Toronto Raptors' business-like approach pays off at Summer League

It seems naively impossible, if not actively contrarian, to have a placid 11 days in Las Vegas. Even walking the Strip to pick up something as mundane as sunscreen or snacks at the closest drugstore will have you encountering theme-park approximations of ancient Rome or strange, knockoff Mickey Mouse mascots tottering around in the heat. Summer League, like Vegas, is a place where people go to show out, but the Toronto Raptors, even after recording a 4-1 record, kept it quiet.

Some of it had to do with the team’s schedule. Unlike last year, when Toronto’s surprise pick of Scottie Barnes (and the energy of Barnes himself) saw the Raptors pegged as one of the top three teams to watch, this year had just one game at the start of the competition, the rest jammed toward its end. What it meant for coach Trevor Gleeson’s group was an abundance of practices, scrimmages and shootarounds to keep everybody humming in the drawn-out stretch before they’d hit the floor. The absence of a high-pick star like Barnes to showcase also meant that the expectation for the entire roster was, from the outset, uniform: everyone was there to work.

“It’s playing Raptors basketball, really. Playing unselfish, helping your teammates, having their backs, playing at that high intensity level.” Gleeson said after the team’s first shootaround, when asked what he was looking at early on in how to get the group cohesive and together, “They’re really non-negotiable out there. Just building that in the core group.”

The core group, at that point, consisted of Raptors system and Summer League veterans Dalano Banton and Justin Champagnie, as well as the team’s lone draft pick in Christian Koloko, two-way signee Ron Harper Jr. and D.J. Wilson, a five-year NBA vet at 26 years old. Champagnie, who spoke enthusiastically about stepping up as a leader at the beginning of the week, would suffer a thumb fracture in an early team scrimmage, putting him out for the duration of Summer League. G League player, Jeff Dowtin Jr., who Toronto have since extended a two-way contract to, got a start with the team in their first matchup as a result.

By the time the Raptors tipped off their first game of Summer League against the Jazz on July 9, the team had had three days of practices and shootarounds together and it showed. Even if it took a quarter and change to get there.

The Sixers played an early physical game that included a transition dunk from Champagnie’s twin brother, Julian, and a lot of jostling in an effort to unbalance Toronto. The Raptors stuck to their defensive tenants of communication and getting to their spots, which had the beneficial side-effect of outscoring Philly on second-chance points, 18-0. Toronto brought a balanced offensive game, with Banton, Koloko, Downtin and Armoni Brooks all in double-digit scoring plus strong rebounding and assists. For Banton, who looked a little too rangy to start, the second half was a smart reset in honing in and quieting his game, and Brooks complimented him as late-game anchor.

The Toronto Raptors cruised to a 4-1 record at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas last week. (Getty Images)
The Toronto Raptors cruised to a 4-1 record at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas last week. (Getty Images)

Both Dalano and Brooks will be competing for a roster spot in training camp and used their time in Vegas to show why they’d be a good fit for next season’s Raptors team. Brooks, even when his shooting accuracy slipped, kept up a steady defensive pressure and unflappable handle, proving himself a difference maker in pace. Toronto winning on turnovers against Philly 25-17 was partially due to Brooks’ steady tempo when the greener players on the roster got ahead of themselves; he’d do the same in Toronto’s win against Miami in their 4th game. Banton’s length and growing knack for decision making also lent a steadying hand to the team, his improved three-point shot keeping them ahead most quarters.

While Summer League is a small stage compared to the NBA, it is a step on the way, and there’s an awareness of that in some of its early games as guys get their legs under them. For Banton, who made having a foot in the world of the G League and NBA simultaneously last season look easy, that fluidity and comfort noticeably rubbed off on some of his teammates.

“As a player, I love the game, getting a lot of reps. Going down [to 905] and playing a different role, being able to have the ball, and then when I’m playing with the Raptors having a whole different role being an energy guy,” Banton said prior to the Raptors first game in Vegas. “Coming into this Summer League trying to be a vocal leader and assert myself with the team, with the guys, and assert myself into a whole different role. So I feel like having that under my belt is good.”

Recalibration has to come quick at Summer League, and in Toronto’s second game against Chicago the Raptors weren’t able to adjust some of the lingering offensive gaps — turnovers, consistent shot creation — from their first match and the Bulls wound up capitalizing on them. Chicago set the pace and outscored Toronto every quarter, while the Raptors chased. What was most notable in the loss was an outlier of a game for Wilson, who shares a similarly steadying presence to Banton. Wilson committed six fouls and turnovers, but worked to balance it out with 10 points, five rebounds and two assists.

Wilson is a worthwhile prospect for the Raptors, who are so loaded on young players that guaranteeing a contract like his could be a smart move in adding some hard-fought experience. He’s versatile on both ends of the floor, his length and size fit the bill of Masai Ujiri’s vision for the team, and he’s persistently positive. Wilson’s bounced around as a mercenary style player, bailing out the Raptors last season during the team’s bout with Covid, but works at keeping a sunny, level disposition, something he talked about in Vegas.

"It can be tough at times, but this is all I want to do,” Wilson told Yahoo Sports Canada, “You gotta support the teammates, for sure. That can breathe life into you. And honestly, practicing mindfulness, staying in the moment, being as present as you can, not getting too ahead of yourself, not thinking about the past. Just being where your feet are. That’s what I try to do on the daily.”

Wilson took the knocks from Toronto’s loss to Chicago and came out swinging in the Raptors' third game against the Jazz, putting up 22 points and nine rebounds. It was a necessary cushion that helped the team withstand Utah’s 4th quarter run and attempted comeback. He was +12 on the floor, second only to Harper Jr. (+15), intuitively in spots to lead the team in scoring at a 58 percent field goal percentage.

There can be a compulsion (and it’s fine) to stake too much on Summer League games, whether on future rookies’ first league-mandated performances or just players looking to crack a roster spot in the league. With their workaday approach to the contest, even coming out with a fairly impressive 4-1 record, the Raptors seemed resolved in avoiding hype, or even buildup to the coming season. This was a work trip, for everybody. Koloko — who is yet to be signed by the club — had some of the most impressive full-body blocks and shot contesting at Summer League, even when held against what was absent for Toronto in terms of around-the-rim presence this past season, and the expectation is that he’s still got to bring that all to camp. Harper Jr., too, who showed a perceptive defensive I.Q. when asked to play off-ball on both ends, limiting his potential for offensive contributions, will need to prove it all again.

The sense of Toronto’s Summer League showing this year is a continuation of what the regular season was for the Raptors — a pointed retooling. Much of the core roster is already intact and working better than anticipated on a post-Championship, post-Tampa, post-Kyle Lowry timeline, and there’s no point in pretending big changes (the potential for a Kevin Durant trade still looms, though less ominously) are what the franchise is looking for right now. Whoever the Raptors pick for their last training camp spots will have to have earned it. The downside is that from the admittedly brief showing in Vegas, this Summer League roster was the most purely Raptors — in ethos, in functionality — in recent memory. All of it proof that bottom to top development works, if only heartbreakingly too well for the capable, entirely primed athletes who won’t see their shot translate to suiting up in Raptors red this season.

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