Toronto coach Nick Nurse also attended the Giants of Africa event, but it was determined that he wasn’t at it long enough and he wasn’t in contact with anyone who tested positive, hence why he’s not self-isolating.
Word of Achiuwa requiring to self-isolate is just the latest in what has been a series of reminders around the Raptors that COVID-19 is still very much among us.
“We had to call off a practice (on Thursday), so that was different,” Nurse said Sunday over Zoom after practice. “We’re kind of back to just doing our jobs. We are to (go to) practice and home, mask-wearing, (we’re) vigilant on that. And you’ve just got to try to do your best and stay positive and remain focused in those things, and not use it as any type of excuse for the performance you’re trying to put out either in practice or a game, as well. Just trying to be as safe and keep it as professional as we can, really.”
And around the NBA, as a whole, there are even more stark reminders that this pandemic is still very much prevalent and pervasive in our lives. Most notably, the Chicago Bulls reportedly have nine players in health and safety protocols, including star guards Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.
And this isn’t to say that the Bulls, Raptors or any other team has been lackadaisical in adhering to public health recommendations to try to make it through the pandemic. Unfortunately, this kind of thing just may continue happening while we’re in the midst of a pandemic.
However, as Nurse said, this shouldn’t be a call to panic and give in to fear.
“I think it’s kind of just reality. I agree with you: Wake-up call is too strong,” said Nurse when asked if the COVID-related issues the team has faced this past week was something akin to a wake-up call. “When there’s a situation that we’ve been made aware of, then you step up and do everything you’re asked to do, and you do it together and you do it with a positivity (and not) with, ‘Oh, God.’ We’re not doing that. We’re doing it with a positivity of, ‘Let’s take care of each other, let’s take care of our co-workers and team and community and everything we’re supposed to do.’”
For the Raptors, dealing with COVID is nothing new. The team had a COVID outbreak that spread among the team while they were playing in Tampa last season.
Notoriously, that outbreak appeared to be a catalyst that ended up dooming the Raptors last season to miss the post-season for the first time in seven seasons.
The Raptors tried to play through it and not make excuses about how it affected them, but its impact was apparent.
From that experience, however, it sounds like the Raptors have learned how to deal with the complications that a team dealing with health and safety protocols bring – plus being back in Toronto can’t be overstated as a factor that helps the team.
“I think for sure,” said Nurse when asked if the Tampa COVID experience helps with this current one. “I mean, first of all, just all the experiences were very difficult because of being the first time, (then) add on difficulty because of being away from home, etc. So, yeah, I think just the going through it and when you get a fifth email in a day that it says, ‘Hey, now we’ve got to do this,’ you’re kind of used to it because you’ve been through it a little bit.”
It’s a reality the Toronto Raptors were reminded of this past weekend when Masai Ujiri’s Giants of Africa event turned into a COVID-19 hotspot. Multiple people including Ujiri have since tested positive and now Raptors center Precious Achiuwa has entered the league’s Health & Safety protocols, deemed a close contact of a positive case by the Ontario government.
Around the league, these past few weeks have seen more players enter COVID protocols than any other this season. The Chicago Bulls — who are scheduled to play in Toronto on Thursday — have nine players in COVID protocols. Even some of the players they signed to replace the missing players are now sidelined. In total, there are 22 players currently in league protocols, excluding both Ujiri and Pacers coach Rick Carlisle who both tested positive this week.
For the Raptors, this week has been unlike any other this season. Ujiri’s case forced Toronto to shut down practice on Thursday. Players are now being asked to wear masks at practice and Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who attended the Giants of Africa event but was not deemed a close contact, has returned to wearing a mask on the Raptors sideline for the first time this year.
“I think it’s kind of just reality,” Nurse said following Sunday’s practice. “When there’s a situation that we’ve been made aware of, then you step up and do everything you’re asked to do. And you do it together and you do it with a positivity.”
Toronto sits in a unique situation in the league, being the only NBA team outside of the United States where the pandemic is being handled very differently. Achiuwa, for example, is not required to isolate by NBA rules because he is fully vaccinated. However, because he plays in Toronto he’ll have to isolate for 10 days, dating back to December 5, and therefore the Raptors will be without both their starting centers as Khem Birch remains out with knee swelling.
Obviously injury issues have played into his sudden promotion, but Champagnie wouldn’t be the first player to be given an opportunity and then make it impossible to take it back.
His skillset is diverse, but the focus for the time being is his ability to rebound the basketball, an area the Raptors have had their challenges in both last year and this.
Champagnie, just 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, has a nose for the ball and a knack for finding a way to it, or , at the very least, opening an avenue for a teammate to go get it.
“He’s got a unique way of kind of relentlessly chasing it,” an appreciative Nurse said of Champagnie’s rebounding abilities. “There’s just some guys that no matter how tired they are, or how out of position they are, that some way they anticipate finding a route to almost get their hands on the ball. And I think that’s it. It’s a frequency, it’s a want to, there’s some timing. I think mostly though, it’s two things that: you anticipate, and that you just go, go, go every single time.
“I think he has a belief he’s going to get them all right? I mean, every single one he thinks I got a chance here, I got a really good chance here and you kind of see that and even when he doesn’t get them, They’re still a up in the air somewhat of a fight.”
Champagnie, for his part, says it all comes down to belief in himself.
“To this day I still think that,” Champagnie said when asked if he believes he rebounds better than anyone. “I’ve always thought that, that’s just me being confident in myself and knowing what I do best. I feel like rebounding is a big part of what got me here in the first place, so, when it comes to that my confidence is through the roof. I say that everyday when I’m in practice talking to (development coach Jamaal Magloire), ‘I wanna get every rebound,’ so, I think that if I just continue to keep that mindset and try and go after every one, eventually I’ll start getting more and more and more as time goes on.”
There seems to be a high level of self-awareness to the six-foot-six Champagnie, who was undrafted and signed a two-way deal with the Raptors in the summer. He knows what he wants to be but, more importantly, he knows what he is.
“Obviously, everybody wants to score the ball, everybody wants to log those crazy stats but, at the same time, for me, it’s more like knowing just that I am rookie,” he said. “We have a lot of guys on this team that get paid a lot of money to go out there and do what they do best, so (it’s about) just staying within my role, just knowing your role, doing it to the best of your ability.
“Sometimes, it’s like you want to score, you want to do this but you got to really realize what you’re on the court for.”
That attitude has endeared the New Yorker to his teammates since they first met him. Fred VanVleet, who knows a thing or two about making a career out of low expectations, said he was immediately aware of Champagnie.
“He was the first guy I liked at summer league,” VanVleet said. “Just someone who you can see, right away, can fill a role right away. He can shoot the three. He really has a talent for rebounding and just making plays around the rim.
“He’s learning our game plans and attention to detail as well. He’s growing pretty fast and I think is someone who can help us going forward, especially when we have a lot of guys out.”
Champagnie is likely to continue in his role off the bench. The Raptors ruled Precious Achiuwa out of Monday’s game against Sacramento because of health and safety protocols; Achiuwa has tested negative for COVID-19 but is in isolation under local heath department guidelines after having contact with someone who tested positive last week. Khem Birch (knee) and OG Anunoby (hip) are also out Monday, while leaves Champagnie as one of the more versatile backups Nurse can use.
“That’s the start … making my mark in the league and trying to stick,” Champagnie said. “But then eventually growing into a bit more of an offensive role as time goes on, after years go on.
Despite hitting the title-clinching shot and having a superb playoffs, helping bring home the only Raptors title ever, followed by a monster season before the world changed, Siakam has become a polarizing figure to many. That’s owing mostly to the 4-yr $129.9M extension Siakam inked a couple of years ago.
That’s one criticism I’ve never understood from fans who get up in arms about how much an athlete makes. It’s not your money, it’s MLSE’s. Siakam’s contract isn’t preventing the Raptors from making any moves and it’s unlikely to in the future.
In professional sports, even in a cap system, you rarely regret giving good players big contracts (not factoring in injuries here). You can’t get into too much trouble even if you overpay slightly good players. What cripples teams is when role players get wild contracts in free agency (and worse, when players who don’t even see the floor get paid in full).
By the time Scottie Barnes is eligible for the max Siakam’s money will be off the books. OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet are already signed long-term too, as are others. So it’s not like the Raptors would have been legally able to sign a star free agent if Siakam wasn’t around (and when have they signed a star free agent in their history anyway?).
Again, I don’t get it.
Many fans tend to judge a player by their contract. Expectations get completely out of whack. If a $30 million player is posting numbers just shy of all-star level, many try to portray him as a bum. But if a $5 million or $10 million player makes little to no impact, the spotlight seldom shines on them.
Siakam was playing some of the best basketball of his career in the nine games before Friday’s tire fire. And yes, he had some high profile misses in the clutch to start a recent season and has not excelled in crunch time this year either. He’s one of Toronto’s only efficient individual scorers and creators, which, as has been noted here many times in the past, can be both a blessing and a curse. He tries to do too much late in games and it leads to poor shot decisions and/or turnovers. Sounds a bit like DeMar DeRozan as a Raptor, no?
But players can grow, and repetitions help.
Nowadays DeRozan is shooting 57.1% in clutch situations (the last five minutes of games where a team either leads or trails by five points or fewer) with 41 points (sixth in the NBA) along with seven assists and only a single turnover. DeRozan’s also hit all 17 of his free throw attempts in the clutch this season.
Now, maybe DeMar’s just on one right now. Last year he shot 45.2% in the clutch with 20 assists and seven turnovers (still not bad). Or maybe he’s grown and is taking advantage of being an ideal fit in Chicago and maybe Siakam can too (and it should be noted the year before his down performance, DeRozan shot a gaudy 50% in the clutch with 22 assists and just four turnovers).
Coming through in the clutch isn’t easy. Bradley Beal was second in league scoring last year yet had as many turnovers as assists in those tense minutes. MVP Nikola Jokic nearly had the same ratio. Kawhi Leonard shot 38.6% in the clutch in his first season with the Los Angeles Clippers (Siakam shot 52% that year, his breakout and Leonard had gone 49% in the clutch as a Raptor, not including his playoff heroics, to show how much these numbers can shift year-to-year).
The point, after all of the meandering I suppose is struggling to make sense of why so many think Siakam stinks and/or want to run him out of town.
— Changing gears, that was a stunning Scottie Barnes performance. Possibly his best all-around game yet. There is a long way to go and a lot of hard work for Barnes to put in, but there can be little question at this point that he has the potential to not only be the face of the Raptors in time, but also potentially one of the faces of the entire NBA. He has that much talent and charisma. Will be fun to see where things go.