New father Oshae Brissett extra motivated as Raptors prep for restart

Toronto Raptors forward Oshae Brissett (12) drives against Chicago Bulls guard Ryan Arcidiacono (51) during an NBA pre-season game. (Cole Burston/CP)

On May 28 Oshae Brissett’s life changed forever.

He became a father for the first time with the arrival of Ellai, his first child, a daughter that he shares with Ieesha Callum.

With the NBA season on hiatus and the world largely on lockdown, the timing was – in a weird way – perfect.

There was nowhere to rush to; no flights to catch.

Just time with one of life’s great gifts: a healthy child at home with nowhere to be.

If it weren’t for COVID-19, who knows?

“We would have been deep in the playoffs or somewhere on the road,” said Brissett. “So it’s a blessing in disguise. I was able to spend some good time with her and be with her, and kind of learn the beginning stages of her life. So it [was] great.”

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But soon enough, duty called. The Raptors left for Naples, Fla., on June 22, a preliminary gathering before they travel northeast to Orlando on Thursday where they will be one of 22 teams entering the so-called ‘Covid Bubble’ at Walt Disney World Resort to prepare for the completion of the regular season and the playoffs.

Players can’t bring their families into the bubble until the start of the second round of the playoffs, slated for mid-August. Add it up and Brissett will have gone from being with Ellai 24-7 for her first month to being apart for at least seven weeks.

Joining the team in Florida wasn’t mandatory. A handful of players across the league have pulled out of the restart for various family or health-related concerns. But the 22-year-old Brissett said he has never wavered in his decision to leave for work — not that it was easy.

“From even when the season ended, I wanted to get right back on the court, so I knew that the opportunity that we had to get back here together as a team, I was gonna jump on it right away, no matter what the circumstances were,” he said. “Obviously it’s tough leaving my daughter, but you know, Facetime and all those things that are available now, I call her all the time and I’m on the phone with her, just talking to her … it wasn’t a tough decision to leave, but getting on that plane and saying bye, that was the toughest part.”

Brissett’s motivations are understandable – beyond simply trying to help his hometown team defend its NBA title.

The former Syracuse University star by way of Mississauga, Ont., was undrafted last summer but did well in Summer League and impressed in the Raptors off-season development program, including a strong showing with the Canadian men’s team coached by Raptors head man Nick Nurse.

His reward was a two-way deal with the Raptors he signed following training camp, which was worth about $200,000 in a normal season, shuttling between Raptors 905 and the big team.

He thrived with the 905 this year before the G League season was halted. In limited minutes through 19 NBA appearances, he showed considerable potential as an athletic, high-energy forward who can find the basket and defend multiple positions.

A full-time NBA job is at hand, which would go a long way towards establishing a college fund for a certain baby girl. This is the stage in a player’s career to put down the gas even if it comes at considerable personal sacrifice.

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The Raptors appreciate it too. While typically someone in Brissett’s position on the depth chart might not be slated for significant minutes – if any — during the crucial stages of the regular season or playoffs, playing professional basketball in the midst of a pandemic is uncharted waters for all concerned. Anything could happen — injuries attributable to the long layoff, a positive COVID test or two – and Brissett wants to be prepared if he gets a chance to make his case for more playing time and ultimately a full-time deal.

He’s making do without his new family. Lots of video games and TV binging are breaking up his workouts, but the cause is worthy.

“I feel from when I got here [in Florida], coaches and players have been telling me to always stay ready, ‘you don’t know what’s going to happen’, really encouraging me like that,” he said.

“…I don’t know what’s going to happen, how everything is going to play out,[so] I attack every day, I work out hard every day because I want to play, I want to be in the rotation, want to help guys so I just do what I got to do to better my chances to get on the court.”

Teams can’t begin five-on-five practices until they settle into Disney World and get through a 36-hour quarantine. In the meantime, Brissett has used what has been an extended off-season to develop skills that can help him now and in the future.

At 6-foot-8 he was primarily a paint threat in college. His NBA future will rely on him adding a range of perimeter skills — improved ball-handling and a reliable three-point shot (27 per cent in the G-League) foremost among them. During the season there isn’t always time to drill down on an individual’s specific weaknesses but Brissett feels like he’s used his time wisely.

“I feel like I’ve gotten better for sure,” he said. “These individual workouts definitely have me focused on things you don’t think about during the season because, for me, I want to play within the system and just focus on that certain way I can help the team.

“Now the coaches I work out with, they tell me different things and try to help me in ways to better my all-around game because that’s the kind of player they see me as, doing kind of everything on the court so just these individual workouts definitely, I feel, propelled me in the right direction for sure.”

He’s able to focus on basketball in part because Ellai is in good hands. Lots of them, as it turns out.

“My family’s huge. Jamaican families are [usually] large, my mom’s there, my dad’s there,” he said. “Her mom is there and her grandma on her mom’s side is also there.

“She has a whole bunch of support, my friends, my family, everyone goes to see her all the time … that’s why I’m not really worried, I know that she’s going to be loved and taken care of the same way she would even if I was there.”

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