TORONTO - Dwight Buycks is not your typical NBA rookie.
The lone first-year player on Toronto's roster, Buycks has taken a different path than most of the league's rookies, one that should afford him a greater appreciation of this opportunity he has chased so relentlessly.
Buycks comes to the Raptors following an MVP season in the French league, a worthwhile detour for him after spending the year prior in the NBA development league and going undrafted in 2011.
"My dream has always been to play in the NBA," said the 24-year-old guard after practice Tuesday. "So that was the route I had to take at the time and it wasn't a problem for me to take it."
Choosing to go play overseas was a difficult decision for the former Marquette Golden Eagle and Milwaukee native. He had heard both pros and cons about making the move - an increasingly popular option for players on the cusp of the NBA - but knew it was the best way for him to get back on the radar.
"It's always been something that was talked about," he remembered, "so when the time came [there] wasn't too much to think about."
Still a young man, his basketball career had hit several unexpected roadblocks but his willingness to fight through them and adapt to his new surroundings allowed him to excel.
"It definitely was a great year, my first full season overseas," said Buycks, who averaged 18.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists with Gravelines of the French Pro A league in 2012-13. "I got over there and we connected real good, the team, the players, the coaches, they put a lot of trust in me with the basketball and to lead them to win games."
Many young players, and recently some veterans at the end of their celebrated careers, have headed overseas looking for an easy paycheque and a fast track path (back) to the NBA. Generally, it doesn't take long for those players to realize the experience, the brand of basketball and the culture change is far more than they bargained for. Buycks, on the other hand, committed himself to it, which allowed him to reap the benefits.
"It definitely is a grind to go over there for that long a time," he admitted, specifically citing the food and general way of living being different from what he was used to. "When I went over there I made the choice to not go home.
"I wanted to stay there the whole time, so for our little Christmas break I decided to stay there and not go home because I didn't want to get comfortable with being home and then have to go right back. So that was definitely a tough decision for me to make but I think it paid off."
Buycks turned enough heads to score an invite to the Orlando Summer League with Oklahoma City, where he continued his strong play and ultimately received a guaranteed contract offer from Masai Ujiri and the Raptors. Averaging 7.0 points and 2.8 assists in four preseason games with Toronto, Buycks has been the recipient of significant praise from his new head coach.
"He played well in Summer League, he's played well in training camp and he's done a decent job in the exhibition games," Dwane Casey said of Buycks. "[He's made] typical rookie mistakes but I don't know if there are any guards [taken] in the late first or second round [in this year's draft] that are as good as Dwight."
"For us it was a steal," he continued. "It was a good eye for his talent because he has speed and quickness you can't teach."
Not surprisingly his work ethic has caught Casey's eye and his commitment to defence - something he's familiar with having played in a hard-nosed defensive system with Marquette - has helped him fit right in.
With Kyle Lowry locked in as the starter, Buycks is competing with the more experienced D.J. Augustin for playing time as the back-up point guard. Both players bring different strengths to the table meaning, at least for now, this battle has all the makings of a platoon. "It's going to be a fluid back-up situation," Casey has stated, dependent on match-ups and who has the hot hand.
Buycks would appear to be the underdog in this scenario given Augustin's experience and past success but underestimate the reigning French league MVP at your own risk. He's been overlooked before.
"It wouldn't be a problem whatever my role is for the team," he said. "I'm just trying to help the team win games anyway I can. Whether that's playing or not playing I'm going to help these guys off the court when I'm not in the game."
Preseason schedule, a double-edged sword
After playing four exhibition games last week the Raptors have just one on the schedule for this week, a Wednesday affair with Kelly Olynyk and the Boston Celtics at the Air Canada Centre. You can hear it live on TSN 1050 Radio at 7pm et.
For Casey and the coaching staff this is both a blessing and a curse, as the team will get the additional practice time they've desired but have a limited opportunity to implement their work in-game.
"It's a double-edged sword," Casey said. "So we're going to spend our time on the practice floor working on our timing, defensive rotations and all those things but then too we want to see those things executed in the game. You'd like to have it where it wasn't so spread out but it is what it is."
Just about halfway through training camp, the team has reached a juncture where maintaining focus is one of the biggest challenges with everyone looking ahead to the regular season.
"Today I had to ramp them up a couple times but that's normal NBA training camp," Casey said after practice Tuesday. "But the good teams, the teams that are serious about winning maintain that focus, that edge."
"You've got to take advantage of preseason to get out all the kinks, all the rustiness, all the things you've been working on in training camp," DeMar DeRozan acknowledged, having been though this process four times before, going into his fifth year. "For a player like me, I'm ready to play now, but we're just going to use these last couple games to get ready."