Every year feels different in the G League. Rules change, roster situations are constantly in flux, NBA needs supersede developmental strategy and global pandemics require bubble seasons with only half a league participating.
The one constant since 2016-17, though, has been this: Raptors 905 are good. Like, always.
The 905 have only missed the playoffs once, in their inaugural 2015-16 season. Even that year, they closed on an 18-9 stretch to turn a tough expansion start into the foundation of a successful program. In Year 2, they won the championship. Depending on how you want to treat the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season – the 905 had won 11 of 14 to pull into a playoff spot at the time the season was cancelled – the 905 can claim to hold a five-year post-season streak. That is the longest in the G League and a veritable miracle given the annual (and sometimes daily) tumult of the league.
Continuing the streak could be a real challenge for 2021-22. Head coach Patrick Mutombo preaches a “just win” philosophy, believing that development through winning is the best way to develop winners. Mutombo’s first turn as head coach last year showed how those two ideas can work together, with a number of players from the playoff-bound 905 earning NBA opportunities. That team was much older and more experienced than this year’s. The NBA Raptors prioritized partially guaranteed contracts at the back of their training camp roster, leaving fewer camp-to-905 transfers with valuable experience. Instead, this year’s team is heavy on players who are unproven and, in a few cases, have played sparingly since 2019-20.
What follows is a look at some of the key storylines to follow when the 905 get underway Nov. 11 at Paramount Fine Foods Centre in Mississauga.
(Note: Broadcast plans are still being finalized as of this writing. It’s expected that most of the 905 schedule will air on Canadian TV, with non-televised games available to stream.)
The 905 wrapped up their pre-season Thursday with a final untelevised exhibition game. Six players were cut afterward, getting the roster down to the required 10, plus the two Raptors on two-way contracts and any future Raptors assignments.
The players cut were Tahj Eaddy, Blake Francis and Tristan Jarrett (draft picks), Akia Pruitt and Zena Edosomwan (open tryout players) and Trey McBridge (player pool addition). There are no surprises there, as that group, as all six would have had to knock off someone already pencilled in for a role before camp. The player with the most tenuous hold on a spot, open tryout addition Obadiah Noel, had an excellent camp to lock down the final roster spot.
The roster looks as follows:
A return to normalcy, we hope, Part 1
The 2019-20 season was cut short and the 2020-21 season was abbreviated and held in a bubble over a short window of time. The entire G League is, of course, hoping this year is closer to what we’ve become accustomed to on the junior circuit. The G League thrives on chaos, but maybe not that much chaos.
For the 905, the border adds an extra layer of complexity. In addition to the usual Visa hurdles, the team also wanted to ensure their full roster and staff were fully vaccinated for the beginning of the season. Both of those items are now in the rear view, as the entire roster is expected to be available to participate (unless injured) and travel right out of the gate.
One wrinkle to the return to “normal” is that this G League season is actually split into two sub-seasons. The 905 will play in a 14-game tournament to start the year that concludes at the Winter Showcase Dec. 19-22, then a 36-game regular season after that. The top six teams in each conference from the 36-game portion qualify for the playoffs.
A return to normalcy, we hope, Part 2
The shorter G League bubble season isn’t the only thing that’s disrupted the usual 905 setup the last two years. In each of those seasons, the NBA Raptors have required all hands on deck for depth due to injuries and other issues. The result is that after setting league records for assignment aggressiveness in their early years, the 905 have had very little Raptors presence of late.
The hope is that this year will see a return to the aggressive up-and-down strategy of prior years, where developing talent receive ample playing time and aren’t too far away from the NBA club if needed. A record 20 905ers have even done the rare “Gardiner Doubleheader,” playing for both squads in the same day.
Getting young players significant time to play, make mistakes and apply lessons is a pillar of the team’s developmental model. It’s also necessary for the 905, who only have eight healthy bodies at the moment and will need at least their two-way players for the Nov. 11 opener, and hopefully more.
Which of – and how much of - Malachi Flynn or Dalano Banton do we see?
David Johnson is a lock to spend most of his time with the 905. Justin Champagnie, while seeing occasional NBA time right now, will be down there a lot, too. The question that follows is whether any of the team’s other G League-eligible players – Malachi Flynn, Dalano Banton, Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa – will be sent down. I think you can safely rule out Barnes.
On the surface, one of the two young point guards should see 905 time, or maybe even both. Banton has been a revelation early on but would benefit from extended G League time to continue developing the weaker parts of his game and have him more rotation-ready for later in the season or next season. Flynn, meanwhile, often appears to have graduated beyond the G League from an on-court perspective, but if he falls back out of the rotation, it’s better to be getting minutes somewhere than nowhere.
Justin Champagnie, fan favourite in waiting
There’s a reason Champagnie drew praise from Nick Nurse in the pre-season and saw minutes to back that up. It’s the same reason he’s unexpectedly played more minutes than Isaac Bonga and Sam Dekker.
Champagnie is tough, with a level of feel and timing that allow that skill to play up. He hunts rebounds at both ends at a level beyond his six-foot-six height, is always on the lookout for cutting opportunities off the ball and is a game defender against smaller forwards or some larger guards. It’s not hard to see a few things clicking and Champagnie becoming an energy piece at the NBA level in time, especially if his three-point shot comes along to any degree.
He has Mississauga favourite written all over him with his style of play, and getting a few minutes of introduction to the fan base with the NBA Raptors won’t hurt.
David Johnson: Sophomore slump, or comeback of the year?
One of the Raptors’ two second-round picks this year, Johnson’s been nearly as invisible since camp opened as he was on that awkward summer weekend where the lack of a passport kept him from joining Banton and Barnes in Toronto. In terms of team investment and general curiosity, he’s probably the 905er to watch early on, because we haven’t seen a lot of him of late.
Johnson is, admittedly, not a player I was particularly high on at draft time. I had him ranked No. 53, with a few names ahead of him still available (including Champagnie) when the Raptors selected. It’s not that the potential as a six-foot-five slashing guard isn’t there. Instead, it’s that Johnson didn’t really improve much in his second year at Louisville, somewhat of a red flag, and you can only chalk so much of that up to a split backcourt with Carlik Jones. Before getting injured at Summer League, Johnson was said to have shot the lights out in team sessions, and the addition of a three-point shot and/or a more consistent level of defensive execution would reignite my interest.
The Antetokounmpo that was promised. Kind of.
The jokes about the Giannis pursuit write themselves. Underneath them, though, is a genuine curiosity about what the youngest Antetokounmpo brother may develop into. Remember, Giannis was far from the player he is now upon entering the league, and brothers Thanasis and Kostas both required heavy G League time to aide their development.
Alex remains somewhat raw after one pro year with a reserve club in Spain, but this is the brother Giannis has said often he believed could be even better than the two-time MVP and reigning NBA champion. Expectations should be nowhere near that high, of course. The 905 simply helping Alex get on to the NBA radar for next summer would be a victory.
Will Breein Tyree impress again once healthy?
Prior to tearing his ACL last season, Tyree was the standout 905 player. That was a bit of a shocker, too, as the team was full of more highly touted pieces and Tyree was a late addition to the Raptors mix (thanks, Miami Heat, who opted not to participate in the G League bubble, leaving Tyree available after camp). Known more for his scoring ability in college, Tyree was a monster defending at the point of attack for the 905, freeing Gary Payton II to guard all of the other spots on the floor, sometimes simultaneously it seemed.
The Raptors like Tyree so much that they gave him an Exhibit 10 deal despite the fact that he’s still working his way back from that injury, allowing him to collect a bonus on top of his G League salary. Tyree has now been cleared for live play and the hope is that he’ll be back early in the season.
Where are Josh Hall and Ashton Hagans developmentally after de facto gap years?
The Oklahoma City Thunder signed Hall to a two-way deal last year after he opted to skip college and subsequently went undrafted. The Thunder then sent Hall to the G League for just a single game and played him on and off at the NBA level for 336 total minutes.
It’s not exactly bold to say the Thunder situation may not have been ideal for all developing players at once last year. Hall really only popped in a season finale where he had 25 points and 10 rebounds, and some of his season-long numbers were shaky. At the same time, Hall was effectively a prep-to-pros developmental case and didn’t seem to be put in the best of situations.
Hall’s had a strong enough camp with the 905 that he could find himself starting alongside Champagnie rather than backing him up.
Hagans has been similarly out of sight, albeit for very different reasons. Signed by Minnesota last year, Hagans was waived from his two-way deal for violating the G League’s COVID protocols. He then joined the Raptors for Summer League, only to suffer a bad ankle injury that he’s still working his way back from (it didn’t require surgery and, like Tyree, the hope is Hagans won’t miss too much time).
Where is the Kentucky product at some 20 months after we last saw him in meaningful action? Given the potential lack of offensive creation on this roster, the 905 are hoping somewhere good.
Who is the next 905-to-NBA success story?
The 905 program has helped turn G Leaguers into two-ways, two-ways into NBA players and fringe NBA players into rotation players. It’s also helped elevate players to other NBA programs, a bit of an odd G League wrinkle that you just have to live with. If history is any indicator, someone from this group will improve their pro outlook between now and April.
Hall, who I am quite high on as a G League piece, and Tyree, if healthy, would be the most obvious guesses. Keep an eye on open tryout player Obadiah Noel, too, who’s shown more defensively than his college tape would have predicted.
Do any other Raptors see assignment time? The Raptors have until Monday to decide on the contracts of Isaac Bonga and Sam Dekker. Whichever remains on the roster could see some 905 time to stay fresh and continue working on their games, though both would have to grant permission to be assigned. The Raptors have also used the 905 for rehab stints as injured players work their way back in recent years.
Year 2 of the G League Ignite program: The incoming Ignite class isn’t quite as spicy as last year’s, which was headlined by Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga. Jaden Hardy, Dyson Daniels and Michael Foster are all on the draft radar, though, and 17-year-old Scoot Henderson is a unique experiment. How that group looks in a sort-of exhibition barnstorming approach to the second half of the season will be fun to track.
What’s next for Chad Sanders? This will be Sanders’ fourth season in the general manager chair for the 905 and his fifth year with the organization overall. At the risk of seeming like I’m running the guy out of town, I do wonder at what point an executive’s development – especially with so much success at this level – requires a new challenge.
No Canadians: For the first time in franchise history, the 905 are not rostering a Canadian player. Blame Banton, who was expected to see time with the team and has outperformed his development plan to date. No word on if Michael Grange is open to a 10-day to provide some spacing and keep the streak intact.