It’s not that VanVleet was upset about splitting his rookie campaign in 2016-17 between the Raptors and their Mississauga, Ont., affiliate, Raptors 905, but he wasn’t exactly thrilled. Hence the word choice.
"The grind of going down there and not wanting to go. Feeling like I was good enough to play [with the Raptors] in my rookie year, but not having the opportunity. Having to go down there and prove what I can do," VanVleet says. "You go down there, you play, you develop your game a little bit and decide what kind of player you want to be and at the same time prove that you belong up here."
Those days of showing and proving are gone. The 25-year-old is firmly entrenched with the big club now, a vital contributor who tallied 15 points Thursday night to help the Raptors take the opener of the NBA Finals 118-109 over the Golden State Warriors.
However, it’s not lost on VanVleet that he’s among several 905 alumni who figure to play important roles as Toronto chases its first title. Raptors teammate Norman Powell cut his teeth with the Raptors development franchise, as did Warriors small forward Alfonzo McKinnie.
Then, of course, there’s Pascal Siakam — the 2017 D-League Finals MVP for Raptors 905 — who scored a team-high 32 points in Game 1 against the Warriors. It was the type of star-making performance that can make one a household name in basketball circles and Warriors power forward Draymond Green acknowledged as much, saying post-game, "He’s become a guy."
Given VanVleet and Siakam’s developmental roots, it’s not entirely crazy to call this Raptors roster the team that 905 helped build. At the very least, the presence of such players highlights the importance of the G-League club, says Dan Tolzman, Raptors assistant general manager and former Raptors 905 GM.
— NBA G League (@nbagleague) May 31, 2019
"It helped to build this young foundation of a grinding mentality for all these guys who went through the same program," Tolzman says. "There was no negative in it. It was simply, ‘This is the program you go through when you’re coming up with the Raptors to help you get to the next step.’
"Everyone bought in and it’s a huge credit to them that we’re having success now as a main team, because those guys bought in at the ground floor when the grinding was the toughest. It’s carried over."
When the Raptors were holding initial discussions about owning and operating a team in the G League — formerly known as the D-League — the goal was to have a team situated as close as possible to the parent club. Early discussions with the NBA were met with some hesitancy, with the league expressing concern about visa issues, given that there’s so much player movement in the development league. Eventually, the Raptors reached a deal to acquire the rights to the Mississauga Power, folding the NBL club and creating the 905, which play in an arena located just 30 kilometres from Scotiabank Arena.
"We just stuck with it: ‘If we’re going to be successful with this, we have to do it right, which is putting it as close to the main team as possible.’ And the league bought into the pitch that we were selling," recalls Tolzman, who was named 905 GM in July 2015, ahead of the team’s inaugural season.
A primary reason for the location was to maximize the development of young players, who could easily shuttle back and forth between Mississauga and downtown Toronto. It was a luxury that not all NBA teams had with their feeder clubs and the Raptors took advantage. According to G League record keeping, the Raptors led the way with 57 assignments in 2015–16 and 70 in 2016–17.
This allowed the likes of VanVleet, Siakam or former Raptors Jakob Poeltl and Bruno Caboclo to essentially get the best of both worlds. They’d play in 905 games, then soak up experience with the big club by attending practices, walk-throughs and shootarounds, sometimes even getting game action.
"There’s been enough times where they’ve played two games in one day," recalls Tolzman. "[Spend] the morning with the G-League team, then dress for the game downtown at night, like a doubleheader. … That’s the beauty of the proximity."
Another advantage was that because 905 belonged to the Raptors, the front office was able to install its own coaches who implemented organizational plays and philosophies. That wasn’t always the case — for example, when Caboclo was assigned to the then-unaffiliated Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the Raptors were displeased with the attention he received from the coaching staff.
"It just really helped with my confidence, feeling out the flow of the actual offence with the Raptors," Powell says, reflecting on his time with the G-League club, where he spent eight games during its inaugural season. "The 905 teams run a similar offence, similar plays. Just being able to have the ball in my hands and make plays and be the go-to guy down there really helped me with my confidence."
Former NBA star Jerry Stackhouse provided a shining example of the strong teaching that was available to 905 players. He joined the club as head coach in 2016 and went on to post a 70-30 record over two seasons, winning a championship and earning coach of the year honours for 2016-17. He also endeared himself to players.
Chat with many 905 alumni and they’ll bring up his influence, unprompted. VanVleet says Stackhouse helped him develop toughness and a stronger defensive mindset, while McKinnie lists the 18-season NBA vet as one of his favourite coaches ever.
"The 905 helped me out a lot. I salute Jerry Stackhouse," says McKinnie, who was waived by the Raptors before signing with the Warriors before this season. "[Stackhouse] helped me develop into that wing defender. [I used to play] like a big guy, but when I came to Toronto, he wanted me to be a three-and-D. I had to transition from guarding bigger guys to guarding wings and the smaller guys."
Stackhouse guided the 905 to a title over the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in 2017, when Siakam was named Finals MVP, while VanVleet netted 28 in the clinching game. The basketball world was hardly paying attention to the duo back then. Instead, it was just a few unproven players grinding their way through the Raptors system.
But as Tolzman sees it, their experience with the 905 laid an important foundation. One that’s helping shoulder a sturdy load very early in the NBA Finals.
"They were just such a key part of that championship run," he says. "We knew that getting them down there, it was about their development on the court as much as it was building confidence and getting them prepared for the stress and the high-pressure situations that a winner-take-all setting gives you. Granted, it’s the G League. It’s a smaller scale. But there’s a lot on the line — those trophies and the rings.
"There’s nothing that you can replace from fighting for a championship."