Raptors training camp battle: Who will crack the roster this year?

Toronto Raptors forward Freddie Gillespie (55) and Philadelphia 76ers' Georges Niang, right, battle for the ball during first half pre-season NBA basketball action in Toronto on Monday Oct. 4, 2021. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Every coach wants a competitive training camp.

Complacency can invite poor habits early in a season, and there’s no better way to combat that than battles for touches, roles and jobs up and down the roster. If things aren’t “fluid” – a popular word in just about every Toronto Raptors camp the last few years – then guys aren’t being pushed enough.

The Raptors don’t have any of those problems right now. They came into camp with eight or nine potential starters, upwards of 11 potential rotation players and 20 players under contract, 19 of whom have legitimate claims at a roster spot. That’s a lot of guys to get a look at in a window that’s officially just 19 days long from the first full camp session to the roster cut-down date on Oct. 16.

Not even absences to four presumed rotation players – Pascal Siakam (shoulder), Khem Birch (health and safety protocols), Chris Boucher (finger) and Yuta Watanabe (calf) – could create opportunity for those fighting at the fringes to get real opportunity to show their stuff. Sam Dekker, Ishmail Wainright and Reggie Perry have combined for just 13 minutes played over three pre-season outings. With only a Monday-Tuesday back-to-back left for those competing for spots to make their closing statements, the leverage of these next two days feels immense.

To be clear, the Raptors aren’t judging these players solely on their pre-season performance. Some of them have been in the system as far back as the weeks before Las Vegas Summer League. The Raptors’ player development incubator was able to move to something closer to “normal” this summer after a lost 2020 off-season, meaning Dekker, Wainright, Isaac Bonga and the rookies have been trying to prove themselves for months. (Perry was a later addition, while Watanabe and Freddie Gillespie, obviously, started making their cases last season.)

Every year, I attempt to handicap the race for the final roster spots. We’ve had some success doing that, dating back to 2013-14.

As you can see, this all became more complicated with the introduction of Raptors 905 and, subsequently, two-way contracts.

When trying to sort through the battle for the final few spots, there are a number of factors to consider: Talent, near-term rotation utility, long-term upside, eligibility for the G League, contract guarantees, and salary cap and luxury tax factors. There’s also the matter of balancing the depth chart, though the Raptors have consistently used that as a tiebreaker rather than a determining factor, like when they kept Malcolm Miller over presumed third point guard options Isaiah Taylor and Cam Payne (before he became this Cam Payne).

What follows is a look at all of the players still fighting for a roster spot with the Raptors and the relevant factors at play for them.

Yuta Watanabe

$375K guaranteed, contract fully guarantees on opening day, UFA with Early Bird rights at end of season, ineligible for Raptors 905 if waived, requires permission for Raptors 905 if on NBA roster.

Nick Nurse more or less confirmed that Watananbe’s roster spot was safe last week when revealing that he had suffered a calf injury that would likely end his pre-season. The partial guarantee here feels like purely an accounting note – Watanabe beat out Oshae Brissett for a roster spot last year in camp, contributed at times throughout the season, then had a very strong summer across Olympic play with Japan and the earlier parts of camp.

A multi-position defender who has Nurse’s trust to execute the team’s aggressive system, the Raptors will encourage Watanabe to continue expanding his offensive game this year.

He’s an NBA-calibre player for his defence and feel alone, and if the confidence continues to grow on offence, he could be a staple of the second unit.

Sam Dekker

$350K guaranteed, contract fully guarantees on opening day, UFA with Non-Bird rights at end of season, ineligible for Raptors 905 if waived, requires permission for Raptors 905 if on NBA roster.

Perhaps it’s Dekker’s longer track record that’s kept him from getting to actually show his growth in a setting Raptors fans can see. A former first-round pick and four-year NBA veteran, Dekker spent the past two seasons expanding his game in Russia and Turkey, developing a much better three-point stroke that helps open up his biggest strength: Attacking seams in the defence and aggressive closeouts.

The Raptors opted not to task Dekker with Summer League action and have barely played him in the pre-season. That likely means his chances at a roster spot hinge on how he’s been shooting the ball behind closed doors. The Raptors are light on shooting, so that skill, plus the sizable partial guarantee, give Dekker an inside edge.

Ishmail Wainright

$250K guaranteed, $125K guaranteed for next season, RFA with Early Bird rights at end of 2022-23 season, ineligible for Raptors 905 if waived, eligible for Raptors 905 if on NBA roster.

The standout personality from Summer League, Wainright has been largely out of sight in pre-season so far.

On the one hand, that could be because Wainright had a great showing in Vegas and earlier in camp, and as a 27-year-old veteran is more of a known commodity. On the other, Wainright’s hardly a sure thing to be a functional offensive player at the NBA level.

A massive six-foot-five, 235-pound, positionless defender, Wainright has shot the ball fairly well this summer but has only attempted one triple in the pre-season. The Raptors will lean towards the larger sample, anyway, it’s just a slight limitation that he hasn’t been able to show it in game action.

Wainright has a few ancillary factors working in his favour, including his eligibility for the 905 as an NBA rookie and a small guarantee in the second year of his deal, showing a bit of additional long-term investment from the team. Wainright’s deal is also the one of the Dekker-Wainright-Bonga battle that doesn’t guarantee in full on opening night. What that means is that if the Raptors were considering keeping just 14 players eventually to help insulate themselves from the tax, they could keep Wainright on the roster for 47 days before accruing any additional cap hit beyond his guarantee.

Isaac Bonga

$200K guaranteed, contract fully guarantees on opening day, UFA with Non-Bird rights at end of season, ineligible for Raptors 905 if waived, requires permission for Raptors 905 if on NBA roster.

Still just 21 and with three years of NBA experience under his belt, where Bonga sits on his personal development curve is an open question.

Is he the victim of changing circumstances a number of times, from the Lakers’ G League program to a starting role in Washington to next to no role whatsoever? Is he the type of second-draft candidate who just needs a better developmental environment to unlock his game? Or does the age hide that he’s had 1,800 minutes of NBA opportunity and only shown flashes? I’d lean toward the former answers, as would the Raptors.

Bonga has an intriguing handle and overall skillset for a six-foot-eight player, and while he certainly needs more G League reps – Bonga would have to approve an assignment to Raptors 905, as he’s in his fourth season – he’s a higher-ceiling upside play compared to some of the higher-floor options he’s competing with.

Freddie Gillespie

$50K guaranteed, contract fully guarantees on opening day, RFA with Early Bird rights at end of season, eligible for Raptors 905 if waived but Memphis holds G League rights, eligible for Raptors 905 if on NBA roster, eligible for two-way contract.

It’s been a tough summer for Gillespie. After emerging as one of the few feel-good stories of the team’s Tampa season, he’s struggled to replicate the success of his first 20 NBA games.

In Vegas, Gillespie defended quite well but shot a woeful 22.7 per cent from the floor, almost entirely on shots in the paint, and he developed a penchant for dropping passes that would make Marquise Brown blush.

It hasn’t gone much better in the pre-season, as Gillespie’s racked up eight fouls and three turnovers to two points in 22 minutes, often looking out of place at both ends.

Gillespie is incredibly well-liked and 20 games of actual NBA play should carry weight, however, by declining to sign anyone taller than six-foot-nine, the Raptors signalled they don’t particularly care about traditional centre depth, which is Gillespie’s best argument for inclusion right now.

Reggie Perry

Exhibit 10 contract (non-guaranteed minimum contract if he makes the team, a $50,000 bonus if he’s waived and stays with Raptors 905 long enough), eligible for Raptors 905 if waived, eligible for Raptors 905 if on NBA roster, eligible for two-way contract.

Perry was the last player added to the camp roster as yet another somewhat undersized centre (six-foot-eight, 250 pounds). Given the number of legitimate third-string calibre centres available for cheap this off-season, the Raptors pretty clearly aren’t worried about playing small often. As a result, Perry’s path to a roster spot is probably having a good camp, joining the 905 as an Exhibit 10 player and impressing there in case a roster spot opens up later on, with Toronto or another team.

Perry had a really strong G League campaign last year, so he’s a nice piece for head coach Patrick Mutombo to start building with.

Justin Champagnie and David Johnson

Two-way contracts.

Technically, players on two-way contracts can be converted to standard NBA deals or waived without a cap or tax hit. That means no two-way player is ever really a lock for the roster, as they’re very flexible spots.

Still, the Raptors spent a second-round pick on Johnson, who possesses a potential skillset in shorter supply within their system right now, and he’ll be given ample opportunity to develop in Mississauga to start the year.

Champagnie, meanwhile, has been a standout in camp, but there’s little reason to convert him to an NBA deal yet, as two-way players will be afforded 50 games on the active NBA roster this season. In other words, the Raptors don’t have to make a decision on converting Champagnie until late in the year.

If there were a number of other players in camp fighting for a two-way, it might make sense to convert Champagnie and give his two-way to someone else. In this case, most of the competitors aren’t eligible for two-way deals because their partial guarantees are too large.

Other considerations

It’s always possible the team does something off the board here. One such option is to keep only 14 players to give them extra room under the tax. In that scenario, they’d likely keep Wainright as a 15th man for at least a chunk of the season. The likelier outcome is taking the best roster forward with them and sorting out the tax situation later, perhaps by dealing Goran Dragic.

Another scenario could see the Raptors claim or sign a player cut by another team. They have done this in the past (Shamorie Ponds), but the partial guarantees they’ve given out make it feel unlikely this year.

Raptors 905 lookahead

We’ll have a full breakdown of the Raptors 905 roster once their camp begins Oct. 25. For now, here’s how things are beginning to shape up:

Eligible Raptors: Champagnie (two-way), Johnson (two-way), Dalano Banton.

Other technically/potentially eligible Raptors: Malachi Flynn, Precious Achiuwa, Freddie Gillespie, Ishmail Wainright, Scottie Barnes.

Exhibit 10s: Perry, Alex Antetokounmpo (will be signed and waived after first round of NBA cuts), one to two more sign-and-waive players at the end of camp.

Returning rights players: Michael Frazier (trade), Jawun Evans, Kevon Harris, Breein Tyree (rehabbing torn ACL).

Other: The 905 can assign four players to camp via “local tryout” spot and have picks in the first, second and third rounds of the Oct. 23 G League draft.

Closing thoughts

The Raptors have their final pre-season games Monday and Tuesday. After those, they will likely make their three roster cuts immediately (rather than waiting until Oct. 16), allowing them to sign-and-waive a few additional names for the 905.

There are 12 Raptors under guaranteed contract right now and two locked into two-way spots, leaving up to three roster spots for Watanabe, Dekker, Bonga, Gillespie, Wainright and Perry.

Watanabe’s would seem locked up, and context clues suggest the final two are between Dekker, Bonga and Wainright, unless the team really wants an extra centre option in Gillespie.

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