Five Summer League storylines to watch: Key Raptors and Canadians around the NBA

Toronto Raptors' Dalano Banton shoots around Houston Rockets' Marcus Foster during the first half of an NBA summer league basketball game Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

NBA Basketball is back… kind of. 

The NBA Summer League kicked off on Thursday evening in Las Vegas and there have already been a fair amount of exciting moments, from No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero looking like a superstar to Canadians around the NBA filling up the scoresheets in their debuts. 

The Toronto Raptors are a little late to the party, set to open play against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, July 9 at 3:30 pm. The Raptors will also face Chicago on July 12, Utah on July 13, and Miami on July 15, hoping to be one of two teams with the best records in order to advance to the Championship Game on Sunday, July 17. 

While Summer League is all fun and games for the viewers back home, it’s an important opportunity for fringe NBA players to showcase what they’ve been working on over the summer and to stand out against high-level competition, hoping to impress evaluators around the league in order fulfill the lifelong dream of earning an NBA contract. The Raptors have brought in a versatile 15-man Summer League roster, with everyone on the team getting a chance to compete for one of the final remaining spots on the Raptors. 

“I'm trying to evaluate which guys can help us in maybe a role-situation,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of what he is looking for in Summer League. “What unique thing do they do or what high-level unique skill do they have that will translate?”

From key Raptors to the Canadians around the NBA, here are the five biggest storylines to watch for in Summer League:

1. How NBA-ready is Christian Koloko

Christian Koloko was selected 33rd overall by the Raptors in the 2022 NBA draft due to his upside and versatility, but the Duala, Cameroon-native sure does fit a lot of needs for the Raptors right now. How comfortable he looks in Summer League should go a long way to show how much he will be able to contribute in the NBA as a rookie. 

Koloko is the only traditional centre on the Raptors roster, with a 7-foot-1 frame and 7-foot-5 wingspan, and he immediately becomes the biggest player and the best rim-protector they have. Koloko averaged 12.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game in his junior year at the University of Arizona, winning the 2021-22 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player and was an All-Pac-12 First Team choice.

He is exactly the type of rim-protector that the Raptors were missing last season, and his ability to slot in and play drop-defence gives the Raptors a look than they were missing last season, when they were forced to rely on their frantic, switch-everything scheme all the time. 

At 22 years old, the Raptors will hope that Koloko can contribute to the NBA as soon as his rookie season, and Summer League should show just how ready he is. Is he cleaning up his teammates’ defensive mistakes on the back end? Is he switching at the end of the shot clock and avoiding blow-bys?

Is he catching pocket passes and lobs for finishes? Is he maybe even knocking down pick-and-pop jumpers? Not that it would be the end of the world if Koloko doesn’t look super comfortable in Summer League, but it would mean that he likely starts his year in the G League with the 905. For a Raptors that lacks a ton of centre depth and doesn’t have a traditional rim-protector outside of Koloko, they would prefer that not be the case.

2. Has Dalano Banton improved on his biggest swing skills? 

Toronto-native Dalano Banton should have a lot of responsibility in Summer League after playing 64 games in the NBA last season and thoroughly dominating the G League whenever in the seven games he was sent down, averaging 24/9/6 on 54/39/55 shooting splits with the 905. 

Now, Banton begins his mission of not only having the Raptors pick up his option to fully guarantee his contract for the 2022-23 season, but also of winning the backup point guard spot after the team opted to prioritize other needs in free agency, seeming to give Banton and Malachi Flynn another opportunity to earn those minutes. 

If Banton is going to show the Raptors brass that he is capable of playing in the rotation next season, he will need to show that he has improved on some of his biggest swing skills during the offseason. Namely, Banton will need to showcase that he has improved as an outside shooting in order to help the spacing and to play both on the ball and off of it, improving on his 25.5 three-point percentage from last season and, more importantly, his 21.1 percent catch-and-shoot percent from three last season. 

Plus, while Banton is an elite playmaker who sees all levels of the court, he needs to improve his ball-handling in order to more effectively drive into tight areas and get more paint touches in order to leverage those playmaking instincts and spray out passes to teammates. With such little guard depth on the Raptors, Banton has a big opportunity to prove that he is ready to take the next step in his development, and that starts with leading this team and being one of the best players in all of Summer League. 

3. Does Justin Champagnie earn a contract? 

Justin Champagnie is another player fighting for a roster spot next season but unlike Banton, who has a small guarantee that the Raptors will likely pick up, Champagnie is coming off a two-way deal and remains unsigned, needing to sign a new contract with the Raptors if he hopes to stick around. With the roster crunch that the Raptors are dealing with, he is going to have to earn that contract by outplaying the likes of D.J. Wilson, Armoni Brooks and David Johnson.

Champagnie came out of nowhere last season by earning a spot in the rotation early in the season with his energy and elite rebounding chops. His style of play fit what the Raptors were trying to do as a versatile and switchy defender who could play in transition and rebound with the best of them on both sides of the ball. However, Champagnie’s offensive limitations became more pronounced as the season went on, as he was an unwilling three-point shooter who took just 0.8 attempts per game and did most of his work from the corners, hurting the Raptors’ spacing when he was positioned above the break, eventually leading to him losing his spot in the rotation. 

Champagnie thrived in the G League in the final 14 games of the season, expanding his offensive repertoire there. He shot 6.3 threes a game and nailed 40.9 percent of them while getting more reps handling the ball as a primary offensive option. Whether or not that can translate to the NBA is going to determine his fate with the Raptors. 

4. Who else stands out on the Raptors 

While Koloko, Banton and Champagnie are all sure to play a big role on the team, there are 12 other guys on the roster looking to make a splash for the Raptors. After all, Summer League is an opportunity for guys to play in front of executives from all 30 teams, with everyone without a contract competing for a spot either on the Raptors or with another NBA team. 

Most notably, the Raptors have brought Canadian energy big man Abu Kigab out of Boise State, two-way signee Ron Harper Jr. out of Rutgers, shooters Alex Barcello from BYU and Ryan Hawkins from Creighton, point guard Jeff Dowtin from Rhode Island, and returnees Wilson, Brooks, and Johnson from the Raptors and the 905 (Wilson and Brooks both have small guarantees on their deals but still have to earn a roster spot).

As we know, in order to play on the Raptors you have to be sound defensively and bring a ton of energy and competitiveness, and it’s going to be no different in Summer League as these guys compete for minutes. Plus, as Nurse alluded to, showcasing one elite skill or proving that you can fill a niche role that the team lacks always goes a long way when it comes to earning a roster spot. The Raptors will look for guys who can stand out while still playing within themselves and being unselfish, and that is always a tough balance to strike. 

5. Canadians around the NBA 

With 17 Canadians on NBA Summer League rosters, there is no shortage of homegrown talent to keep an eye on around the NBA. Outside of Banton and Kigab on the Raptors, Canada has Mfiondu Kabengele on the Celtics, Noah Kirkwood on the Nets, A.J. Lawson on the Mavericks, Mychal Mulder on the Heat, Caleb Houstan on the Magic, Shaedon Sharpe and Kyle Alexander on the Trailblazers, Simi Shittu, Bennedict Mathurin, Andrew Nembhard, and Chris Duarte on the Pacers, Jahvon Blair on the Knicks, Marial Shayok on the Timberwolves, Josh Primo on the Spurs, and Eugene Omoruyi on the Thunder. 

The Canucks that have already played have gotten off to impressive starts, with Lawson dropping 28 points and 6-made threes in his debut, Mathurin dropping 23 points and 6-made threes off of some nice passes from Nembhard, and Houstan and Primo each dropping 20 points and 5-made threes. 

Unfortunately, Canada’s mystery man Shaedon Sharpe left his debut on Thursday night with 4:35 remaining in the first quarter due to a shoulder injury and did not return. He is expected to get an MRI. 

Whether it’s the Raptors competing to earn roster spots or the Canadians around the NBA showcasing their games to a national audience for the first time, the NBA Summer League is shaping up to be a can’t-miss event for basketball fans in Canada.

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