TORONTO - With four games remaining in a disappointing 2012-13 campaign for the Toronto Raptors -- one that will see them miss the postseason for the fifth straight year -- positives are not easy to come by.
However, increased playing time has allowed rookie forward Quincy Acy to stand out as one of few late-season bright spots north of the border.
Acy came to Toronto as a second-round pick, 37th overall, out of Baylor University this past summer. After playing sparingly early in the season, the Raptors re-assigned Acy to the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA Development League on Mar. 4, his second trip to the D-League during his rookie year.
There, the 22-year-old embraced the additional playing time he was given and approached the move to Bakersfield as an opportunity rather than a demotion.
"It had been a while since I had played 30-plus minutes or anything like that," said Acy, who averaged 13.0 points and 7.7 rebounds, playing 28 minutes per game in 13 contests with the Jam. "So just getting my game legs up under me was the biggest thing and learning the game of basketball at the pro level."
With the experience he collected while playing through and learning from his mistakes in the D-League, Acy has looked like a different player in five games since being recalled by the Raptors at the end of last month. In April, the rookie has excelled, flashing signs of promise on both ends of the floor while demonstrating the ability to knock down the mid-range jump shot.
"I think the D-League has helped his confidence tremendously," coach Dwane Casey raved after the team's Thursday morning practice at the Air Canada Centre. "Just him stepping out, knocking down shots, his confidence level has gone up and that's what the D-League is all about. A lot of guys look at the D-League as a put down but that's why Commissioner Stern put it in, was for guys to go down there, play and get confidence."
"He's been playing extremely hard," guard Kyle Lowry told TSN.ca, speaking of his teammate Acy. "I think the step in the D-League, the minutes he was playing down there definitely helped his confidence, definitely helped him understand where he's got to be on the floor and definitely [gave] him confidence in his mid-range shooting."
Although his jumper has surprised some people around the organization, his motor and the intensity he brings to the court should surprise no one. The next possession he takes off will be his first and he's had the privilege of learning from a number of front-court players who share that same mentality.
"[Amir Johnson] and Aaron Gray and even Ed [Davis] when he was here, they really helped me a lot," Acy admitted. "They really took me under their wing, especially Aaron Gray. They play a big part in helping develop me and a lot of it goes unnoticed but they're like my big brothers and I couldn't ask for better people."
The first-year forward's intensity -- although occasionally misplaced -- has not gone unnoticed. Even the league's officials have picked up on it, assessing Acy five technical fouls in just 237 minutes with the Raptors. Acy is second in the NBA in techs-per-minute played this season (behind veteran Joel Przybilla, two techs in 68 minutes) and tied for fifth in techs-per-game (along with teammate Linas Kleiza, who has been assigned four technicals in 20 games).
"I think he's got a reputation for being a tough guy and people look for it but that's fine," Lowry said. "I think our team really appreciates what he does."
"Maybe [officials] look for it a little bit more [with] him because he's physical," he continued. "He's got a little bit of that tough guy stigma so everybody's kind of looking out for it a little more."
For Acy, the next step -- in addition to controlling his aggression -- will be to become a more versatile defender. At six-foot-seven, Casey wants Acy to step out and guard the league's growing number of hybrid forwards, stars like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, who create a match-up nightmare for opposing teams playing out of position at the four.
"I'm [going to] work all summer on footwork and lateral movement so that I can check the big guys," Acy acknowledged. "Physically, I feel like I can keep up with them but they have an edge against me right now as far as foot speed going laterally."
Although the rate of success for second-round picks in the NBA is not favourable, Acy's brand of toughness and willingness to work hard while staying within himself as a player should buy him some time to carve out a niche in this league. There will always be a place for a player with his coveted skill set and approach.
"People might question my height but you can't test my heart, never. I mean, that's me."
Rookie centre Jonas Valanciunas appears to be making progress after sustaining a flexion extension injury of his neck (a whiplash-type injury) on the final possession of Tuesday's victory in Chicago.
"He's still in a soft brace [but] it's not as bad as we first thought," Casey said Thursday afternoon.
Valanciunas spent Tuesday night at Rush Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago for precautionary testing and observation after being carried off the court on a stretcher.
Although there's a chance he could return for Friday's rematch with the Bulls at the ACC -- he'll be a game-time decision -- expect Casey and the Raptors to play it safe with the reigning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month.
"If it's anywhere close, we won't rush [him] back or anything like that," Casey admitted. "He's too valuable to us at this time of year to chance it."
Toronto's third rookie, Terrence Ross, left the team's practice gym hobbling with ice wrapped around his left ankle. The Raptors' guard tweaked the ankle during what Casey called a "spirited practice" on Thursday and his status for Friday's game is unknown.