On a hot Los Angeles day during the dog days of the NBA summer, a large group of players huddle near halfcourt around Rico Hines, who runs daily workouts on the campus of UCLA for a host of future and present stars.
Today, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Paul George are among those suiting up. So, too, are several members of the Toronto Raptors’ vaunted ‘bench mob,’ including Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, and Pascal Siakam, along with teammates OG Anunoby, Norman Powell and Lorenzo Brown.
Before dividing the players into teams — the Raptors’ contingent will remain together — Hines addressed all the players on the court, turning his attention to the group representing the North.
“For you young guys on the Toronto team: Y’all did a hell of a job, man,” Hines said. “Y’all been here the last two summers, as a group. That s*** looks good. It looked good in the season, and it looks good here. Y’all play the right way. Keep it up, fellas. It’s a pleasure to watch. Keep it up.”
The Raps proceeded to put on a clinic in ball movement, effort, communication and defensive intensity. VanVleet and Anunoby were drilling smooth three-pointers; Brown and Wright carved up their opponents off the dribble en route to the hoop; Powell guarded Westbrook one-on-one and stifled the 2017 MVP with a loud block, while Siakam followed up with a monstrous swat of his own on a layup attempt from the reigning MVP, Harden.
You may have heard of Hines, most likely from the series of videos he releases from these scrimmages each summer, which have become a popular training ground for Raptors players over the years — and viral Internet fodder for NBA fans starving to see their favourite players on the court during the off-season.
A UCLA alumnus and former player, Hines has been taking part in the famed summer runs since the days when you’d regularly spot the likes of Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Penny Hardaway going up and down the court. In 2006, Hines took a coaching position with the Golden State Warriors before spending five seasons as an assistant at St. John’s University from 2010-2015, his career occupying much of his time during the summers. During that span, he says, the UCLA runs simply dried up.
Committed to bringing back the famed campus runs, he brought in a group of 10 or so fellow alumni that included the likes Westbrook and Baron Davis. Countless NBAers, including Kevin Durant, followed and soon became regulars. Last year, even LeBron James reached out to Hines and made a rare appearance. Now the scrimmages have once again become a mainstay of players’ summer regimens.
“I’m a big believer in playing,” Hines explains. “I think playing ball should be a part of your everyday workout. You have to practise playing defence, talking when you’re tired, all of it. A lot of people had stopped playing and it was the weirdest thing to me. They became robotic.”
With an emphasis on getting in-game experience, days begin with a workout in the weight room, followed by heated scrimmages held across two courts.
“The only difference between when Magic used to be here and what I do,” says Hines, “is that I treat it like a practice. I’ll call sets, ref the games, and we have a ‘losers’ court and ‘winners’ court. It’s a controlled atmosphere instead of just rolling the ball out to play. Guys like that,” he says, adding that the scrimmages are “basketball in its truest form.”
It’s a part of what has brought Siakam to the UCLA campus each of the last three summers since he was drafted 27th overall by the Raptors in 2016. “The regular is Pascal,” says Hines. Save for a trip to Pretoria, South Africa, as part of the third annual NBA Africa game, he’s been at Hines’s gym every day. “This is all about him,” Hines says. “To see him grow not just on the court but off of it, to see how much he talks…. He has a contagious basketball spirit.”
With several of his teammates already spending their summers in Los Angeles, Siakam encouraged them to join him, and for the second year in a row the Raptors’ entire ‘bench mob’ has been front and centre among the NBA’s biggest names.
It’s not a coincidence that Hines always puts the group on the same team. “That bench mob has great chemistry, and they love playing together. They play the right way, and here they play a lot together. That’s the best way to keep building that chemistry. The Raptors have done a great job in understanding how to take advantage of [the summer run],” he adds. “If I was a GM I would post up here the whole time. Why wouldn’t you? It’s a chance to play together, and to compete.”
It also provides an opportunity to play against — and scout — some of the premier talent they’ll run into throughout the NBA season.
The Raptors’ bench unit opened eyes last season and surprised so many with how effective they were as a group. The five-man group of Siakam, Wright, VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl and C.J. Miles posted the best offensive and defensive rating of any all-bench unit in the NBA that played over 100 minutes together.
But anybody who had been on hand at UCLA to watch them suit up could have seen it coming.
“They play the right way and they share the ball, man,” says Hines, currently a member of the G-League’s Stockton Kings coaching staff. “Other than the Golden State Warriors I haven’t seen a unit share the ball like them. Obviously they’re not the Warriors in terms of personnel, but they pass so well. The open man always gets the ball.”
Based off of conversations I’ve had with new Raptors head coach Nick Nurse this summer, you can expect the team’s deep, young bench to once again spend large chunks of games playing alongside one another. Why mess with a good thing?
From what Hines has seen this summer, it’s Siakam who holds the key to that group taking another step forward as the third-year forward is poised to build off an impressive summer and continue to grow his game.
“With Pascal developing like he is — you have to understand that he’s a playmaker, man,” Hines says, touting Siakam as a Draymond Green-type in that regard. “He can push it, and he’s really [expletive] athletic. I think people will be surprised next season by how much he’s developing and just how good he is. He gets the ball, pushes it, passes it, he’s really unselfish and all about team and trying to win. I think that’s the best part about him.
“And he’s fast,” Hines continues. “So he can get a rebound and push it himself now. That gives him a whole other dynamic, especially given the way the game is being played now. And obviously his defence speaks for itself. He can already switch and play multiple positions defensively, but I think the way his offensive game is developing — he puts pressure on the defence, and can make plays for other people. That’s valuable nowadays.”
Hines’s praise hardly stops there.
“Let’s put it this way: I’ve worked with a lot of people and he’s probably worked harder than anybody.”
As for the cavalcade of the NBA’s elite who have shared the court with him this summer, they too have taken stock of Siakam’s improvement and what could be a monster season ahead for him.
“They love him,” Hines says. “Chris Paul loves him, James Harden loves him. He gets the most praise out of everybody. You hear them saying, ‘Man, he got better.’ He gets the most praise out of anybody that comes through the gym.”
The Raptors’ bench is poised to once again be a game-changing weapon for Nurse and the Raptors. If the off-season is any indication, then it’s Siakam, already rightfully touted as a league-wide breakout candidate, who could take the biggest step forward and help the team reach its full potential.