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Lewenberg: Raptors' Salmons bringing 'old-school toughness'

Josh Lewenberg
12/26/2013 9:53:30 PM
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NEW YORK - In the summer of 2006 John Salmons nixed a sign-and-trade deal that would have made him a Raptor heading into the prime of his career.

He was 26 years old at the time and coming off his best season in Philadelphia. But his faith had led him in a different direction, it led him to Sacramento.

Over seven years later, his career has come around full circle. He starred for playoff teams in Chicago and Milwaukee, ended up back with the Kings and now, fate - in the form of a seven-player swap - has finally steered him to Toronto.

The 34-year-old swingman was supposed to be a spare part in the salary dump of Rudy Gay, a contract that could be bought out at an affordable price in the offseason or moved at the deadline. He still may end up being those things but two weeks into his ironic tenure in Toronto, he has brought something no one expected him to, something the Raptors have been without for years. As head coach Dwane Casey has put it, Salmons brings "old-school toughness."

"He has a settling effect when he's in the game and it helps us," Casey said of Salmons, who is averaging 6.7 points and 3.2 rebounds, playing just under 26 minutes per game in six contests with the Raptors. "He doesn't get rattled."

A versatile defender, Salmons has been used to frustrate the opponent's best wing player, most notably Monta Ellis and Kevin Durant in a pair of surprising road victories last week. He's been one of the first players off Casey's bench, a facilitator in the offence down the stretch but most importantly, he's been a calming presence in the face of adversity and that's rubbing off on his new teammates.

After engineering a 19-point comeback in Dallas and withstanding a run from the league's best team in Oklahoma City, the team pointed to Salmons and his understated brand of leadership.

"I'm not a rah-rah guy at all," the even-keeled Salmons admitted after Sunday's win over the Thunder. "But I've been around for a long time, I've experienced a lot so I just try to give my advice when I can."

"Being in the league as long as I've been I've seen a lot of things and I just try to show poise on the court and lead like that."

If you didn't know any better you could easily mistake Salmons' unflappable persona for indifference but that, as his new coach has learned, is not the case.

"He's very quiet, [a] quiet leader," Casey said. "He does more [with] his actions than his words but he's a solid man. You engage him in conversation and he has a lot to say. People take that quietness for, whatever but he has a lot to say once you sit down and talk with him.

"I like his demeanour. I like his approach. He's an old-school pro."

It's been some time since the Raptors have rostered a vet able and willing to make that type of impact on the team's younger players. You may have to go all the way back to the days of Charles Oakley, Kevin Willis, Doug Christie and the veteran-laden teams that helped turn Vince Carter into an overnight superstar.

"I remember walking in [on] day two," Carter reminisced before facing the Raptors in Dallas last week. "And Oak grabbed me by the shoulder and said, hey, I'm going to take care of you and show you how to be a professional and be a pro in this league.

"And I think of those days and I think of coming to practice when they used to kick the ball in the stands and what do you say? Nothing, you've just got to go get it. You learn a lot from that."

Salmons is not Oakley - few are - but his experience and know-how could go a long way in the continued development of sophomores Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. Then there's DeMar DeRozan, another willing student who, in his fifth NBA season has been forced to learn on the fly without the benefit of a mentor. Veteran players have come and gone - DeRozan credited Reggie Evans and Jarrett Jack - but the roster has mostly been in flux since the 24-year-old was drafted. No one has been around long enough to truly take DeRozan under their wing. Salmons may not be a long-term fixture either, but for now DeRozan is taking in what he can.

"He's played in the playoffs, he's been a leader a long time, played with a lot of great guys," DeRozan said of his new teammates. "He knows how to play the game.

"We're definitely paying attention to it, I'm even paying more attention to it. I always look at it like, I could always learn more and that's what we're doing."

Salmons is due to make $7 million next season but the Raptors will only owe him $1 million should they waive him prior to June 30. For that reason, he could become a valuable trade chip and thanks to Masai Ujiri's timely acquisition of the four Kings players, he can be repackaged before the February deadline.

His time in Toronto may end up being short-lived but even as a temporary player, he could have a long-lasting impact on the future of the Raptors franchise.

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