“He still has tremendous potential to get better because he’s not a normal kid. He didn’t play basketball when he was young,” Peterson said. “He’s not ready to come in and be a big-time star right now. We teach our guys here at Baylor every day, ‘You gotta find a role, that niche, to be really good in the NBA. And then you’ve got to stay in that role. If you want to make it in the NBA, you’ve got to learn to star in that role.’ I think Freddie understands that. He just needs more experience doing it.”
That’s exactly what Gillespie is trying to do during his 10-day window with the Raptors. While spending the requisite amount of time quarantined in Tampa waiting for the green light to play, Gillespie tried to absorb as much Raptors film and virtual coaching instruction as he could. His background in chess comes in handy in moments like these, as he believes the pattern recognition and anticipation of opponent moves use the same parts of his brain. The “crash course at a distance,” as he called it, is another opportunity to show how hungry he is to improve.
Given a surprising amount of playing time over the last two games, Gillespie has only taken five shots in 27 minutes. His focus has been on rebounding, using his 7-foot-6 wingspan to deflect passes and using his strength to set some very good screens. The Raptors’ centre position has had so much trouble this year that reliable screening, pass-catching and rebounding stands out. Gillespie was the first big off the bench for Nurse on Sunday even with the team getting healthier and adding Khem Birch. Those opportunities may not continue, but Gillespie has shown his size, strength and motor provide a solid floor — his development is worth investing in.
Peterson sees the Raptors as a natural fit for him given their developmental track record. Gillespie, too, was eager to land with Toronto.
“One of the reasons why I was excited when they called me, you know, one, they’ve got guys who’ve got a chip on the shoulder. I see that. They’ve got guys who work,” he said. “But their development stands out. They get guys better. At the end of the day, that’s what keeps you in the league, gets you closer to your goal of staying in the league is getting better. In terms of this, nothing would make me happier than if they were like, ‘Hey, Freddie, we love you, we want to keep you on, keep you as a developmental piece, help you get better, and we want you to contribute.’ That’d be great. But in this league, you’ve gotta take it day by day.”
Everyone he’s come in contact with is rooting for Gillespie to succeed. He’s earned rave reviews at every level as a worker, a teammate and a person, to where it’s hard to get people off the phone when they start talking about him. The Raptors have become quick fans, too, with Gillespie fitting right in as someone willing to play to the Open Gym cameras and bring energy on the bench. He’s a natural culture fit, even if he still needs more developmental time. If there’s one thing Gillespie’s career to date has shown, it’s to never rule out continued improvement.
How Weaver went from MLSE administrative assistant in 2012 to Ujiri offering her a chance to help build up the 905 to now adding to the growing list of women who can be found in NBA front office roles is a long story wrapped around a simple premise: Weaver missed basketball.
Having played growing up and through high school, Weaver was looking forward to taking it to another level at St. Francis Xavier in Halifax, Nova Scotia. But a Habitat for Humanity trip to Ecuador would prove costly, resulting in her contracting a mystery parasite. She fell sick not knowing what was wrong—and having been in the best shape of her life prior, still tried to go through a workout upon returning, but proceeded to pass out.
“I had to go through that whole no-longer-being-an-athlete transition a lot earlier than I had anticipated,” Weaver said after not playing through her first year. “By the time I got through that year, I thought I was gonna go back, but I honestly thought the dream was dead. I just moved on to other things to fill my time and felt it was best to just stay out of it.”
Weaver took up other interests and focused on her Business Administration degree before making a predetermined decision, as the meticulous planner she is, to move to Toronto after graduation. It took some serious convincing of her parents, whom she won over with a deal that they would take care of her first month’s living expenses before she took care of herself after that.
Pushed by a friend to apply for the admin assistant role at MLSE—the type of job she thought she didn’t move to Toronto for—Weaver was given the opportunity to learn under David Hopkinson, now executive vice-president and president of team business operations at Madison Square Garden Sports Corp. Though she isn’t a fan of the term ‘mentor,’ Hopkinson played a key role in Weaver’s growth and understanding of the conglomerate and presented her with different opportunities to learn about its different elements.
“It was like a masterclass in sports,” Weaver said. “It was a really awesome opportunity and he allowed me to build relationships with people he was dealing with—all kinds of people around the industry who are CEOs, CMOs, presidents and board members—and I have my own relationships with them because he let me foster that on my own.”
All the while, Weaver’s itch for basketball kept getting stronger. When Tim Leiweke stepped in to execute his vision and transformation of MLSE sports, Weaver came in closer contact with Ujiri, Bobby Webster and Teresa Resch and fostered those relationships. By the 2014-15 season, all Weaver wanted was to transition from the business side of things to basketball and started planning for conversations on how she could make the transition and what she could offer.
“I think what I’m able to do is understand things from a lot of different perspectives and then provide an organization-wide solution for things,” Weaver said. “I think I understand a lot of people’s pain points, frustrations, and things that they need. I’m able to look at that and put it all together to provide assistance and support for everybody.”
Ujiri must’ve identified those qualities in her, because as the Raptors were on the verge of getting swept by the Wizards in Washington, he called Weaver for a meeting offering a position helping start and run the 905 franchise before she ever had a chance to say a word about wanting to be involved with the Raptors. The rest, as they say, is history. Whether it’s helping the team relocate to Tampa, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for players both coming in and going out after the trade deadline, or learning and understanding how NBA Top Shot or NFTs in general can help players, Weaver has it all under control.
This Week: 23
Last Week: 23
At the end of February, the Raptors were 17-17 and had seemingly righted themselves after a rough start. Since then, the Raptors have lost 16 of their past 20 games — including yet another disappointing defeat against the Knicks on Sunday night — and remain two games behind the Bulls for 10th in the East. This has been a season the Raptors will be ready to forget the moment it ends. — Bontemps
This Week: 20
Last Week: 21
21-33, +0.4 net rating
Weekly slate: Win over Wizards, Loss to Lakers, Loss to Bulls, Win at Cavs, Loss at Knicks
Good lineup: Kyle Lowry | Fred VanVleet | OG Anunoby | Pascal Siakam | Chris Boucher
Stats: 107.7 offensive rating | 104.3 defensive rating | +3.4 net rating | 68 minutes played | 5th most used lineup
Why it’s important: If you’ve read the Awards Rankings the last two weeks, you know how high on Chris Boucher I am. I love what he brings to the Raptors and the job they’ve done developing him. He helps keep this an elite defensive team with this lineup. If the Raptors end up re-signing Lowry, this lineup is big for the future. Even if they don’t, this four-man combo will see a ton of time.
Bad lineup: Kyle Lowry | Fred VanVleet | OG Anunoby | Pascal Siakam | Aron Baynes
Stats: 102.9 offensive rating | 107.1 defensive rating | -4.2 net rating | 114 minutes played | 2nd most used lineup
Question that arises: Why can’t this lineup score? This was supposed to be a very important lineup this season and the addition of Aron Baynes just hasn’t meshed for some reason. I can’t figure out why they look like the JaKarr Sampson Sixers on offense when this unit is in the game. It’s truly baffling to me.
This Week: 22
Last Week: 25
The bright spot for the Raptors’ week was an improbable offensive explosion without their three top scorers in a win over the Cavs, but overall Toronto went 2-3 in a strenuous stretch of five games in seven days. Gary Trent Jr. had one of the most efficient offensive games in NBA history in the win over Cleveland, scoring a career-high 44 points on 17-for-19 shooting, including 7 for 9 from 3-point range. Kyle Lowry returned from a six-game absence in Sunday’s loss to the Knicks, putting up 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists in 37 minutes — so much for easing back into things.
This Week: 24
Last Week: 26
Pace: 99.9 (14) OffRtg: 112.2 (13) DefRtg: 111.8 (17) NetRtg: +0.4 (14)
Gary Trent Jr. essentially won the Raptors two games last week, hitting the buzzer-beating game-winner against the Wizards on Monday and scoring a career-high 44 points (on 17-for-19 shooting) against the Cavs on Saturday, a much more comfortable win needed to keep that season-long point differential above zero. In his 10 games with the Raps, Trent has shot 41% from 3-point range, while everybody else on the team has shot 30%. When they haven’t been blowing teams out, the offense has been rough, and the Raps got blown out themselves in their best opportunity (Thursday against the Bulls) to put themselves in position to compete for a play-in spot.
Toronto has had Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet on the floor together for just 19 total minutes over their last nine games, and Pascal Siakam continues to struggle when he can’t get to the basket. He did have a three-game stretch last week where he totaled 46 points in the restricted area, but Siakam is 29-for-105 (27.6%) from outside the paint since late February and with the game in his hands on Sunday, managed a worse outcome than having his shot roll off the rim.
Beyond the incredible on-court run, what has also stood out about Trent is how he’s fully embraced being a Toronto athlete, which is incredible considering he’s in Tampa and hasn’t played a single game at Scotiabank Arena yet. Consider the fact he’s embraced the “We The North” slogan from the very beginning (by the way, did Kawhi Leonard ever say “We The North” during his one year in Toronto? Yeah that’s right the year is 2027 and I’ll still be referring to Kawhi):
He showed up in OVO gear and then upped the ante with some Raptors throwback shorts:
But wait, this man took it even further and wore his own custom Gary Trent Jr. Blue Jays jersey (by the way — imagine the content we would get from the trio of Serge Ibaka, Trent and Anunoby. I can totally picture the two young guys pulling pranks on Serge. Alright I’ll stop now and yes I’m blaming the Clippers and not Masai for this):
No one reps Toronto harder except for our own William Lou:
Trent has set the perfect blueprint for becoming a fan favourite in the city of Toronto and I personally can’t wait for him to sing the Canadian national anthem at the home opener next season.
After another close loss on Sunday, this time against the Knicks, the Raptors find themselves in this perpetual space of nothingness, as close to a play-in spot that seems only mathematically possible as they are to a top-five pick in the draft. I’m not sure what everyone’s breaking point was, but watching a downtrodden Fred VanVleet after the loss to the Thunder in late February made me realize this year is just about making the best of it and getting back to Toronto for what hopefully will be a more normal season after the summer.
In the meantime, we should all just enjoy one of the coolest runs by a single player in Raptors history.
Flynn’s minutes have increased lately because the Raptors didn’t have another point guard available for a five-game stretch without either Kyle Lowry nor Fred VanVleet. That’s likely to change, with Lowry back from a foot injury and VanVleet getting closer to returning from a hip injury, plus a one-game suspension that he still has to serve.
Still, Flynn has matured extensively over the last couple of weeks, and Lowry’s future past this season is uncertain at best. Turning over at least the backup job to Flynn is why he was drafted in the first round last year. He’s the future, or a big part of it.
“It’s been a great opportunity for me to really play a lot of minutes, play through some mistakes,” Flynn said. “Just continuing to learn the game at this level.
“It’s been a little bit of a learning process, but (I’m) just trying to get better every game and everybody else is just helping me along the way, so it’s been good.”
The added responsibility and extended minutes may not have translated into pure scoring statistics — he’s shooting 42 per cent from the field over the past six games — but his game is definitely evolving.
“I just think he’s understanding that the scoring will come,” Lowry said of Flynn. “Before, I think, when he first started playing he was like, ‘I’ve got to score, I’ve got to score.’
“I think now he’s understanding that the scoring’s going to come, but you’ve got to make the plays first. That’s where the maturation is coming in.”
Shooting and scoring are skills that develop over time, and if there are mechanical issues to address with Flynn’s shooting stroke they can be tweaked in the off-season.
For the rest of this season — in whatever minutes he gets while the team chases the playoffs, and any enhanced role if the Raptors are definitely out of the race — the job is to learn the nuances of the game, get used to its speed and learn as many tricks as he can from VanVleet and Lowry. The two vets have been tutoring Flynn all season and can now help fine-tune his game while he’s playing more.
Lowry returned Sunday after a six-game absence, the result of a recurring toe infection, while VanVleet remains sidelined with a hip injury. He’s already been listed as out for Tuesday’s game against Atlanta and even when he is healthy and ready to return he’ll have to sit one more game as punishment for coming on the court when tempers flared in that loss to the Lakers last week.
Anunoby and Pascal Siakam were both derailed by the COVID outbreak that cost them three weeks and is still wreaking havoc with conditioning and stamina.
Paul Watson Jr., a young man who was making inroads with his head coach as a minute eater coming off the bench, appears to be on the verge of returning from his stint on the league’s popular out-due-to-health-and-safety-protocols list. Watson Jr. was upgraded to questionable in the most recent league injury report.
So in that sense, things are headed in a positive direction.
But forgive the Raptors if they are waiting for the next wave of injuries or something else to once again cripple the roster and challenge the unaffected to pick up the slack.
It’s been the ongoing theme of this season.
Lowry was given the opportunity post-game on Sunday to paint a hopeful picture of the remaining 18 games and the Raptors’ chase for a spot in that play-in playoff tournament.
Lowry chose his words carefully. He didn’t come across as hopeful.
“Game at a time,” Lowry said. “You can’t look too far ahead. You can’t look too far down the road. You’ve got to take it one game at a time and continue to grow. We’re in a situation where we’ve never been in before. We’ve never been trying to fight for this or that, and we got some guys on our team that we’re still trying to get them to develop, Malachi Flynn, Gary’s coming over, he’s in his third year. Chris (Boucher) is going to get some more minutes. Now we’re in a weird situation of trying to fight for something. And Freddie (VanVleet) being out definitely hurts us. We’re in a situation where we’ve got to take it one game at a time. We’re also trying to get guys, get some repetition, and get them better.”
You can’t blame Lowry for not jumping on the seeming imminent return to health of the roster, the additions of Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie that should almost definitely provide at least a portion of a solution to the Raptors lack of rebounding and interior size going forward, not to mention the better-than-expected scoring they have received from Trent Jr. and suddenly predicting a seamless finish to an otherwise choppy campaign.
Having been through what they have been through, trust that better times are ahead just doesn’t come that easily anymore.