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How the Toronto Raptors built the NBA’s best development program

Photo Credit: Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images

When Masai Ujiri first returned to the Toronto Raptors in 2013 to become the team’s next general manager, his first objective was not only to cultivate a winning culture for the organization, but one that would be sustainable.

In April 2015, nearly two years into his tenure, Ujiri secured the approval of the Raptors board of directors to purchase an NBA Development League franchise, as it was then called. It would prove to be a move that would become the first major step in executing his plan.

On June 29th, 2015, the Raptors 905 were born. Merely four days earlier, the Raptors selected Delon Wright and Norman Powell in the NBA draft. Unbeknownst to the two at the time, they were about to become the Raptors’ first-ever trial experiments for a process they would use for years to come.

During their first NBA seasons, Powell and Wright were assigned to the 905 to compete in the D-League season. Both absolutely dominated the competition, and even though they missed the playoffs, they picked up invaluable skills during their time that would help them both personally and professionally down the line. Gradually, both took on more responsibilities with the team and became impact contributors.

Six years later, both guards are enjoying their most successful professional seasons to date. Coincidentally, both were just traded at Thursday’s deadline, with Powell going to the Portland Trail Blazers, and Wright moving to the Sacramento Kings. The 905 of the G League, as it is now known, are widely considered the blueprint of success for how to properly utilize the NBA’s development system.

That was only the starting point. With countless success stories coming through the Raptors organization since Wright and Powell, it is a testament to the vision Ujiri had almost eight years ago.

The Raptors have taken something that NBA teams generally did not have a concrete plan for, and broken it down into methodical science. Start with a hub where players can harvest their raw talent and grow it, have them figure out what type of players they want to be, and gradually ease them into archetypal roles until they gain mastery. The Raptors have more or less made their development program much like a college degree, going through many trials and choosing a field to major in before they graduate to full-time rotation members.

By investing more time and resources in the program, the Raptors have built a strong reputation not only for player development, but for their scouting as well. Teams typically throw players on the floor and expect them to figure it out themselves, and it doesn’t always go according to plan. The Raptors formulate specialized plans for each player and created a three-year process by which they develop their players, to resounding success.

Year by year, we’re going to walk through a timeline of the program’s life cycle to understand how the team operates, where current players are at in the process, and showcase just what the Raptors have accomplished over the years that have made them into the strong and sustainable organization they are today:

Year One: The Sponge Year

Juan Ocampo, NBAE (2021)

In the first year of Toronto’s development program, arguably the most crucial, the team makes it very simple for the player: listen and learn as much as you can.

The team, by design, primarily has the first year dedicated to learning the league and everything that comes with it. This includes but is not limited to establishing routines, the team’s playbook, organizational culture, and developing the right habits you’ll need to succeed in the coming years.

From the start of training camp, the player should be focused solely on absorbing as much information as possible, and studying how the veterans come into training camp and conduct themselves. The team outlines to the players from the very beginning how the process will go, and it makes it easier for them having clear expectations.

Throughout the season, the team will have the player watching the games from the sidelines, sitting with an assistant coach and talking through various scenarios and play breakdowns. They spend hours watching game film with the coaches and do workouts with their vets. If it’s a lopsided score, the player might enter the game for garbage time, but for the most part, they are not part of the regular rotation.

Once the G League season begins, most players are assigned to the Raptors 905 to compete in the season, where the Raptors have lined up even more of their personnel. The head coach of the 905 actually rotates on a yearly basis between their assistant coaches. Most recently, Patrick Mutombo served as head coach during the team’s 2021 G League season and before him, it was Jama Mahlalela, who returned to the team this season in place of Mutombo.

This gives the players an opportunity to get some reps in against heightened competition, and also get a taste on a smaller scale of what it’s like to be in the Raptors’ systems. Because the coaches are coming directly from the Raptors, they share the same playbook, meaning the players get to learn all of the big league club’s schemes. As the season goes on, the team learns their strengths and weaknesses and develops a plan for them to work to become the type of player they need to be to succeed.

For the most part, this has been a successful approach. For a lot of Raptors, this G League experience was their launching pad. In Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet’s first years in the program, they led the Raptors 905 to a championship, with Siakam capturing Finals MVP honours. Chris Boucher was the season’s MVP in the 2018-19 season. Norman Powell, one of the aforementioned guinea pigs of the team’s development process, credits his time in the G League as valuable experience:

I think time spent in the G League really helps players develop not only as a player, but as a person

Norman Powell on his experience with the Raptors 905 (via NBA G League Twitter)

For this season, there are three primary players that are in their first year of the team’s development program, and those are rookies Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris, as well as Henry Ellenson. Flynn has played sparingly with the club, appearing in just 20 games and only getting minutes out of necessity when Kyle Lowry went down with injury. Harris has amassed a grand total of 14 minutes across four games for the big club. Ellenson, added on a 10-day contract, has only gotten into two games so far.

The trio showed a lot of promising signs this year, which we went over in our 905 season recap.

For the contingent concerned about Flynn’s lack of playing time with the big league club this season, or wondering why he isn’t further along, remember that he is only halfway through his first of three years, and it’s all part of a bigger plan. Others have gone through the process before him and it’s paid off, and he is no exception, nor should he be. The Raptors will be patient, and fans should remember to be as well.

This first year is the foundation for everything the Raptors do. That’s why it was such a critical component for Ujiri to acquire the G League franchise, to not only give the rookies time to develop, but to pluck other players and find ways to bring them into the system too. Some teams don’t know how to find time for their young guys, but by getting this early education, absorbing as much information as possible, the players gain a lot of valuable experience they will soon apply on the court.

Year Two: Co-operative Education

Toronto Raptors 2019-20 Player Review: The Lost Season of Stanley Johnson -  Raptors HQ
David Sherman, Getty Images (2020)

As the players enter their second year with the team, they will begin to get a better sense of how the team functions. The player starts to take on more at the NBA level, getting to work more with NBA veterans, and even getting some rotational minutes in situational matchups. This year is spent as a mix of learning and playing, using off-nights to absorb and gain more skills to add onto the foundation.

Now, remember: they are still trying to figure out exactly what type of NBA player they are going to be, so they are mostly beginning this year as specialists. Using this second year as a trial run for developing those other skills is where the player really starts to develop an overall skillset.

During the 2017-18 season with the infamous Bench Mob, this still serves today as an excellent example of how these players developed over the course of the year together. The Raptors lineup featured three sophomores at the time; Siakam, VanVleet, and Jakob Poeltl.

That year, Siakam thrived working in transition. Poeltl finally found his niche as a mobile rim protector and working in the pick-and-roll. VanVleet was mostly a three-and-D specialist in his second year, en route to finishing third in Sixth Man of the Year voting. For all three of those players, these have served as foundational skills to their playing style, and they have since built on it.

For the Raptors this season, there are two players at this stage of the development program: Stanley Johnson and Paul Watson. Watson spent the 2019-20 season with the Raptors 905, and while Johnson bypassed the G League, he played sparingly last season.

Both are starting to find their way into the rotation here and there as the matchup dictates it. Johnson entered the program as a 23 year-old with four years of NBA experience, but never quite found his footing. Johnson credits his resurgence to the Raptors coaches. “During the pandemic and after the season in the bubble, I went back to Toronto and I was with our coaches, and in our facilities, and I was able to learn things from an omniscient view, learning different positions because I had so much time with the coaches,” Johnson told reporters. “That’s what gives me confidence to be more aggressive or do certain things on the court, because if I didn’t have the knowledge in my head to know certain things, I wouldn’t be able to react on the court instead of thinking.”

Watson, who only suited up for eight games last season, has recently become a rotation regular, and is carving out a role as a three-and-D specialist, shooting nearly 46 percent from long range. Nick Nurse has also praised what he is bringing to the table. “It means he’s impacting the game pretty positively,” Nurse told reporters regarding Watson’s performance against the Chicago Bulls earlier this month. “We’re gonna need a little bit more shot-making probably out of him than he’s given us in the last few games. I think he’s doing everything else well, playing hard, defending, and rebounding, but when he gets those rhythm 3s he’s gonna have to step in and make a good share of them.”

The second year of the development program takes what the players have started to learn in their first year, and apply some of those skills on the court. By starting with something small and building on foundational skills, it serves as an opportunity for the player to take the next step and continue their development towards becoming a truly solid NBA player.

Year Three: On-The-Job Training

Raptors re-sign Canadian forward Chris Boucher to $13.5M contract | Offside
Toronto Raptors Media (2020)

Finally, we arrive at the third year of the program, which serves as the true test for the players.

This year is typically the year that Raptors players find a full-time role on the team and see minutes on a regular basis. By this point, the players have developed their primary skill and what they want to specialize in, and the coaches have given them a plan in the off-season to add additional elements to their games. All the work they’ve put in to this point is all going to pay off.

There is no better example of this than Chris Boucher.

After going through the same trials and tribulations as his predecessors, Boucher has really broken out in his third year in the league. After his MVP season in the G League, he played sparingly in year two, coming in for occasional spurts when the Raptors needed energy off the bench. This season is when Boucher began to put it all together, and now he is looking like he could be a fixture on the team’s bench for years to come.

Boucher has worked with coaches to harness his energy and play with a little more control. The result is Boucher becoming an excellent stretch big that is capable of defending multiple levels. He is playing much more composed this season, and the team is rewarding him with the minutes. Given that he is the latest Raptor to nearly complete the program, he is also an excellent example of how the team finds talent and nurtures it until they’re ready to go out and compete.

The amount of intricacy that goes into the process is unlike what many other teams are doing. Ujiri deserves credit for building the program that has become a staple of the Raptors’ success.

The creation of the program is perhaps the biggest driver of how the Raptors managed to capture their first NBA championship in 2019. Without the development of Poeltl and DeMar DeRozan, they would never have been able to trade for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Without the development of Wright and Jonas Valanciunas, they don’t have the assets to acquire Marc Gasol. Take away Siakam and VanVleet, and you are left with a shell of the championship team.

This was always Ujiri’s plan. Good teams come and go, but the truly memorable teams are the ones that stay elite. It’s how the Raptors managed to get to the playoffs for seven straight seasons, the second-longest active streak in the league.

Though the streak being broken is a very real possibility, there is no doubt the Raptors will be back one way or another. The system is built to recycle itself. Flynn is only halfway through his first year, and should continue to develop. Gary Trent Jr. comes in as the youngest player on the team having turned 22 this year, and should have room to grow in the system. Add Toronto’s upcoming draft picks and you have a new group to grow behind the existing core of Siakam, VanVleet, and Anunoby.

Though Ujiri’s own future within the organization is uncertain, the team is in excellent hands with General Manager Bobby Webster signed long-term. Behind him is assistant GM Dan Tolzman and Raptors 905 GM Chad Sanders, and all three are aligned to making this program work. As they should; it’s going to be the backbone of why the Raptors will be successful for many years to come.

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