Ten days in the desert and you’re going to come out different. Ten days at NBA Summer League and every player that’s set foot on the floor, however hopefully or surprisingly, adept or not, has a clear sense of what the next steps in their pro-basketball careers will be — including how many. But for the shape of a team to emerge as something that feels like it’s going to stick past Vegas, into the regular season, is a rarer thing.
The Toronto Raptors went into Summer League with a top five pick in Scottie Barnes for the first time since Andrea Bargnani was ejected with 10 fouls in 28 minutes in 2006 — a regrettable first for the team and the tournament — and while interest in Toronto, and its pick, in Vegas was at a comparable high, the impact made this time around was decidedly more hopeful.
Barnes came out flying, averaging 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and two blocks in his 4-out-of-5 games played, and even in games where his decision-making looked rushed, or his shooting faltered, he was an energy conduit for his team.
In the Raptors' comeback win against the Houston Rockets on Aug. 12, head coach Patrick Mutombo said Barnes was the reason why the team got back into playing.
"He got up there, was pressuring the ball, was picking up full-court, was denying, and that was contagious,” Mutombo said, “I think that helped us establish the win."
And it wasn’t just Barnes’s energy, infectious as it was — for how he lifted passes, for his mid-air steals, for loping layups, or dunking his own rebounds and landing with a little bunny-hop dance under the basket — it was a mood that ran through the entire roster.
"I think we have a group of good people. They really like each other,” Mutombo said halfway through the team’s time in Vegas, “I hear a lot of laughter all the time, but also I see them pulling each other on the bench. Even those who don't get to play a whole lot. I feel like there's a good camaraderie and chemistry already. And we've only been together for, maybe a week and a half?”
Fast chemistry is hardly a requirement at Summer League, where the stage slants more heavily toward players vying for the spotlight in order to snag open roster spots. Standouts of the tournament are often gunner-style shooters, or gritty players willing to throw their bodies around the floor to stick out as difference-makers. For Toronto, it became clear early on that Vegas wasn’t going to be that kind of environment, with early game rotations that favoured equal reps across the roster as much as for the Raptors’ draft picks in Barnes, Dalano Banton and David Johnson. There were roster spots the Raptors needed to fill, but the game that emerged and continued to evolve was one equally weighted between development and opportunity.
Evident in-game when Barnes and Banton visibly pushed, tried things, made mistakes and corrected them, that note of versatility ran through nearly every postgame, picked up as collective chorus even by players who arrived in Vegas late.
“Coming here to the Toronto Raptors, it's an organization that encourages versatility, and being able to make the game easy for yourself and your teammates, and give the team an advantage,” Precious Achiuwa said in his first team scrum following Toronto’s close loss to the Golden State Warriors, the only hit the team would take all week.
Achiuwa, who put up 13 points, 11 rebounds and two assists that game, is already a convincingly complete player who gained meaningful minutes this past season in Miami through 61 games.
“He's a guy who can get into the paint,” Mutombo said of Achiuwa’s physicality after his first game with the team, “He’s able to rip and go and finish with force.”
Achiuwa seems comfortable with shifting between pushing the game and pacing it out.
"I read the game,” he said. “If I see opportunity where I feel like it's going to be to my team's advantage to get the ball and push it, and create an early office on my team, an easy basket, that's what we're looking for.”
Still, it was the promise of a role focused on increased versatility that had him the most candid when talking about what excites him about his new team — and where he fit within it.
"It's all about mismatch and manipulation in the game right now in the NBA. If you look across the board, you see everyone's gravitating to guys that are 6-9, athletic, that could do multiple things,” Achiuwa said, “it creates a different type of mismatch for the other teams because we have guys that can really move, mobile, do a lot of things, and it just makes the game easy.
"Myself and Scottie, everybody, a lot of guys just like myself, we're are able to play that way. And it's amazing.”
A slow-burning standout of Summer League was Banton, who over five games seemed to grow more assured in his offensive capabilities, as a leader and in reading the game closer defensively. A part of that, Banton admitted, was Mutombo preaching him to use his natural length as an advantage, calling it a “blessing.”
"I told him, get in the fight. He's 6-8, we need that length in him, we need that length to help us rebound the basketball,” Mutombo said, “I love him rebounding the ball and pushing it, I think his length helps him see above the defence, see above the crowd, and he's able to make passes that are maybe a little bit more difficult for other players to make.”
Banton also recognizes that playing at point guard has opened up a lot for him.
“With the NBA's transitioning into a positionless sport, it gives me a lot of advantage being able to see at the defensive end, make plays at the point guard position,” Banton said. “Wherever I'm needed most, I'm going to be. It definitely gives me a little bit of edge, just being this tall with that size and versatility.”
Banton moves around the floor like a loaded spring, easily plucking rebounds off the rim and quickly jumping into a transition with his rangy stride and agility. For a Toronto team that relies on its speed as much as its length to make opponents uncomfortable, Banton and Barnes work like a twin combustable engine on the floor together. Defence fuelling offence is a strategy Nick Nurse has instilled in the team both rookies were drafted into. That there were echoes of that approach at Summer League is intentional.
“We get our guys to know every position in practice, and our offence is pretty simple,” Mutombo said, “We have principles that we adhere to, and as long as we keep good spacing and paint touches, everybody knows what to do.”
The importance of Summer League on a player's in-game development is even more significant when they don’t know what to do. For the rookie draft class, it’s the first time they’ll be playing at the clip and demands of anything resembling an NBA program. Add into that mix players from overseas and the G-League, and the entry point to the learning curve on display looks more like a traffic roundabout. Mistakes, while assured, are also crucial, because they provide the best opportunity to learn, adjust, and give a barometer for growth from one fast-paced game to the next.
“When you're coming into an environment where playing hard is the norm, you don't really have a choice,” Mutombo stressed of the team’s approach to this on-the-fly development, “At this point, nobody really cares what you did last year, or where you came from. If you're here it's because we think you have the potential to fit into what we're doing. Now it's up to all of us to get them to that point.”
For Toronto’s coaching staff in Vegas that means encouraging players to take chances, literally shoot their shots and try things — creating the kind of internal environment where there isn’t so much pressure that players should try and avoid mistakes, because they can be studied on film later and used to recalibrate.
Someone else who had a hand in that help, on the floor and off, was Ishmail Wainright.
Wainright, who was signed by Toronto three days before Summer League, played three seasons in Germany. At 26, he was also the oldest player on the team’s roster, but Wainright’s maturity, something his younger teammates have gravitated toward, comes from his career experience.
“In this sport, you have to deal with a lot of different personalities and this and that and different countries, different languages, different barriers, different cultures,” Wainright said of what he considered his natural knack for adaptability, “So, you have to adapt. If you don't adapt, you won't make it, that's how I've always taken it.
“I’m still a rookie,” Wainright added with a chuckle. “They've been asking questions, which I was surprised, I thought they were going to ask other guys, but I don't mind taking that role in being that senior, especially at Summer League.”
In his postgame interview after Toronto’s win over Houston, Wainright was emotional and candid when speaking of the tough, unspoken-of reality of playing overseas and being physically absent from family, admitting he’d been through “every emotion, every single emotion you can think about” when he got the call from the Raptors to join the team. But the experience he gained in those long three years gave him what he considered an “upper hand” when it came not just to being used to playing more physically, but on the tactical side of what was asked of him in Vegas, saying that he “demands film” to understand game coverages and get better on both sides of the ball.
“I have a soft spot for players who play hard. Players who compete. Players will are physical and willing, and he is that guy,” Mutombo said of Wainright, “I love the seriousness in his approach. I love the positive energy he brings and I love his basketball I.Q.”
As a player whom Mutombo called “another coach on the floor”, Wainright also saw the the advantages of Toronto’s size and the versatility that it brought to each matchup. "It helps a lot because you’ve got five guys on the court that have a 7-2 wingspan, Scottie has 7-3, Precious has 7-5,” he laughed, “that’s a lineup that is tough.”
It’s a toughness that might bring to mind the Kyle Lowry-sized hole waiting for them back in Toronto when training camp rolls around. Except that the tenets of Lowry, his doggedness and grit, are so deeply rooted in Toronto’s culture that it was evident in Mutombo’s deceptively simple team ethos (“Playing hard is hard”) as much as there were clear streaks of it running through the game of its rookie players.
They might not be polished, but that’s what the challenges and pressure of a regular season will bring. For now, 10 days in the desert have tempered something unmistakable in this group, their generosity with one another and the versatility they’re bringing home to Toronto.
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