TORONTO — Raptors Uprising GC point guard Kenneth (Kenny Got Work) Hailey, whose perfect season was derailed in the playoff semifinals last week, has been named NBA 2K League MVP.
The 30-year-old from Memphis led the esports league in scoring during the regular season, averaging 35.3 points a game. He was first in three-pointers made (4.7 per game), third in steals (3.5) and sixth in assists (8.3).
Raptors lockdown defender Trent (Timelycook) Donald won defensive player of the year honours. Donald led the league in steals with 4.2 a game.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find another duo in the NBA 2K League that has that level of chemistry and ability to perform together anywhere," MLSE esports manager Shane Talbot said of Hailey and Donald.
The Raptors put up a historic 16-0 regular season before the top-seeded team was upset by fourth-seeded Wizards District Gaming in a playoff semifinal sweep Aug. 22.
"It was a great run, man, to go 16-0," Hailey said Friday night. "Obviously you want to be playing (in the final), it's the ultimate goal but (to win) MVP, I'd like to thank everybody who believed in me, my teammates.
"It was tough, it was a tough loss for us. But the better team won that night."
The Wizards defeated No. 3 Warriors Gaming Squad in Friday's best-of-five championship series 3-1, winning three straight after dropping the opener.
The 2020 season was played remotely rather than in the league's New York-area studio because of the pandemic.
Hailey, Toronto’s first-ever draft pick, was up against Charlie (CB13) Bostwick of Warriors Gaming Squad, Ryan (Dayfri) Conger of Wizards District Gaming, Reginald (Regg) Nash Jr. of Bucks Gaming and Spencer (Ria) Wyman of Jazz Gaming.
The five finalists were chosen by team managers and NBA 2K League players. The winner was then chosen in a ballot of players, team managers, league officials, media and fans.
Nash, taken 12th overall in the 2020 draft by the Bucks, was chosen rookie of the year.
Hailey and Raptors centre Jerry (Sick One) Knapp were named to the all-NBA 2K League first all-star team along with Bostwick, Conger and Wyman.
Donald was on the second all-star team along with Canadian Yusuf (Yusuf-Scarbz) Abdulla of Kings Guard Gaming.
Hailey, Donald and Abdulla were also selected to the league's all-defensive team.
Toronto also won both in-season tournaments: the US$160,000 Tipoff and $260,000 Turn.
The Raptors collected $187,000 in becoming the first team in the league's three-year history to win the first two tournaments in the same season. They also collected another $7,500 in other prizes.
A playoff quarterfinal win over Hornets Venom GT added an additional $75,000 to Toronto's coffers for a total of $269,500.
But Raptors Uprising missed out on the big money with the league champion claiming $420,000 of the $920,000 playoff prize pool. The runner-up got $150,000.
The players have returned home, wondering what might have been.
"It's up and down," said Talbot. "The moments of frustration come from just knowing how close we were."
Hailey also walks away with the NBA 2K League Fan Engagement Award, was named player of the week four times and player of the month (May and July) twice as well as winning tournament MVP in the in-season Tipoff and Turn tournaments.
Including tournament and post-season play, Toronto went 28-0 this season before being upset by the Wizards.
It was an amazing turnaround for an esports team that missed the playoffs last season. The Raptors were 12th in 2019 with an 8-8 record and came into the 2020 campaign with a career 22-23 mark in all competitions.
Talbot successfully mined the 2020 draft, surrounding Hailey and Knapp, both holdovers, with Donald, Maurice (ReeceMode) Flowers and Jake (Legit 973) Knapp, Jerry's younger brother.
Hailey, who moved to point guard full time this year, worked closely with Jerry Knapp in the off-season to hone their chemistry. Hailey and Donald already had a bond, having played together on the Still Trill team that earned $250,000 in winning the NBA 2K17 All-Star Tournament.
Flowers and Jake Knapp played their roles in the five-man unit. The Raptors went with five all season after second-round draft pick Anthony (Wuan) Rivas didn't work out and went home.
The 2020 season marked a triumphant return to the league for Donald, who played for Kings Guard Gaming in 2018 but was suspended last year for violating the league's social media guidelines.
Now Talbot has some off-season scheming ahead, moves that will depend whether the league expands with an accompanying expansion draft. Franchises were able to protect three players from the expansion draft last year — and a fourth afterwards.
The off-season roster rules have yet to be released. Last year, teams had to retain two players — and could protect more at the expense of draft picks.
"I think we have a pretty good shot at being able to bring most if not all of this group back," said Talbot. "No decisions have been made yet but certainly I think you're going to see a very similar-looking Raptors Uprising team next year."
The Raptors twice set the single-game scoring record this season (June 12 in 109-51 win over Celtics Crossover Gaming and July 16 in 112-62 victory over Pacers Gaming).
Toronto also set records for single-season wins, consecutive regular-season wins and consecutive wins to start a season.
The Raptors also became the earliest in league history to qualify for the post-season, 12 games into the regular season after a July 2 series win over Gen.G Tigers.
"We would give it all back for the title," said Talbot.
Regular-season games were one-off contests in the league's first two seasons before switching to best of-three series in remote play this year. A series win equals one regular-season victory in 2020.
The top-seeded Raptors joined Blazer5 Gaming in learning the hard way that regular-season success doesn't necessarily translate into the playoffs. Portland topped the regular season the previous two years — with 14-2 and 12-2 records — but fizzled out in the first round of the post-season each time.
Knicks Gaming (14th in the regular season at 5-9) and T-Wolves Gaming (fourth in the regular-season at 10-6) won the 2018 and 2019 league titles, respectively.
Talbot has high hopes for next season.
"I think they know we now have the pieces in place to continue to be successful. And so I don't think we think that this is the last chapter," he said. "If anything this might be just the first chapter in what we hope will become a dynasty and what we hope will lead to championships in the future."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 28, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press