TORONTO – The post-practice scrimmage has become a Raptors staple.
When the organized portion of most practice sessions has wrapped up, a group of players will break off and stick around for a game of 3-on-3 or, occasionally, 4-on-4 at the far end of the gym.
Teams are generally made up of the younger guys or end-of-bench players that aren’t getting much playing time and could use the extra reps. Sometimes an assistant coach or two will look on from the sideline and periodically stop play to give notes.
Unlike the NHL and a few other leagues, the NBA prohibits the media from sitting in and watching practice, so these scrimmages are among the only things we’re able to see once we’re allowed in, outside of players taking jumpers and doing individual work.
They’ve given us some memorable moments over the years – watching the length and youthful enthusiasm of Brazilian duo Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira on display, or seeing veteran bigs like Chuck Hayes or Tyler Hansbrough play out of position and handle the ball.
These games can get surprisingly competitive. None of the players involved are entirely happy with their role. Each of them thinks they should be playing more and are trying to use this opportunity – and every other opportunity they’re given – to prove it to the coaches.
When Rondae Hollis-Jefferson signed with the Raptors over the summer he likely expected to be getting most of his run as a member of the team’s rotation and not in post-practice scrimmages. However, up until recently, that wasn’t the case.
In a moment of frustration during a scrimmage last week, just before the team left on its long West Coast road trip, Hollis-Jefferson slammed his hand against the wall behind the basket and shouted obscenities at himself before shaking it off continuing to play.
After falling out of favour in Brooklyn, where he spent the first four years of his NBA career, Hollis-Jefferson came to Toronto looking for a fresh start, but things weren’t going according to plan – his own or the team’s.
The 24-year-old forward was among the group of newcomers that head coach Nick Nurse challenged – both privately and publicly – late in training camp. Nurse wasn’t satisfied with the level of effort they were giving in practice or in preseason games, especially on the defensive end. His solution, at least for the first few weeks of the season, was to let them catch up on their own time and learn from the bench while he played the guys he knew he could trust – the eight returning players.
Hollis-Jefferson appeared in one of the team’s first eight games, logging just four minutes in a blowout win over Chicago and scoring a single point. All the while he was battling a nagging groin injury that had been bothering him since camp. To his own admission, it was a disappointing start to his first season with a new team.
“It was tough,” Hollis-Jefferson said earlier this week in Los Angeles. “I’m human, I have feelings and I’m a competitor. I’m emotional, I wear my heart on my sleeve, so it was definitely tough. People will tell you that. I’m not one to shy away from it but for the most part I always thought about my (1-year-old) son (Rylen). Just what he would think and how he would feel if he were older. So that kind of helped me get over it. And then just talking to guys. There are some great guys in here who understand the grind and the situation. When you have good people around it makes life a little bit easier.”
The message from his new teammates, many of whom had been in his shoes before, was to continue putting in the work and be ready to take advantage of his opportunity, whenever it presented itself. And that’s exactly what he did.
Things were looking bleak for the Raptors early in the road trip. They won the first of five games, a convincing victory over New Orleans, but in doing so they lost Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to significant injuries. They were already down Patrick McCaw, who had knee surgery earlier this month, and would also lose OG Anunoby to an eye injury later in the trip.
Even at full strength there were legitimate concerns about the team’s depth moving forward. Suddenly, Nurse was without half of his eight-man rotation and forced to turn to his much-maligned bench.
So far, the results have been better than anybody could have expected. Toronto’s reserves combined for a season-high tying 43 points in an upset win over LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers on Sunday and then turned in another remarkable effort the following night, nearly stealing one from Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers.
With their win in Portland on Wednesday, the Raptors are guaranteed to have a winning record on this trip, which concludes in Dallas on Saturday. Given the degree of difficulty, that would have been a coup if they were fully healthy. To do it shorthanded, relying on guys they couldn’t trust to play meaningful minutes a week ago, is an impressive feat and one even Nurse wouldn’t have predicted.
The Raptors have gotten major contributions from Chris Boucher, who totalled 28 points and made some big defensive plays in the L.A. back-to-back, and rookie Terence Davis, who set a new career-high of 15 points in Portland after scoring 13 against the Lakers. Matt Thomas has also given them some good minutes. However, Hollis-Jefferson has been the team’s most unlikely hero. He wasn’t just out of the rotation a week ago, he was an afterthought, a guy that wouldn’t even come up when Nurse listed the players that could conceivably see the court on any given night.
He made a strong impression with his hard play and defence on James in the fourth quarter of that win over the Lakers. After Anunoby got poked in the eye a couple minutes into the Clippers game, Hollis-Jefferson served as the primary defender on Leonard. In Portland he split time on Damian Lillard, the NBA’s second-leading scorer.
After logging just four minutes in Toronto’s first eight games of the season, Hollis-Jefferson has played 70 over the last three, averaging 11.7 points and 7.7 rebounds on 56 per cent shooting, including a double-double of 16 and 11 against the Trail Blazers.
Most impressively, though, he’s helped neutralize three of the NBA’s best and most dynamic players. In the span of four days, the Raptors held James, Leonard and Lillard to a total of 34 points on 9-of-38 (24 per cent) shooting. On the season, those three are averaging a combined 81.3 points on 47 per cent shooting.
Opposing players are shooting just 29 per cent when defended by Hollis-Jefferson over the last three games, according to NBA.com, including 27 per cent inside the arc.
It’s not always pretty on the offensive end, where he’s got limited shooting range and isn’t the most refined player, but he cuts hard, attacks the offensive glass and can finish around the basket. However, few can match his effort level on the defensive end. Whether he’s faced guarding one of the league’s most lethal scorers or diving for loose balls and securing his team an extra possession, his energy is infectious.
“It’s who he is,” Nurse said after the Lakers game. “He’s not the most skillful guy, but he gets everything done on effort and he’s just going out there and playing hard.”
“That’s why they always say stay ready, so you don’t gotta get ready,” said Hollis-Jefferson. “I’m big on that. Guys here will tell you that. Just try to work hard and wait your turn. When [your number is] called you just execute whatever they want you to do, whether that’s being a dunker, setting a screen, you just do it to the best of your ability.”
More often than not, what ends up defining a player is how they respond to adversity – like an early-season benching or being challenged by their coach. Had Hollis-Jefferson taken Nurse’s criticism personally, sulked or gotten complacent he probably wouldn’t be in the position he’s in now. Instead he kept his focus and channelled his frustration in a way that would make him better and allow him to take advantage of his opportunity.
“I know that coach has been hard on some of those guys,” said Fred VanVleet, who also had to bide his time on the bench as a young player in Toronto before getting and taking advantage of his opportunity. “To see them break through and some of them have a moment — they’ve been working so hard. That’s what the NBA is about. You wait for your opportunity.”
“It takes a lot of heart, a lot of character and a lot of mental fortitude to come in and keep working everyday regardless. The easiest thing to do is feel sorry for yourself. Some of those guys do deserve to play. They’re good enough to play. There just might be a guy in front of them that’s just a little bit better than them, a little bit more experienced. That’s how it goes. This NBA game is so fickle. Injuries come and go. We’ve got two of our main guys out. There will be some opportunities. We need to get some guys on the floor anyway. We’ve got to use this and use this stretch to develop those guys. It’s not always gonna look as pretty as it [has so far]. It’s about learning.”
You never want to see important players get hurt, or any player for that matter, and the Raptors are certainly hoping to get their guys back as soon as possible, but it’s not hard to find a silver lining. To VanVleet’s point, injuries have forced Nurse to turn to the end of his bench, giving guys like Boucher and Davis a chance to develop and somebody like Hollis-Jefferson an opportunity to prove himself. In doing so, those guys are getting valuable experience and Nurse has found depth he and the team didn’t even realize it had.
Anunoby could return in Dallas over the weekend while Lowry is expected to be back within the next two weeks, and Ibaka sometime after that, depending on how his sprained ankle responds to treatment. Once they’re healthy they’ll return to a far deeper rotation, now that Nurse has more options and more guys he can trust on his bench.
Hollis-Jefferson is well on his way to establishing himself as one of those players. His days of needing those post-practice scrimmages to turn heads and work up a sweat appear to be over.