Intrigue surrounds revamped Raptors 905 as G League season approaches

Stephen F. Austin guard Kevon Harris reacts following a play as Duke guard Tre Jones (3) looks on during overtime in an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. (Gerry Broome/AP)

TORONTO -- If you’re looking for an alternative pro basketball solution while the Toronto Raptors have done nothing but flounder, beginning their season in a 2-8 hole, there’s some good news for you as Raptors 905, Toronto’s G League affiliate, is set to begin its season in February.

Taking place in the same Disney World bubble that the NBA used to complete their season in the summer, the 2021 G League campaign promises, as history has shown, to at least be safer and, perhaps, a more consistent product than even the one its older sibling is rolling out these days with the ongoing threat of COVID-19 greatly impacting the NBA at the moment.

On Monday, the G League held its annual draft where the 905 were fortunate enough to own two picks in the first round, selecting Stephen F. Austin senior guard Kevon Harris No. 11 overall and Gary Payton II, who appeared in 29 games for the Washington Wizards last season, No. 15 overall.

“Kevon Harris had an appeal to us because he was the conference player of the year in the Southland Conference, he was first-team All-Southland and two-time All-Southland [second team]. So he had an amazing career at Stephen F. Austin,” said Raptors 905 GM Chad Sanders. “He was the guy on that team that led his team to win over Duke [in Nov. 2019], which is probably the highlight of his college career and kind of his coming-out party.

“... So he's a wing that can put it on the floor and create his own a little bit and his catch-and-shoot from three has shown to be effective. So now it's just putting him into our system and seeing what we can turn him into.”

With Harris, the 905 got the opportunity to draft a rookie who originally wasn’t available as he initially signed an Exhibit-10 contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, but due to the Lakers opting out of the G League season this year, he was made available in the G League draft and Sanders pounced.

By drafting Harris as a rookie, the 905 have control of him for the next couple years, something that isn’t the case for Payton.

The son of Hall-of-Famer Gary Payton, who played for the Seattle SuperSonics for the better part of 13 NBA seasons, the younger Payton hasn’t had as blessed of a career as his father but still carries his old man’s spirit as a defensive stopper on the perimeter.

Unlike Harris, Payton is on loan to them from the South Bay Lakers – Los Angeles’ affiliate of the same name – and will be expected to return after this season.

In total, including the 905, there will be just 18 teams participating in the G League bubble, including the newly formed G League Ignite, a new club designed for elite NBA Draft-eligible players such as Jonathan Kuminga and Jalen Green -- a pair of dynamic youngsters who opted to sign up for this professional opportunity instead of playing college hoops as they prepare for the draft.

“It’s exciting and a great opportunity for people to see talent play more of a professional level than necessarily the NCAA,” said Courtney Charles, 905 VP of basketball and franchise operations. “The following and the exposure that they've been able to bring to the Ignite team to the level in the G League has also been something that's really good.”

But while a lot of the focus of the G League’s promotion and marketing will surely centre around the excitement that this Ignite team has been garnering, in the lead-up to the season, for those more interested in the current plight of the Raptors, paying attention to what their minor-league affiliate does will still be important.

Though they haven’t had to deal with the ramifications of the pandemic yet, the chances that the Raptors won’t have to combat situations similar to that of the Boston Celtics have been experiencing of late is probably wishful thinking at best.

Therefore, though it hasn’t been determined yet if it may be allowed, there’s a chance the Raptors could leverage the 905 in times of emergency and bring guys up from that team to help fill roster spots in case they’re short.

If the NBA passes a rule allowing any player on their G League team eligible for a call-up by the parent club -- not just players that said parent has rights to -- in times of emergency, the Raptors could have an interesting piece on their hands in Canadian Nik Stauskas.

As Sanders confirmed with Sportsnet, Stauskas is joining the 905, taking up the new designated veteran slot on the roster, something that allows a team to add a player with five or more years of NBA experience to their G League roster without needing to draft them.

Given how much more developed Stauskas will be compared to some of the peers he’ll see in the G League, he could be poised for a big year with the 905.

“A hometown kid that's scratched the surface of the NBA,” said Sanders. “He's bounced around to couple of different teams and we felt like he provided something to our team that could really help us and we look forward to the opportunity to work with him.”

And even more importantly than a possible COVID protection measure, with the 905 playing in Disney World, the Raptors are able to keep one of their best competitive advantages due to the fact that they’re calling Tampa, Fla., their temporary home.

Though not as close a drive as Mississauga to Toronto, the proximity is still close enough that the Raptors could, theoretically, shuttle players like, say, Jalen Harris or Malachi Flynn back and forth between the big and small club to give guys reps.

This, of course, comes with the caveat that we don’t know what the health and safety protocols around bringing guys up and down might be yet, but it sounds like the option will be on the table for the Raptors if they want to take it.

“I'd say from a logistics standpoint, it's definitely going to be easier for us to move guys back and forth, if it allows,” said Sanders. “I think, with the situation at hand, you see rosters all over the NBA are losing bodies due to contact tracing and things like that. So depending on if we can send goes back and forth I definitely think from a logistics standpoint it is going to be easier.

“We just put them in a car with our security and travel back and forth rather than having to put them on a commercial flight and fly them across the country like some other teams might have to deal with.”

Toronto’s player development program has been rightly praised over the years thanks in part to the way it’s leveraged the 905. Even though this season will be a little different, it looks like this aspect of their program won’t be as impacted as greatly maybe as one first thought.

“We're in the business of getting our players better and we're in the business of winning championships,” said Charles.

When the ball tips on their season next month, the 905 will take up the mantle once again and resume working their way towards this goal.

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