Raptors 905 Check-In III: Champs hitting their stride

Malcolm Miller when he played for Holy Cross. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)

When the Lakeland Magic took on the Raptors 905 on Nov. 18, the 905 were still feeling out a new roster and were searching for momentum with three wins and two losses. The Magic, where former Raptor Anthony Parker now serves as general manager, hammered the 905 by 18 points to send the team into a tailspin.

The 905 lost six of their next seven games to fall to a miserable 4-9 on the year as defending champions, and while their defence remained strong, their offence struggled to muster up any kind of rhythm.

Lorenzo Brown shuttling back and forth between the G League and the parent club presented a challenge for the starters to grow accustomed to. Two-way contract signing Malcolm Miller was still looking to get in game shape after missing 12 weeks with a right ankle injury, and the team was still looking for a consistent answer at the centre position after the sudden departure of Edy Tavares.

Head coach Jerry Stackhouse pleaded patience, and he was right.

Fast forward to the present, and the 905 have won seven straight games, and avenged their heavy defeat against the Magic with a 91-84 victory on Tuesday night. At 12-10 on the season, the 905 are back in the thick of the playoff race and are only improving.

“I tell people all the time, some things just take time,” Stackhouse told Raptors Republic’s Blake Murphy after defeating the Windy City Bulls on Dec. 30. “As much as you wanna try to prod ’em and beat it into ’em and yell at ’em and do all those things, sometimes just their reps is what’s gonna get them to the level of where they are now. And we’re gonna get better. We haven’t arrived at all. I think there’s still another level or two or three of where we can go.”

Bruno Caboclo

The 22-year-old is averaging 16 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.7 blocks through 21 games, but is now down to 31.5 per cent from three-point range on seven attempts per game. He showed signs of a shooter’s mentality against the Magic, missing his first nine three-point attempts, before knocking down a big one with under two minutes remaining to extend the lead to seven and effectively seal the win.

The shooting has come and gone this season, but it’s encouraging to see that his defence, rebounding, and overall effort levels have been more consistent. If the 905 continue to surge, expect him to be one of their top candidates to make a G League all-star appearance.

Canadian Content

Delon Wright’s shoulder injury in New Orleans on Nov. 15 forced Toronto’s hand to keep Brown for the foreseeable future, and while the 905 would miss his talent, it allowed local boy Kaza Keane to settle into a groove as the starting point guard after he returned from his stint with the Canadian national team.

In four games as the starter from Dec. 8-18, Keane averaged 10.8 points, 11 assists and 6.5 rebounds to go along with his impregnable defence. Even with Brown’s return, Keane’s growth in confidence is evident as he runs a bench unit that has now established Malcolm Miller and Davion Berry as its primary scorers.

The combination of Brown and Keane now gives the 905 two dependable point guards much like they had last season with Brady Heslip and John Jordan. Brown has been a monster in the G League, averaging 20.1 points, 8.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals.

Aaron Best continues to struggle for consistency, with eight games of at least 10 points, but also 10 games where he has scored five points or fewer. This is irrelevant, for now, as the bottom line is he needs to be in the dunk contest.

If you need further proof, here he is at the Lithuanian Dunk-Off during his time there last year.

He’s doing this at six-foot-four and 185 pounds. Incredible.

Malcolm Miller

While Best takes care of the highlights at the rim, Miller is the one heating it up from downtown. At six-foot-seven, he’s got a smooth, quick release, and is capable of attacking a closeout and getting to the rim. He’s providing some much-needed outside shooting, at volume, and has had a significant impact on the team’s results when he’s hot.

Credit the Raptors here for being fully invested in their two-way contracts. Miller accompanied the senior club on a road trip to Charlotte and Philadelphia, and it appears getting a taste of NBA action has made a lasting impression. His best game of the season came against the Greensboro Swarm, when he dropped 32 points with six three-pointers. Stackhouse will be hoping he can continue to rely on his scoring punch.

Jerry Stackhouse

Ever the optimist, what Stackhouse and the rest of his coaching staff has done with this group is arguably more impressive than their championship run. This squad is isn’t as deep or talented, but has come together as a team and has started to trust the extra pass on the offensive end.

The 905 have been around a top 10 offence during their win streak with a 105.8 rating, a notable leap from 99.4 during the stretch prior. Their defence has become even more intimidating, allowing just 92.3 points per 100 possessions after allowing a fifth-best 102.5 points before Dec. 16.

Stackhouse was already a name many projected to join the NBA circle of head coaches after winning the G League title last season, and that noise will only get louder if he can take them close once again. Factor in that there will likely be more head coaching vacancies this off-season than last, and this could conceivably be his last season with the team.

On a side note, he continues to entertain the fans with his referee exchanges.

Also worth noting, the G League Showcase comes to the Hershey Centre in Mississauga from Jan. 10 – 13. All 26 teams attend this event and play two games each. League scouts and executives from every NBA team are expected to be in the city as well.

Neither Caboclo nor Alfonzo McKinnie will play the Showcase as part of the 905’s commitment to give the players specifically on G League contracts maximum exposure.