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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – When the Toronto Raptors reopened their practice facility for voluntary individual workouts earlier this week the reaction was mixed, both publicly and within the organization.
Last Friday, the NBA gave teams the green light to start granting players limited access to their gyms, provided it complied with local restrictions.

The Raptors got approval from the Ontario government and even implemented a tighter protocol than the league was requiring – only allowing one player in the building at a time, instead of the NBA’s maximum of four.

Still, considering this was the biggest step the league had taken since shutting its doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 11, it’s natural to have questions and even concerns. Was this too soon? Would it be safe enough?

Given the severity and the uncertainty of the virus, it’s understandable that everybody has a different level of risk tolerance. In accordance with the NBA’s mandate, the Raptors are not pressuring any of their players to come in and work out. It’s entirely at the discretion of each individual.

Currently, about half the team is in Toronto and, as of Wednesday afternoon, about half of that group–roughly three or four players – has chosen to use the court, while the others have decided it's best to hold off for now. There are good reasons to be in either camp.

Reserve forward Malcolm Miller is among the players that have taken advantage of the voluntary workouts.

It’s been a long couple of months for the 27-year-old. He’s kept busy at home – playing the piano, fuelling his competitive juices with video games, riding the stationary bike, doing some yoga and P90X, and lifting weights – but he’s missed the feel of a basketball in his hands. So, when Toronto’s OVO Athletic Centre opened its doors again on Monday morning, Miller requested to be the first player allowed in.

“It’s just nice to be in the gym in whatever type of capacity it is, even if we don’t have four or five rebounders or someone to set a pin down and someone to pass the ball,” Miller said on a conference call Wednesday. “At least you are able to get in the gym and that’s something that I’m personally thankful for.”

“It definitely felt strange. I missed it. It was a good experience just to have the basketball in your hands, feel the basketball and just get back to the game you love, even in a different format.”

The court is the only area of the building that is accessible, so Miller’s workouts are limited to shooting and some ball-handling drills. He said his jumper is actually further along than he expected, given the layoff, but his handle could use some work. He spends an hour in the gym each day and plans to go in four or five times per week.

It’s progress but it’s not exactly what Miller or any of his teammates are used to.

At any given time, there can only be one player, one coach, one representative from the medical staff and building security on the premises.

The schedule is fluid and can change daily depending on which players want to come in. Each player that’s participated has been paired with a coach (and the team has additional coaches available in case other players decide to work out).

Assistant coach Brittni Donaldson has been assigned to work with Miller, and will only work with Miller for the time being. There isn’t any overlap between player and coach duos. One group can’t arrive and enter the building until the previous group has left.

Both player and coach are screened upon entry. The medical rep in attendance takes their temperature and checks them for symptoms. The player’s heart rate is monitored to keep track of their conditioning level.

All personnel must wear a mask and gloves inside the building. Only the player can take off that equipment and only when they’re working out. Building operations disinfects the basketballs and lays out the player’s gear before each group arrives.

“We’ve covered all of our bases, we’ve been really deliberate about making sure everybody feels safe and we’re taking the extra precautionary steps to go above and beyond even what the NBA mandated,” Donaldson said. “We’re only allowing one player in the gym at a time, we’re not allowing the players to bring their phones in, for example. I felt a sense of comfort just for the work our organization has done logistically to make this as smooth and organized a process as possible.”

It’s been an adjustment for the coaches too. For one, Donaldson has learned that rebounding can be a challenge – and an uncomfortable one at that – with gloves and a mask on.

“Luckily, Malcolm doesn’t miss a whole lot so I’m not running down after rebounds much,” she joked. “It’s difficult but we have to adapt and get creative. We’re just thankful to have access to our facility and we’re trying to make the most of it.”

For now, the league isn’t permitting head coaches to be in attendance, so Nick Nurse is still working from home. Assistant Jim Sann, who runs the team’s player development program, has put together an outline of what the coaches should be working on with each player. They’ve also been deferring to the medical staff to make sure they’re not overextending players physically in these first few weeks back in the gym.

“We kind of do it by committee,” said Donaldson. “We have a medical person there watching the workout. He or she is kind of gauging how the player is reacting to fatigue or that sort of thing. I talk to Malcolm obviously a lot, almost between every drill, like, ‘How do you feel? Are you sore?' Stuff like that. And the coaching staff, whether it’s working players back from an injury or taking a break during summer, we’re used to this ramping-things-up-gradually process. Circumstances are a little different now, but it’s not completely unfamiliar territory. It’s kind of a mixture of things. We’re feeling it out, playing it by ear, taking it day by day. Hopefully in a week we can start ramping it up a little more. To start, we’re keeping it very basic, very simple.”

None of the players currently residing in the United States – roughly half of Toronto’s roster – have come back to Canada since the team announced it would be reopening the practice facility, according to the club. As general manager Bobby Webster indicated last week, those players are subject to travel and quarantine protocol and the team doesn’t intend on asking for exceptions from the government.

In time they hope those restrictions will loosen, as well as the guidelines in their own building, and that maybe more players might begin to feel comfortable being in the gym. That’s out of their hands, though. Right now their focus and top priority is to control what they can control – keeping their players and staff as safe and healthy as possible, even as some start to get back on the court.

“We’re just leaving it up to the experts,” Donaldson said. “Obviously it’s up to the league and all the people they’re working very closely with everyday. They’re getting a lot of information and trying to sift through it all. So I’m just gonna trust whatever decision they make and in the meantime just stay safe and keep everybody else safe and follow the protocols that are given to us.”