VICTORIA — The math is cruel and the runway is short.
That’s the way the NBA works, unfortunately. There are only so many jobs available and even being one of the most gifted athletes on the planet is a guarantee of nothing until a contract is guaranteed.
The Toronto Raptors broke up their training camp Friday, capping it with an intrasquad scrimmage in front of a sold-out crowd at Save-On Food Memorial Centre.
For most of the roster, it was simply another step forward toward the opening of the regular season on Oct. 17, a week of work and fun that sets the tone for the coming campaign.
For the city of Victoria it was a must-see event as the arena sold out in minutes and was packed early with a loud, young crowd looking for autographs and pictures from and with every player on the ro,ster along with everyone from super-fan Nav Bhatia to intentionally low-profile general manager Bobby Webster.
But for the small number of players competing for an even smaller number of jobs, even an event with as little objective meaning as a public scrimmage means the clock is ticking that much louder, and the chances to show they deserve the one open roster spot the Raptors have to offer are getting fewer.
Unfortunately, no one exactly took the ball and ran with it. The projected starters dominated in the early part of the scrimmage, and it was a bit of a mishmash after that.
“I don’t think it was a great night from an evaluation standpoint for a lot of those guys,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I thought each and every one of the starters did some things that showed very well and after that? I’m not sure, to be honest with you, that anybody else did a whole lot to wow any of us that were there watching tonight.”
For the Raptors, the roster math works like this: Of the 20 players they have had in training camp this week, 13 are on guaranteed contracts, and four have partially guaranteed contracts: returnees Justin Champagnie and Dalano Banton, along with DJ Wilson (who was with Toronto on a three different 10-day deals last season) and Josh Jackson (who was taken fourth overall in the 2017 by the Phoenix Suns but has already cycled through four teams in four seasons)
The expectation is that Banton, the gangly six-foot-nine guard from Rexdale who the Raptors drafted 46th overall in the 2021 NBA Draft, will make the team. He would give Toronto another ball-handling option who can switch comfortably defensively. His ability to shoot — or not — will likely determine his long-term NBA future, but he has the largest guarantee of the four without fully guaranteed deals and has excelled in summer league, the G-League and while playing for Canada at the AmeriCup under the watch of Raptors assistant Nate Mitchell.
But after that? It’s wide open.
Each of Jackson, Wilson and Champagnie has the potential to offer something just a little bit different, so the final decision could come down to a roster fit, but there is always the potential of someone just playing better and forcing their way into the final mix.
None of them were among the 10 starters in the scrimmage that featured typical starters Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., and O.G. Anunoby in black jerseys against Banton, Chris Boucher, Malachi Flynn, Precious Achiuwa and newcomer Juancho Hernangomez in grey jerseys, with substitutions following liberally.
“I think it’s always a case of first of all how the roster ends up looking as we go through the preseason games,” said Nurse, who was playing close attention during the scrimmage and will be again as the Raptors host the Utah Jazz in pre-season action on Sunday in Edmonton before visiting Boston and Houston this week. “It may come down to the two sides of it: Is it a need for the roster by position or size or whoever is playing the best? It’ll be interesting. You can make a case for just about everybody. We’ll start dialing it in right now.”
Champagnie has some credit in the bank as he established himself as a hard worker and positive presence while with Toronto on a two-way contract last season. He’s somewhat of a ‘tweener in that his skills and his strengths — he has a remarkable nose for the ball which shows up on the offensive glass, especially — are more suited for a power forward but his size — he’s just six-foot-six — requires him to be able to space the floor and shoot. He’s made progress but was hampered this summer when he suffered a fractured thumb and had to miss some crucial development time.
Champagnie’s first few seconds on the floor were typical: he came out of nowhere to grab an offensive rebound to gain a possession, was first to a loose ball to keep it alive and then scored a three-point play. It’s the kind of opportunism that’s hard to teach. He did look good knocking down one triple but missed two more a little wildly.
Jackson is intriguing. His pedigree is high end. The six-foot-eight leaper was the No.1 recruit out of his high school class, was Big 12 player of the year in his one season at Kansas, was a Summer League all-star and made second-team all-rookie with the Suns, where he played for current Raptors assistant Earl Watson. He can score and has shown the ability to be disruptive defensively.
“I would say his strength lies at the defensive end,” said Nurse. “We feel like he’s one guy who has had some success and experience of full denying a player and playing with some speed and athleticism and some length, to be just one of those guys who is a nuisance on defence. That’s kind of his thing. That’s why we have him in and we’re looking at him.”
That Jackson is with his fifth organization is intriguing as well: he’s had a number of off-court disciplinary issues that stretch back to his lone season at Kansas.
At 25, the hope is that all of that is behind him and he can kind find a way to use his talent to earn a steady NBA job.
Wilson is another interesting prospect. He was taken 17th overall by Milwaukee in the 2017 draft and spent four years with the team before being traded to Houston for P.J. Tucker as the Bucks loaded up for their 2021 championship run. He’s the kind of long and agile defender the Raptors like but working against him is the fact the roster is swimming in players who mirror his skill set.
Neither Jackson, Champagnie or Wilson did much to advance or harm their cause on what was a fun night for the crowd but had meaning for those trying to carve out a spot on a roster that will be tough to crack.
They’ll get another chance on Sunday in Edmonton, and the coaching staff will be watching.
“We do a staff vote every single day,” said Nurse. “And that vote changes every single day. You can tell it’s competitive.”