the challenge for the Raptors organization is to sustain the successful player development. With Jama Mahlalela coaching the Raptors 905, it is evident that he wants to continue the legacy of molding young talent. 

This season, Chris Boucher has been the latest graduate of the 905 to sustain valuable minutes on the Raptors. With all of the injuries the Raptors have suffered, Boucher has provided fervent energy coming off the bench, showcasing his athleticism on both ends of the floor. Toronto native Oshae Brissett, who started the season with the 905, recently saw some minutes for the Raptors against the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder. Posting a career-high 15 minutes with four points and six rebounds against the Celtics, Brissett demonstrated the hustle and rebounding ability that makes him an asset on the 905. 

As Brissett explains, it is the players like Boucher, VanVleet, and Siakam who give him the motivation to improve his game so that he can permanently stay on an NBA roster. 

“They are doing it, why can’t I?” said Brissett. “Those guys have put in the work so I have to continue to do that. I am following in their footsteps and hopefully I can make it where they are.” 

The Raptors winning an NBA Championship will continue to impact Canadian Basketball and how teams develop players for years to come. When the Raptors played the Thunder last Sunday, it was the first time four Canadians were on the court at the same time in NBA history. The G-League also has its share of rising Canadian talent, evidenced in Wednesday’s 905/Clippers game, with Brissett, Tyler Ennis, Mfiondu Kabengele and Xavier Rathan-Mayes on the floor. 

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More Canadian talent coming up the pipeline from the G-League to the NBA is great for basketball across the country. A higher quantity means more eyes on these players, requiring the Raptors scouting to be extra perceptive in evaluating their basketball capacity. 

With Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster still in charge of the Raptors, their “onto the next” mantra will continue to permeate throughout the organization. The constant conversations with Mahlalela and the 905 enable transparency and a culture that maximizes the players’ production on and off the court. While the 905’s head coach isn’t one to make New Year’s resolutions, he recognizes the importance of being unselfish and celebrating one another’s successes as they progress in their career. 

It is sometimes okay to keep doing the same thing. Especially if it has resulted in an NBA Championship. 

“The dialogue and communication we have with both organizations are daily,” said Mahlalela. “There is a pipeline of players and it allows them to put good pressure on themselves to see who is going to be the next one to graduate from our program. The goal is to move you on in your career and increase the value in the marketplace. We embrace it, we get excited about it. If we can find some way to get a player there, it’s a good thing for us.” 

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