Despite struggles Scola remains Raptors’ steady hand

They may not know it, but Luis Scola is having a major influence on his younger teammates (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Grey dots the chin portion of Luis Scola’s perma-beard. Grey stragglers, uncooperative in the way that hairs that colour are, pepper his trademark flowing locks, too. It’s as if the hair on his face and on top of his head are determined to drive home the cliche: Scola is the Toronto Raptors’ oldest player. With his 35 years come wisdom and perspective. You know how this narrative goes.

You can only evolve so much, though. Scola is having the worst stretch of his season. His three-pointer, a surprise addition to his game this season, has been resoundingly subtracted from his game. He went 0-for-14 from three-point range in the first eight games following the all-star break, before ending the streak with two against Houston on Sunday. Teams are sagging off of him, deadly for the starting unit that is missing the shooting of DeMarre Carroll. On the defensive end, he has been slower to close out on shooting big men.

There have been calls from the stands and the media to replace him with Patrick Patterson in the starting lineup, although coach Dwane Casey has no inclination to mess with the composition of his effective bench. Scola is struggling. It has happened before. Yet he is lighter with himself than he would have been at the beginning of his career. 

“I used to be a little bit less patient,” said Scola at the Raptors’ practice on Saturday, before confessing to the truth. “I believe that everybody has a personality. Even though you get old and mature, a lot of those things stay there. I am a little bit impatient, still.”

It is part of Scola’s role with the Raptors to hide that. He is the only Raptor north of 30 (Kyle Lowry joins him later this month), and he was brought to Toronto, in addition to soaking up some minutes at power forward, to bring a mix of seen-it-all steadiness and urgency. It is a difficult emotional equilibrium to find: never stop putting pressure on yourself to get better, but do not become deflated when those efforts fail in the moment.

From the coaching staff’s perspective, that experience is a necessary ingredient for a team that wants to make a run deep into the playoffs. DeMar DeRozan has certainly endured enough drab seasons to appreciate the Raptors’ ascending fortunes, but, judging by his age, he is only now entering his prime. This might be Lowry’s best chance to lead — really lead — a team into May, but his shooting and toughness should mean he can hang around for a while, too. Late in his career, he should certainly be appealing to contending teams.

But for Scola? This is it. Or at least it’s close. The burly power forward is one of the most decorated players in FIBA history, but his NBA resume is sparse, proof of the tyranny of a 30-team league. This will be just the fourth time in his nine years his team will have advanced to the post-season. He has advanced to the conference finals just once, with Indiana in 2013-14.

“At this stage of my career,” Scola says, “I approach any chance, any possibility, any situation like it could be the last. That’s the way I’ve been doing it for the last three or four years, and that’s the way I’ll do it the next however many years I have left to play. I believe that’s the approach we should have from day one. More often than not, the younger you are the more chances there are that you’re going to have another opportunity. A lot of times, though, it’s true: It’s your last chance, and you can’t know that (for sure).”

Does his approach carry over, though? This is where we get into the anecdotal muck, an impossible-to-answer quandary. There is no way to know if Scola’s personal urgency transfers to his younger teammates. While the Raptors have to be content with how their young players are producing, it is difficult to say how much Scola’s example is helping tangibly, or just spiritually.

“Guys listen to him. They respect him,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “They understand what he’s accomplished in the league, around the world. They respect that. The minutes he gives us are good minutes. Numbers are deceiving sometimes for what else he brings to the team.”

Scola can only hope it’s rubbing off. “I’m not sure the absorption is going to be 100 per cent,” he says. “That’s the way young people are, the way human nature is. Every once in a while there’s a young guy who’s really mature and sees what you’re trying to tell him. They’re able to use your experience to their advantage and take their careers one step forward and take the team one step forward. That’s what you want,” adds Scola. “You’re not going to get all of the guys to be on board. But our world has been built on people following somebody else’s job and somebody else’s experience. We didn’t start from scratch.”

In that sense, Scola points to several players who helped him when he played overseas — “There were a lot of guys that nobody would know here” — and Shane Battier as his most important professional mentors. Those players were at least partially responsible for helping Scola produce one of the most varied and interesting basketball careers in the last few decades, going from a star in Europe to a near-all-star in his early NBA days to an effective role player as time has passed.

“Maybe I didn’t understand it at the time, what they were saying. With the years, you get to understand it,” Scola says. “That’s the other thing: If you tell things to a young guy, sometimes they will look at you and they don’t see what you’re telling them. But that stays somewhere in the back of their minds. At some point, it all clicks. That’s another way to help.”