Aron Baynes has played 469 games across his eight NBA seasons and a good number more over three years playing professionally in Europe before making the jump to North America. He won an NBA championship in 2014 with the San Antonio Spurs. He’s suited up for the Australian national team – his beloved green and gold – nearly every summer he’s had a chance, counting three World Cups and two Olympics on his resume.
There were four NCAA tournament appearances in his four years at Washington State, and another 122 games played there.
It’s a lot of years and a lot of games. But what about the one he played on March 31, 2018 against the Raptors when he was a member of the Boston Celtics? Boston won 110-99.
Does he remember that one?
Turns out he does (after some prompting, but whatever.)
That night he made his first five field goals – three long twos and then consecutive three pointers – all by the midway point of the first quarter. It was notable because Baynes hasn’t been prone to scoring flurries in his career, but also because until that point he had taken only 19 threes in career, making just one – more than three years prior.
Needless to say, the Raptors weren’t exactly sprinting out to run him off the line.
“I remember definitely going out there,” he said on an introductory conference call Wednesday after he signed with the Raptors as a free agent on Sunday. “And you know, you're going to remember a game when you go 2-of-2 the first time in your career. So yeah, definitely good memories. But yeah, I haven't looked back since and still trying to get better.”
It’s not too much of a stretch to say it was the game – even the moment – that started him on a journey that led him to signing with Toronto on a two-year deal for $14.3 million (albeit with no guarantee on the second year) that will likely see him become the team’s starting centre in the wake of the departure of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol.
The season following his breakout game against the Raptors, Baynes took 61 threes and made 21 while mostly coming off the bench for the Celtics. Last season -- having moved on to the Phoenix Suns -- he stepped out to the three-point line 169 times in 42 games, converting on 35 per cent, or right about the league average, including a magical night against Portland when he knocked down nine threes on 14 attempts on his way to a career-high 37 points.
Given the nature of the way the game has changed, being able to draw defences out to the three-point line has become a vital tool in a big man’s arsenal, and given the five-out, drive-and-kick attack favoured by the Raptors under Nick Nurse, it’s become essential for bigs that play for Toronto.
For Baynes, those two shots against the Raptors had been a long time coming, a part of his game he’d been working on since his rookie season with the Spurs, under the guidance of renowned shooting coach Chip Engelland, but it took years for him to be comfortable shooting threes in an NBA game.
With the Spurs, his role was fairly limited, so he wasn’t in a position to start letting it fly from deep. In his two years with the Detroit Pistons then-head coach Stan Van Gundy hadn’t fully embraced the ‘stretch-5’ concept, so it wasn’t really on the menu there.
But Baynes kept at it, putting his time in after regular practice honing a shot he rarely took but he believed could extend his career.
In Boston, both head coach Brad Stevens and president Danny Ainge would see him stretching out his range after practice and made a point of letting him know he had a green light.
“I'd had numerous discussions with both Brad and Danny and they kept telling me to shoot the ball,” Baynes recalled. “And you're a little bit hesitant at first because it's something different in the NBA. I've been doing it internationally for a while, but it's a little bit different for the NBA game, and as soon as you see one go down though, then you don't see a poor reaction from the coach or anyone else, everyone's like, ‘come on, keep shooting that’ it doesn't take long to buy into it and want to take as many as you can if they're good shots.
"So yeah, that's when I really started realizing that if I just slow down and don't rush things and shoot within rhythm, it's usually a pretty good shot.”
Prior to that night, Baynes’ game was very much about sticking to his knitting: bone-crunching screens, using his barrel chest to take up offensive players’ space and otherwise making trips into the paint an unfortunate experience for others, all while commanding the defence vocally from the back and cleaning up well around the basket on offence.
All those qualities are still very much part of the Baynes experience, but being able to spread the floor and be a credible above-the-line outlet or a pick-and-pop threat has given Baynes – who will turn 34 before the season starts in December – added momentum at a stage when a lot of careers are beginning to wind down.
While losing Gasol and Ibaka in a single weekend is nothing to be glossed over, between Baynes’ ability to keep opponents honest from deep and his reputation as one of the league’s better team defenders, the hope is he will be a more than adequate replacement. He’s eager to lend his pleasing Australian accent to the cause of directing traffic on defence.
“As much as the offence is fun, I always love playing defence,” said Baynes. “I think that is where you can really change a game and I always try and lock in on that first and foremost. The best way for me to do that is being vocal and talking to everyone. I would rather err on the side of talking too much than not talking enough on defence. I think with communication you can sort out a lot of mistakes that will happen because inevitably they are going to when you play against the best players in the world.
“I’m looking forward to going out there and playing within Nick’s system. I know it’s going to be a little bit different, we’ll give teams different looks, but that makes it even more entertaining for me. It’s always fun when you see a team come down and there’s a bit of confusion in their faces. You know you are doing something right and the game is hopefully going to swing a bit in your favour as soon as you see that.’
It’s a quality that should make him a good fit in Toronto and one the main reasons the Raptors turned to him almost instantly after it was clear that both Ibaka and Gasol were not going to return as they signed in Los Angeles with the Clippers and the Lakers, respectively.
Baynes was happy to get the call.
“Yeah, 48 hours is pretty late in this recent free agency,” said Baynes. “It was a long time. It was a very long 48 hours. But they say good things come to those who wait so I was looking forward to a few opportunities out there and this was definitely one of them. I knew there was always an option and I was just hoping for a good situation.”
His road to the Raptors started, it turns out, on a pair of made threes.