How Gradey Dick’s mid-year turnaround — and the talented, tough-as-nails rookie at the heart of it — became a rare bright spot in a lost Raptors’ season

O ne morning in early January, Toronto Raptors rookie Gradey Dick was summoned to head coach Darko Rajakovic’s office just off the practice floor at the OVO Athletic Centre. In itself, not too out of the ordinary. Rajakovic’s pledge in his first year leading an NBA team was to keep the lines of communication between his coaching staff and players wide open, making sure everyone stayed on the same page regarding roles, expectations, and goals. But the meeting with Dick, Toronto’s 13th-overall pick in the June 2023 draft, was decidedly more structured than a simple ‘how’s it going?’ catch-up.

Rajakovic’s office isn’t particularly big — there’s space for a desk and a low circular table with some additional seating around it – but when the floppy-haired 20-year-old ambled in after practice, joining him was a starting lineup’s worth of Raptors staffers. On hand in addition to his head coach were assistant Ivo Simovic, who has been attached to the rookie’s hip since Summer League in Las Vegas; Raptors 905 head coach Eric Khoury; Mery Andrade, a player development coach with both the Raptors and 905; physiotherapist Nikki Garcia; as well as a member of the team’s strength-and-conditioning staff. “He knew there was a meeting, but seeing five or six people in a meeting, it draws your attention,” says Rajakovic. “We were blatantly clear with him, this is where his focus needed to be.” The purpose, in a nutshell, was to layout a 360-degree solution to rescue Dick’s rookie season.


As the calendar flipped on 2023, the former Kansas star hadn’t played meaningful minutes in an NBA game for nearly a month. Most nights he didn’t play at all. He’d even struggled badly in some of the G-League games he had played to that point. Drafted as one of the best shooters in college basketball, Dick had made just 11 threes in his brief NBA career, four of which had come in a single-game flurry back in October. It was no better with Raptors 905, Toronto’s G-League team. In his first seven games there, he’d shot just 29 per cent from deep and looked lost for long stretches.

For a Raptors team staring at a rebuild, the mere suggestion the club had somehow fumbled a lottery pick sent a shudder through the fan base. The 19-year-old who’d stolen draft night when he showed up with a broad-shouldered, bedazzled red suit jacket wasn’t just having a tough rookie season to that point, he was having a horrible one. But never fear. Rajakovic and the Raptors had a plan. And also of help? The rookie who came across like a goofy kid brother and who, as Rajakovic once joked, came into the ‘No Boys Allowed’ league with the body of a 16-year-old, was, it turned out, tough as nails.

F or most of Gradey Dick’s 20 years, he’s led a charmed basketball life. He is the youngest of Carmen and Bart Dick’s four children, raised in Wichita, Kansas, which his Mom describes as a quintessential mid-sized Midwestern city. “You can get from the east side to the west side in about 20 minutes,” she says. “It’s just a great community, and I think the biggest thing is just the friendly people and how they support you and have supported our family. I mean, it’s a pretty amazing place.”

The Dicks are Midwestern to the core, with values informed by their faith, wide-open spaces, and sports. Carmen grew up in Ackley, Iowa, a town of 1,600 about 100 miles north of Des Moines, and was a basketball star in her own right, leading her local high school to three state tournaments and averaging 40 points per game as a senior before going on to star for Iowa State, where she was named female athlete of the year in 1989. Six-foot-three and a personal trainer by trade, she looks like she can still play, and Gradey didn’t beat her in backyard 1-on-1 until he was in middle school. Bart worked in medical sales and has recently begun a role with UBS, a financial services firm, as a relationship manager for college athletes in the emerging NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) space. Carmen met Bart — who played football and baseball at Fort Hays State University — while doing an internship as part of her college program. After she played a year of professional basketball in Japan following graduation, she returned home and they married, eventually settling in Wichita, where Bart’s family is from.

Growing up, all three of Gradey’s older siblings played varsity sports throughout high school, with a focus on basketball. Gradey was never pushed into athletics or basketball in particular. Still, the osmosis was real. “It’s what we did,” says Carmen. “I mean, with all our kids, we kind of had the same thought process: we wanted to expose them to everything — sports, music, art — and whatever they succeeded in or loved, that’s what we would pursue. Of course, [Bart and I] love sports the most, and luckily, our kids all gravitated toward that. But Gradey was in the band, he played soccer and football and baseball … there was never that pushing from Bart or me to either go one way or another.”

“He was just wired differently. Just from the get-go, his energy and competitiveness were kind of off the charts.”

There didn’t need to be: from an early age it was clear that Dick was going to choose basketball. Parents gain experience with each child and having four spread out over 10 years meant the Dicks had a chance to see a lot of other kids on other teams and in other sports. Between that and their own athletic experiences, they had a good frame of reference to judge, for example, if their youngest was special in any discernable way, if there was anything that made him stand out. And? “That’s a good question,” says Carmen. “I mean, he was just wired differently. Just from the get-go, his energy and competitiveness were kind of off the charts.”

That competitive drive got tested in their backyard. When Gradey was seven, Carmen was diagnosed with cancer. For much of the next two years, he spent most of his free time with his siblings as Bart took charge of Carmen’s care and recovery. “I understood what was going on a little bit,” Gradey says. “I just didn’t understand the severity of it at the time. I just knew that I wasn’t seeing my mom as much.”

When his sister Kelsey, the eldest, left for university, Gradey and his brother Riley, who evenly split the eight-year age gap between the youngest and oldest boys, ate what their older brother Brodey cooked, rode to school with him, went to the gym when Brodey wanted to get shots up, and did his best to survive when his brother’s friends included him in backyard pick-up games or anything else. At six-foot-seven, Gradey is the tallest of the boys now, but gave up plenty of size over the years, given Brodey is six-foot-four and Riley is six-foot-five. “Gradey was always super-competitive, but he was the smallest,” says Brodey. “So, if he wanted to play with me and my brother and our friends, he had to be scrappy, whether it was basketball or ping-pong or video games. … And for him, there were those anger moments and tears at Xbox or whatever, but there was always that mentality that we’re there to win and compete.”


Constantly getting his ass kicked in his formative years might be Gradey’s secret sauce, all things considered. Given his bloodlines, it’s not at all surprising that the youngest turned out to be an elite athlete, or even that he made it to the Division 1 level. But Dick kept getting better, faster than his peers. He was the pitcher and shortstop in baseball and the quarterback and linebacker in football, and played up on older teams from an early age in basketball.

“I mean, he was tall for his age, but not like, overpowering,” says Brodey. “But I was laughing the other day thinking of this football game where I saw him as an athlete for the first time. It’s one of their first years of tackle football and he’s running for a touchdown and he basically de-cleats one guy when he runs him over and then stiff arms the next kid and walks into the endzone. And you look at the video and go ‘that was pretty impressive for, whatever, seven, eight years old.’”

The ‘aha’ came more gradually for Gradey himself, in a steady stream, rather than a flood. He became excellent in increments. His high school coach at Wichita Collegiate School remembers Dick coming to summer camps while still in primary school and, in unstructured moments, finding a hoop to do Mikan Drills on his own — a generally boring footwork and finishing routine intended to develop skills with both hands. Not a normal go-to for a 10-year-old.

In 2018, the summer before he started high school, Dick was a late addition to a Kansas City-based AAU team that had qualified for the Jr. NBA Global Championship, which brought together elite 14-year-olds from across the globe. His team, representing the central U.S. region, won the whole thing as he came off the bench to hit a crucial three in the fourth quarter of the final against a team representing Africa and the Middle East. Dick went on to start on the varsity team as a high-school freshman and was the player of the year for all of Kansas after Grade 10. He repeated that honour in Grade 11, after transferring to Sunrise Christian Academy, a prep school powerhouse conveniently located 15 minutes from his doorstep.

Despite the award, the transition to Sunrise wasn’t seamless. Living away from home for the first time (all Sunrise students live on campus) and playing daily against a roster of players headed to D-1 schools, Dick struggled at first — in ways mirrored by aspects of his early challenges with the Raptors. “It always happens at our place the first year at some point, you lose a little bit of confidence because you’re not as successful in practice as you’re used to being, and then it’s the journey of picking yourself back up and do you have enough character to keep working and keep sticking your nose in the dirt,” says Luke Barnwell, as assistant coach at Texas Tech who was the head coach at Sunrise when Dick arrived.

The breakthrough came when Gradey popped off for 18 points to lead a furious conference finals comeback against Montverde Academy, alma mater of Scottie Barnes, Cade Cunningham, Jalen Duren, and a wealth of other NBA lottery picks. “That’s when he turned the corner, and the year he had [in Grade 12] was exceptional,” says Barnwell. As a senior, Dick was a McDonald’s All-American, represented Team USA at the Nike Hoop Summit, and was named Gatorade National Player of the Year. 

“Basketball has always been just pure joy for him.”

There was never any question as to where Dick would play his college ball. All of Gradey’s siblings went to Kansas and, like a lot of families where they are from, Jayhawks basketball was as much of a regional religion as the Hoosiers are in Indiana or the Wildcats in Kentucky. The school drips tradition: James Naismith was its first head coach. Every year, Bart and Carmen would try to take Gradey to a game at historic Allen Fieldhouse, one of the cathedrals of the sport. Sure enough, Gradey followed his siblings to KU, the difference being that he was offered a scholarship before he finished 11th grade and rather than moving into a dorm on campus and hustling to get tickets in the student section, he started as a freshman for Bill Self, one of college basketball’s coaching icons.

Having your kid brother selected by an NBA team is a surreal experience, but seeing the baby of the family take the court at Allen Fieldhouse for the first time? That was almost overwhelming. “The [NBA] draft was amazing,” says Brodey. “But you’re only there with your family at your table, so it’s a little different. But his first game at KU and there’s signs everywhere and the crowd is chanting your name and you’ve been watching KU your whole life … that was pretty crazy.” Little brother went off for 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting in his debut, and it wasn’t long before he was being touted as an NBA lottery pick.

There was never a grand plan for Gradey, at least not one any different than what his parents imagined for his older brothers and sister: play, compete, have fun and work hard. But Gradey’s path worked out in dream-like fashion. “As a kid, he was crazy aggressive and competitive and just wanted to play all the time,” says Carmen, still at a loss to explain how her youngest was a little different than the others. “But really, basketball has always been just pure joy for him.”

T here is not a lot of joy in the G-League. It is professional basketball purgatory where NBA dreams often go to die. Originally called the NBA Development League, it was a concept hatched in 2001-02 to create a place for players not quite ready for a roster spot or rotation minutes to play NBA-style basketball and develop while awaiting a call-up. The pay is a fraction of what players can earn elsewhere, but the league is full of elite talent, some on the way up, others on the way down — or out. There is a whiff of desperation around the whole enterprise.

Making it more challenging is the inherent caste system in place: On the same roster at any given moment can be as many as three ‘two-way guys,’ players who have contracts with the affiliated NBA team but split time between both. The expectation is when they are with the G-League team they get the bulk of the attention and focus. Then there are assignment players, who have full NBA contracts but who are sent to the G-League for more seasoning or conditioning. They get prioritized also, maybe even more so. And then there are the players without an NBA deal who are there both to fill out the roster of the G-League team and showcase themselves for future employment elsewhere. Individual and team goals aren’t always perfectly aligned, let’s say, and it makes for a challenging environment. “It’s tricky,” allows Khoury, who just completed his second season as 905 head coach. “You have [unaffiliated] guys who played 35 minutes one night and had their best game of the season, and then all of a sudden, there’s an assignment guy sent down and a couple of two-ways are back with the team and the other guys are just getting spot minutes. It can be tough.”

Dick’s first G-League assignment came in late November when he joined Raptors 905 for a game against the Capital City Go-Go. At the time, Dick was still getting steady minutes for the Raptors but wasn’t doing much to justify them. His shooting struggles were real and at times the pace of the NBA game seemed beyond him, which could be expected for someone just 18 months removed from high school. Unfortunately, things weren’t any easier with the 905. “The G-League is full of hungry dudes, just trying to get another opportunity,” says Mouhamadou Gueye, who played with Raptors 905 this past season before earning a two-way contract with the team in March. “It’s very intense down there. … If you’re there as a two-way guy or a guy on an assignment, especially a lottery pick, guys will have a target on them, like a vendetta. [Opponents] look at it as the ‘prove me’ game to show other organizations that they can do that, too.”


In that context, it was Dick’s bad luck that lining up against him for his G-League debut was Hamidou Diallo, an almost comically athletic, six-foot-five 25-year-old with 264 games of NBA experience who might be best known for jumping over Shaquille O’Neal in the 2019 NBA dunk contest. “Let alone G-League teams, Hamidou Diallo gives NBA teams problems, defensively,” says Khoury. “I remember I drew up the first play for Gradey and he couldn’t even touch the ball. Hamidou was stuck on him. He’s an NBA-level athlete, an NBA-level defender, and guy who who’s been in the [NBA] for multiple years, seeing someone who’s a couple of months out of college and was like, ‘I’m going to make his life so tough tonight.” Two nights, actually. Dick shot 1-of-12 in his G-League debut and was 4-of-21 a day later, matching up against the Go-Go again. Diallo averaged 27 points, eight rebounds and six assists on 64 per cent shooting in two games against the former Kansas star.

Naturally, Raptors Twitter — where the fanbase dissects the team’s minutiae, not always so rationally — took all of this as you might expect, with some corners lamenting Dick as a blown draft pick after two months of NBA service time. There were other voices trying to point out that it was maybe too early to throw in the towel, but the ‘give it time’ crowd had a hard time being heard.

All of which, the on-court troubles and off-court reactions, seemed to mostly roll like water off Dick’s back, rather than streaming in a river of tears down his still fuzzy cheeks. “One thing I tried to come into the league with was to stay focussed on the goal,” he said after scoring a career-high 24 points against the Nets on April 10. “At every level there is outside noise, there are so many distractions now with social media. I think that’s the biggest thing. If you let that dictate your life, it’s only going to be negative for you.” At the very least, Mom was worried. “It’s tough to see your kids struggle,” says Carmen. “I’m sure [anyone] would say that. And then he’s in a completely different country, surrounded by guys, some of them are 30 years old. I mean, yeah, it was tough.”

“I know this is my journey. I know what I can do. I know I can shoot that ball, and shooters have off-nights. This is all going to be part of my story.”

In the bigger picture, it’s worth pointing out that your average rookie doesn’t arrive in the NBA wide-eyed and completely unprepared for scrutiny, even adversity. Dick didn’t have to go to Kansas as the golden child star of his recruiting class and deal with the inherent pressure that came with the choice. And he didn’t have to transfer from his local high school, where he was the focal point of the team, to Sunrise, where suddenly he had to carve out a role among a roster of bigger and more experienced players. He didn’t have to declare for the NBA Draft as a 19-year-old either. As a local star at a big-time program, he made good NIL money. There were no financial pressures, and one NBA executive told me that if Dick had played another year at Kansas there’s a good chance he would have been a top-five pick this summer, which would have meant a richer entry-level contract. He could have been the man for another year with the Jayhawks instead of figuring out how to survive in the NBA, but there are no regrets. “My mom kept reminding me that my dream was to play at Kansas,” Dick says. “But I had to remind her that, yeah, it was my dream to play at Kansas, but my all-time dream was to be in the NBA, and I would never pass it up for anything. [Leaving college] was the best decision I ever made. I love it here.”

In short, Dick’s a guy who likes a challenge, and even as his first NBA season was getting off to a less-than-ideal start, he somehow managed. The body language was good, the Raptors vets appreciated a rookie eager to ask questions and listen, and even in the G-league, his teammates couldn’t help but gravitate to him. “Gradey’s my guy. He’s pretty funny. He makes these goofy faces at the most random times,” says Gueye. “But he’s [also] tough mentally. … You’re playing in Toronto, so not only the city but the whole country has eyes  on you. But for his age, he handled it really well.”


Still, in no dream or visualization exercise did Dick imagine missing nearly every shot he took. “It was definitely weird,” he acknowledges. But he never panicked. Unlike in high school or college, he wasn’t playing most of every game; shooting himself out of slumps wasn’t an option. As the O-fers and 1-fers and DNP-CDs mounted, his family kept taking stock, checking in, making sure he was okay, and kept realizing that somehow, someway, he was. There was a storm, and he was assuredly getting wet, but he wasn’t made of sugar, it turned out. There was no threat of him melting. “I mean, he’s human. He was disappointed. He was upset with himself,” says Carmen. “But I remember he kept just saying, ‘I know this is my journey. I know what I can do. I know I can shoot that ball, and shooters have off-nights. This is all going to be part of my story.’”

That was Dick’s mantra, supported by a rock-solid belief in his ability to perform that remained unshaken despite evidence to the contrary. He was a rookie, sure, but from being buffeted around by his brothers in his backyard as a kid to being a local hero starring at Kansas, he had been — over time — built for this. “I mean, people like to kind of put a label on rookies that we’re 20 or 19 and we haven’t seen a lot,” he says. “And we haven’t, but you know, through high school and through college, I had the mindset that if I’m gonna be the player that I want to be, I have to be mature and know that, especially as a shooter, things are not always gonna go your way and you can’t let all those little things affect you.

“I’m not saying it’s not good to let it all out, especially to your mom or dad — and there were times in high school or college I would do that a lot,” he adds. “But I feel like those experiences have built me so that when I got to the Raptors, I felt like, yeah, I might not have struggled this much, but it’s not anything different where, either in practice or in a game, I haven’t made anything. I’m just like, ‘It’s just one of those things. Maybe it’s lasting a little bit longer, but it feels the same and I’m going to get out of it.’”

A t the January meeting in Rajakovic’s office, Dick learned that over the following few weeks, he would undertake what amounted to his own individual mid-season training camp. The Raptors were about to head out on the longest road trip of the season, but he would stay back, attached to Raptors 905. Rather than simply being sent back down, though, the just-turned-20-year-old was presented with a detailed plan covering everything from the nature and focus of his on-court workouts to his lifting schedule and parameters to what his warm-up and recovery routines would look like. The message was plain: your focus isn’t what the NBA team is doing, it’s on fine-tuning your game, body, and mind to be ready for the second half of the season.

Also plain: the stakes were high. Dick wasn’t a second-round pick where becoming a contributor at some point would amount to found money; he was a lottery pick for a team desperate to add young, playable talent to complement Scottie Barnes. Fumbling the bag was, organizationally, not an option. “It was pretty clear Gradey was out of the rotation and he’s not going to play again,” says Raptors general manager Bobby Webster. “So the question was, how can we get him back into the rotation, and what does that look like? Whether you want to call it the rookie wall or whatever, there is probably some physical aspect of it where he was a bit run down at that point of the season, even mentally. From the day you declare for the draft, it’s just a whirlwind, and then there was the basketball element where he wasn’t shooting or playing well. So, we took a more comprehensive approach.

“It wasn’t just, ‘Go lift weights or get more shots up.’ It was more, ‘We probably need to rethink what is a plan that — not over the next couple of days, but over the next couple of weeks — can get Gradey back to [where] he’s confident, he’s playing well, and he’s in a position to contribute to the team.’ … It was, ‘Let’s get a little bit of a reset in the middle of the year where there is no expectation of are you going to play tonight or not going to play tonight. You’re just not going to play for the next two weeks, and at the end of that stretch we’ll reintegrate you into the team.’”

“The Raptors monitor the volume and intensity of their players’ training and play, and Dick routinely measures out at the high end. Colloquially, he’s got a good motor.”

For his part, Dick took it how it was intended. It was made clear to him it wasn’t a demotion, and some time in the G-league was likely to be part of his rookie season anyway. “It was just for me to understand I was going to go there and play the same way you’ll play with us and get comfortable out there,” he says. “All the good stuff.”

The good stuff has come with a considerable amount of work. With a little more than two hours before tipoff at any Raptors game, the place to find Dick is on the floor and in the company of Simovic. They make a slightly odd pair, the six-foot-seven star from the heartland of America and the Serbian assistant who turned to coaching full-time around the age Dick declared to Kansas. Simovic had followed his coaching dream to Spain, the NCAA, and now the Raptors, after his boyhood friend, Rajakovic, called and lured him away from UCLA, his last college stop. For Rajakovic, his friend was the obvious choice to work with the team’s young lottery pick.

Simovic and Rajakovic are both graduates of the Belgrade Basketball Academy. They teach the nuances of the game the way a grammarian does the proper placement of a semi-colon. Dick’s return from his mid-season reset and re-entry into the Raptors rotation was paved with hours of work with Simovic, learning or re-learning the essentials of footwork, hip angles, and timing. The goal was to make Dick someone Rajakovic could trust in an NBA game. Achieving it meant mastering the roughly 12-foot-by-two-foot strip of hardwood that makes up each corner, just outside the three-point line. Simovic gave Dick a set menu of shots to master, reads to make, and counters to nail down. It’s this work that continues together in high-tempo 20-minute chunks before each game, with the precision of a ballroom dance team tightening up choreography they’ve been building out for months.


They started with the absolute basics. In their first session together, Simovic taught the lottery pick the importance of properly setting up for a shot when coming off a screen, working with him to get lower and make the first step longer to get more separation from his defender. From that humble start, they built a foundation in layers. After nine months together, they now have a shared shorthand, with one word in Simovic’s raspy baritone signalling whether the next move is curling around a screen when the defender is hugging him tightly, or hanging back; squaring up to shoot the three on the move if the defender goes under the screen, or shouldering the defender away from him to create room for the screener. The laundry list of shots stretches from simple catch-and-shoots to catch-and-shoots with pump fakes, shots taken after sliding into position in the corner and after faking and sliding the other way. There are curls leading to finishes at the basket with either hand, and curls that finish with step-back, mid-range jumpers over an imaginary centre who moves up to blunt the action. Dick has gotten great marks not only for his attention to detail, but also for the training load he’s been able to manage. The Raptors monitor the volume and intensity of their players’ training and play, and Dick routinely measures out at the high end, which suggests elite cardiovascular fitness. Colloquially, he’s got a good motor.

The results have been plain to see. Since becoming a rotation regular after the Raptors traded Pascal Siakam in mid-January, Dick has averaged 10.7 points per game while shooting 39.2 per cent from three on nearly five attempts per game. Stretched over a full season, those numbers would make him one of nine rookies averaging double-figures in scoring and one of only three doing it in 25 minutes a game or less. It would also warrant strong consideration for end-of-season all-rookie team honours.

But his play has often been more significant than his production alone, with Dick flashing signs of all-around offensive chops that suggest he has a future as a true connector, someone who can attack the rim from the weak side against scrambling defences, score in the mid-range when teams try to run him off the line, and use the gravitational pull elite shooters create to make plays for teammates. Every NBA team needs shooters, but shooters who can make plays for others at six-foot-seven? Teams are dying for that.

In his first two games back in the lineup after his reset with Raptors 905, Dick had six assists in 23 minutes of floor time. Most importantly, his shooting stroke, missing for so long, finally came around. In a six-week stretch from mid-January until early March, when injuries and bereavement leaves for RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, sent the Raptors’ season into its final spiral, Dick shot 42.2 per cent from three while playing mostly off the bench. It culminated on March 11, when Dick — in just his second career start — scored 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting and added seven assists and two steals in 36 minutes of floor time against the defending-champion Denver Nuggets. It was the best game of the rookie’s career, and his parents were there to see it. “Bart and I were saying with the ups and downs this season, you could write a book,” Carmen says.

Gradey is authoring an upbeat ending. The NBA season is a marathon and long-term success depends as much on resilience and mental and emotional fortitude as it does on any single skill or physical attribute. Raptors wing Garrett Temple has grinded out 14 NBA seasons as a role player and sage locker room presence. He kept an eye on Dick early in the year when he was struggling, but realized soon enough the kid was going to be all right. “You’re always concerned about rookies, in general, because they’re going through so many changes. But with Gradey, his attitude never changed, his joy never changed, and his mindset never changed, in terms of being a happy-go-lucky 19, 20-year-old kid. It was never like he was sulking or quiet, there was none of that,” Temple says. “This season has been unique, not just for a rookie, but for anybody, and he did an amazing job, being able to handle all of that.”

And on the floor? “I told somebody just the other day: He’s progressed the most as a rookie — easily — on the court, as anyone I’ve seen,” Temple continues. “His game play, his ability to accept coaching and put it into play, the defensive things that he’s able to do now versus what he was able to do to begin his season. On court, he’s been even more impressive than just off-court in my opinion because he progressed so much and you know, I’m really proud of him for that. He’s gonna be a player in this league, no question. He’ll be fine in this league for a long time.”

“He’s progressed the most as a rookie — easily — on the court, as anyone I’ve seen.”

The NBA is serious business and big business. It’s the kind of environment where you sometimes have to fight to maintain your joy, especially when the things that came so easily suddenly don’t, or when a roster gets turned over mid-season and the losses stack up. But Dick’s greatest triumph this season may be that he’s still not all that far removed from the kid who wore the Wizard of Oz jacket on draft night. Dick hasn’t yet succumbed to the stoic, all-business introversion some players take on over time. He remains the baby of a family of six, enjoying and exercising the freedom he has to amuse, most recently via his jersey exchange with Orlando Magic rookie Anthony Black, where the childhood buddies made sure their last names spelled out a phrase that saw the post-game photo quickly scrubbed from the Magic’s social media feed. “I thought she was going to be more mad,” Gradey says of his mom’s reaction. “My dad said what he always does: ‘It’s just your last names.’ But my mom knows my personality; she knows I’m going to make jokes.”

It’s all par for Gradey’s particular course. As a kid, it was his first name he toyed with. To this day, Brodey and his friends call him ‘Tony’ because he came to dinner at six or seven years old declaring he was done with being named ‘Gradey’. Having watched the Ironman movies, he’d decided Tony — as in Tony Stark — was a better fit. (“I’m not sure why I said that. I’m a Hulk fan. I don’t even like Tony Stark,” he clarifies now.) One of his favourite t-shirts is still a raggedy Scooby Doo number rescued from his brother’s closet. “When it comes to clothes and him in general, you just never know,” says Brodey. Then there is his oeuvre of TikToks in which he seemingly tries to master every dance move on the Internet, with some success.

As a Kansas kid starring for the Jayhawks in the era of NIL, he had all the money he could ever need, but there was no crazy car or jewelry expenditures. His signature purchase? “I bought a cat,” he told me while sipping on a Starbucks concoction heavy on whipped cream and crumbled cookies as we spoke at the Raptors team hotel in Denver last month. “We beat Missouri. Their [mascot] is a Bengal tiger, so I bought Bengal cat.” He named it Milky, and kept it in his dorm room, but when the realities of the hectic pace of life leading into his rookie season became apparent, Milky was adopted by his aunt in Iowa. “He has a good life right now,” Dick says.


It’s all part of the Gradey Dick experience. “He can be out there” says Brodey. “But really, he doesn’t care what other people think about him, and that probably helps him with his game, too. He’s got that happy-go-lucky attitude, but when it comes to the nitty gritty, he’s locked-in and wants to win.”

It’s been apparent even through a mostly lost Raptors season, when wins have been increasingly difficult to come by. You can tell a lot about a basketball player from their willingness to take charges — and who they’re willing to take one from. Dick is among the Raptors’ leaders in charges successfully drawn, and almost certainly the leader in attempts, and he hasn’t taken any cheapies. His first career charge came against Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. He lived to tell the tale and didn’t find the whole thing that remarkable. For him, it wasn’t all that different from backyard games in Wichita. When you’re eight years old and trying to hold your own against your big brothers while Mom and Dad are preoccupied with the biggest challenges parents can face, your only options are to run inside in a huff when things aren’t going your way or keep playing. Gradey kept playing.  “They wouldn’t let me win a single thing,” he says of his brothers’ version of tough love. “When you’re in that moment, it stinks, it’s the worst thing ever, but it goes with that struggle. It correlates, because when you get out of those times, when you get older or start getting better, it’s like, it was that way for a reason.”

As their season draws to a close, the Raptors grand plan for their prize rookie can only be considered a success, a much-needed win for a franchise suddenly desperate for them. It’s a credit to a rookie head coach who was able to see the big picture of player development through the fog of a tumultuous season, and to an organization committed to executing it. But Dick’s remarkable rookie turnaround doesn’t happen without the kid himself possessing an inner steel born of backyard beatdowns and polished by many tests, large and small. “The biggest thing I’ll take away from this season was in those moments [of struggle]. … The last couple of months for me have meant so much because, yeah, I’ve been doing better on the court, but without those moments at the start, it wouldn’t mean as much,” Dick says, his Starbucks concoction drained, leaving only traces of the mountain of whipped cream he started with. “It definitely helped mature me a lot more and get me ready for the future. You’re going to have your downs, but when you can turn them to your ups, it means a lot more.”

Photo Credits
Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images; Cole Burston/Getty Images; Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images; Mark Blinch/Getty Images; Mercedes Oliver/NBAE via Getty Images.