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Lewenberg: De Colo beginning to pay dividends for Raptors

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Josh Lewenberg
4/7/2014 6:39:12 PM
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TORONTO - For over a month Nando De Colo was Toronto's forgotten man, an afterthought at the bottom of a playoff-bound roster, a masked phantom lurking on the end of the Raptors' bench.

Who was he and why was he brought here?

As the visitor's locker room cleared out after Saturday's win in Milwaukee, a reporter approached De Colo, who was suddenly making an impact in an expanded role for his new, undermanned club.

Curious about the origins of his first name, which isn't a traditional French moniker, said reporter asked the Raptors' guard where it came from.

"It came from my parents," he replied, straight-faced, flaunting a quick wit we didn't know he had. Up until last week we didn't know much about him at all.

The acquisition of De Colo, trickling in minutes after the trade deadline passed, went under the radar. A player from the end of one bench exchanged for a player on the end of another. Masai Ujiri opted to hold onto Kyle Lowry and keep the band together, that was the headline. Austin Daye for De Colo was a footnote.

Now, six weeks later, the move is owed some belated acknowledgement.

Ujiri was familiar with De Colo having seen him play overseas and with the Spurs. He knew what he was getting. Dwane Casey was less acquainted with the second-year combo guard but was equally as intrigued by his intangibles and has been looking for a way to find him more playing time.

With Lowry resting a sore knee, Casey has been provided that opportunity and De Colo, to his credit, is taking advantage of it.

"It's what I was expecting and what we needed and wanted, as far as another ball handler," Casey told TSN.ca. "That was the main thing we saw. We needed another guy that can handle the ball, to create, to be a passer, a facilitator, a transporter of the ball, to get it across the court.

"He's done that."

In extended minutes, backing up and playing alongside temporary starter Greivis Vasquez, De Colo has been a sparkplug coming in off the bench to begin the month of April. Over the last two games he's tallied 11 assists to just three turnovers in 42 minutes of action.

After easing into his new surroundings, De Colo no longer appears reluctant to let it fly. He's shooting and scoring with confidence, something he lacked upon arriving in Toronto, playing sporadically last month.

"He's still learning our system," said Casey, "still getting comfortable and the more he gets comfortable the more he's going to knock down shots. I think we're seeing that now."

The easy explanation for his confidence boost is the increased playing time that has come as a result of Lowry's injury.

"I'm finding a rhythm," said De Colo, who has attempted 16 shots over the last three games, the same number he hoisted in his first 14 contests with the Raptors. "I'm in shape after adjusting to find a rhythm of the game with a new team. Now I just try to play my game, try to be aggressive like everybody wants on the team and since then I've been good."

Since arriving from the Spurs, De Colo has been touted for his basketball intellect and decision-making ability. Teammates and coaches have cited his time playing for the venerable Gregg Popovich with a world-class organization in San Antonio, as well as his experience overseas - where he competed professionally from the age of 19 - and with the French national team.

In a year and a half with the Spurs he was sent back and forth from the NBA Development League an astonishing total of nine times, a product of the close proximity between San Antonio and its D-League affiliate in Austin.

More so than the path he's traveled to get here, De Colo credits his approach.

"I think it's something I've always had in my game," he said. "I try to see what happens and make good decisions. I know I can pass the ball. I must be aggressive on this kind of team and I have to take the open shot."

Casey has entrusted De Colo to run his offence, immediately vaulting him over the young Julyan Stone and Dwight Buycks in Toronto's backcourt rotation. When Lowry makes his return - he's expected to be cleared this week - the Raptors' head coach has a decision to make. Can he afford to juggle minutes for three point guards going into the playoffs or does De Colo go back to the end of the bench?

Although Casey has been most impressed with him as the primary ball handler, it's conceivable that the Raptors could feature more two point guard lineups in the postseason, when the defence is likely to apply more pressure on Lowry.

Of equal importance, the Raptors need to find out what they have in De Colo, a free agent at the end of the season. If Lowry is retained this summer and Vasquez - a restricted free agent - proves too expensive, De Colo may make more sense as an affordable backup, assuming he continues to impress.

All of a sudden, De Colo has become more than late-season bench fodder. The Raptors' under-the-radar deadline acquisition has helped keep them afloat in the absence of their most important player and could continue paying out come playoff time, and beyond.

Nando is a name worth remembering.

Nando De Colo (Photo: Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
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