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Raptors’ Rookie Dick learning under tutelage of Temple, veteran teammates

Gradey Dick Toronto Raptors Gradey Dick - The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER – Every year around this time, dating back to his high school days in Kansas, Gradey Dick will sit down with his dad, Bart, and make a list of goals for the upcoming basketball season.

Being that this is the start of Dick’s NBA career, a career both father and son hope will be long and fruitful, they’ve looked a bit further down the road. Where does he see himself in five years from now?

“When you think of the top players in the league my name comes up, whether it be as one of the top shooters or other facets of the game,” Dick told TSN earlier this week. “Just someone that’s going to leave a legacy when it’s all said and done, that I put my all into this game, laid everything out for it, and [became] a household name.”

The Raptors’ 19-year-old rookie is not lacking for ambition, but he knows getting to that level will require time, patience, hard work and guidance along the way. Less than a week into his first training camp as a professional, he’s found some of that guidance in veteran teammate and NBA journeyman Garrett Temple, who – at 37– is nearly twice his age.

“That’s the real OG,” Dick said. “Him, Otto [Porter Jr.], those guys are huge mentors to me right now. I can’t tell you the age gap between us; I can probably be their son.”

Dick was five years old when Temple broke into the league as an undrafted free agent with the Houston Rockets in 2009. Temple played for three teams during his rookie campaign alone, and has been a member of 12 organizations in 14 NBA seasons. As the 13th-overall pick in this summer’s draft, Dick may not be able to relate with his journey, but he can take plenty from it.

“I think it’s huge, [having] a guy that’s been in the league that long, learning the ropes from him and just trying to take everything that he says and put it into my game,” said Dick.

The two sat next to each other on the five-hour plane ride from Toronto to Vancouver on Monday and, as head coach Darko Rajakovic noted, it didn’t take long for Temple to take the rookie under his wing.

He knows how valuable that tutelage can be for young guys coming into the league. Teams have player development coaches and support staff in place to help ease the transition, both on and off the court. Still, nothing beats getting firsthand advice from a peer, somebody that’s lived and experienced it himself.

Temple remembers learning from Antonio McDyess and getting to watch Tim Duncan’s “immaculate” routine as a rookie with the San Antonio Spurs. He credits Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson, his vets when he played with the Charlotte Hornets (then-Bobcats) during his sophomore season, and Emeka Okafor, who was his teammate a couple of years later with the Washington Wizards.

“I understand how important a good veteran presence is to young players, especially a 19-year-old,” said Temple. “Just giving him as many tidbits as I can about the league, from the business of the league to the actual game itself to life outside of the game, your routine, things of that nature. Having somebody to talk to who has been through it a little bit probably helps.”

And Dick has no shortage of brains to pick on this Raptors team. It was a bit of a surprise when they signed Temple to a one-year, $3.2 million deal in July – not because he wouldn’t or couldn’t contribute, but because the team already had 35-year-old Thaddeus Young and the 30-year-old Porter Jr. on the roster. With Rajakovic intending to use a deeper bench this season, it’s conceivable that at least one or two of those vets will crack the rotation, but it’s unlikely that any of them will see significant playing time.

Generally, Masai Ujiri’s stated preference has been to use those end-of-roster spots on younger, higher-upside players – the thinking being that even if they’re not playing those guys can still develop into future rotation pieces. After years of churning out developmental success stories, from Norman Powell to Fred VanVleet to Chris Boucher, that pipeline has gone dry of late, making this an odd signing on the surface.

But coming off a season in which chemistry seemed to be fractured, and with so much invested in the development of the team’s two youngest players – Dick and the 21-year-old Scottie Barnes – Ujiri clearly saw the value in creating a stable foundation of leadership in the locker room. In recent years, so much of that responsibility fell on VanVleet as the club’s most vocal presence. Without him, it’s been more of a collaborative effort early in camp.

Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby are the team’s longest tenured players, and while both are more reserved by nature, they’ve taken on bigger leadership roles. Temple, Young and Porter have a combined 39 seasons of NBA experience between them. Incoming point guard Dennis Schroder has also been in the league for a decade, having played with the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Chris Paul, Jayson Tatum and LeBron James (twice), and is coming off a title run for Germany at this summer’s FIBA World Cup. He’s surely got a few stories to tell.

There should be plenty of diverse perspectives for guys like Dick and Barnes to pull from as they grow their games.

“I love the mix that we have on our team,” Temple said. “You don’t want too many old guys. You don’t want too many young guys. You want the mix and I think we have a very good mix on our team. Look across the roster, from guys 19 [years of age] to guys 37 [years], and a lot in between.”

And, to his credit, Dick has shown up willing and ready to learn. He’s always been a student of the game. He comes from a sports family. His mother, Carmen, played college basketball for Iowa State and professionally in Japan – she was the one that first encouraged Dick and his three older siblings to pick up the game. Dick also played competitive baseball and football growing up, but when it came time to commit to one sport in his sophomore year of high school, he knew it had to be basketball.

“Basketball really just stuck out the most,” he said. It was the most fun and it’s taken me amazing places. So, I’m super grateful for the sport and I’m going to keep putting my all into it.”

“He’s been very receptive,” said Temple. “I’ve had rookies in the past that have kind of waived you off or not been receptive, but he’s not one of those guys at all. He’s very receptive to it, asks questions, wants to know things and is inquisitive. So, that’s a very good sign.”

There’s a maturity to Dick that you don’t often see in 19-year-old professional athletes, which should serve him well as he begins to navigate this very tough business. He’s already been tested in that regard, hearing his name come up in trade rumours late in the summer as the Raptors made a run at Damian Lillard. Had Lillard been open to playing in Toronto, the front office felt like it could have put together an offer that would’ve satisfied the Portland’ Trail Blazers' asking price, and it almost certainly would’ve included the rookie sharpshooter.

Ultimately, the trade never came to fruition, as Lillard balked at the idea of coming north and the Blazers sent him to the Milwaukee Bucks, where he can team up with Giannis Antetokounmpo and chase championships. In some cases, that could create an awkward situation for a player, who was nearly traded before playing in his first NBA game, and his team. Not the case here. No hard feelings. Dick gets it.

“I’m only 19 but I feel like I have a mature sense of understanding,” he said. “At the end of the day everybody is trying to win an NBA championship, and if it was bringing a top-75 [all-time] player in the NBA [here], then that’s what they’re going to do. I understand that… I’m not going to take anything personally.”

One of the things Temple looks for in a rookie is how comfortable they are in their own skin. Do they know who they are as a player? Are they able to play their game without overthinking or complicating things? Are they passing up shots or shying away from the ball?

For what it’s worth, Dick doesn’t seem to have those concerns, but it’s still early. Nobody really knows how a player will hold up amid life-altering pressure, responsibility and distraction over the course of their first NBA season. Perhaps Dick will hit the ground running when he steps on the court for his first ever preseason game against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday, or when the regular season tips off at home versus the Minnesota Timberwolves later this month. Maybe it takes him 20 games to settle in. Maybe it takes 40, or the bulk of the campaign. It’s a tough gig.

What can he become in the long run? While he comes in primarily known as a shooter – he hit 40 per cent of his three-point attempts as a freshman at Kansas last season – the Raptors believe he has the size, skill and athleticism to be more than that. One name that has come up a few times this week is Gordon Hayward, an all-star with the Utah Jazz before he left for the Boston Celtics and injuries derailed his career. That’s a high bar, and from the sounds of it, Dick is setting his bar even higher. Why not?

But first thing’s first.

“Just be able to make an impact,” Dick wrote on that piece of paper, as he and his father listed his goals for Year 1.

“I’m coming into a new team and I’m obviously the new guy, so I want to be that sponge and soak up all the knowledge, learning and teaching from coaches and the vets. Just coming in here, being myself through everything and learning as much as I can right now.”