Dowtin making late-season push for extended stay on roster
TORONTO – As a professional basketball player, Jeff Dowtin Jr. has never had the luxury of looking too far into the future.
Over the course of three seasons, the undrafted guard has bounced between four organizations and played almost twice as many G League contests as NBA games. He’s signed multiple 10-day and two-way deals, and he’s been waived three times along the way.
Instead of expending much time or energy worrying about what comes next, Dowtin knows well enough to focus on what’s in front of him – taking advantage of his opportunities, wherever and whenever they present themselves.
“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball,” said the Raptors guard, who spent last season with Golden State, Milwaukee and Orlando, following a four-year college career at Rhode Island. “I’ve been playing this game for a long time and I know how to play at the highest level. I have confidence in myself to compete.”
In 19 games with Toronto’s G League affiliate, Raptors 905 – they finished their season over the weekend – Dowtin showed he can lead a team, score and shoot the ball efficiently, and make clutch plays. When injuries or a lack of point guard depth have opened the door to playing time with the big league club, he’s been ready to provide steady minutes off the bench. The 25-year-old has turned heads around the organization with his play at both levels.
However, as the campaign wears on, he finds himself in limbo once again. As a two-way player, Dowtin can only dress for 50 NBA games and is not eligible to participate in the postseason. He’s appeared in 21 contests for the Raptors this season but he’s been active for 46. Meaning, he can only play in four of the team’s final seven regular season games and they won’t be able to use him in the play-in tournament or during the playoffs. That is, unless they convert his two-way deal to a standard NBA contract by Game No. 82 next month.
It’s a bit complicated and would require some salary cap gymnastics to stay under the luxury tax line, which is an obvious priority for the club amid a disappointing season. Assuming they’ve crunched the numbers and can figure out the math, keeping Dowtin around is making more sense with each passing game.
Without three rotation players, including Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr., Dowtin logged a season-high 29 minutes and had nine points, four assists and three steals in Friday’s win over Detroit.
He played 19 minutes against Washington a couple nights later and was on the floor during a crucial fourth-quarter stretch that sealed the victory. With Toronto’s 21-point lead cut to three, Dowtin hit a big three-pointer to open the frame. As part of a unit that included Barnes, O.G. Anunoby and two other reserves, he helped extend the lead back to double figures while Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam rested.
The Raptors outscored opponents by 24 points with him on the court over the past two games, which is no small feat considering how much they’ve struggled to get reliable production from the bench this season. Finding a serviceable backup for VanVleet at the point guard position has proven especially challenging. Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton were both given multiple opportunities but neither has run away with the gig, often leaving VanVleet to play major minutes.
Dowtin checks off a few boxes. He gives them a bit more size than Flynn and is a better shooter than Banton. He’s an excellent perimeter defender, which is also something they’ve needed from the position. And with his age and experience there’s also a level of maturity and consistency to his game that the team really likes.
“I think he’s played well for us just about every time he’s gone out there,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “We’re always talking about solid play, which is guarding your position as well as you can and executing at both ends of the floor. He’s got us running stuff and is capable of scoring a little bit on his own but doesn’t overdo it. He just fits in nicely there on both ends.”
“He's just a leader and one of those traditional floor general-type of guys who can get you into sets and get guys in the right spots,” said VanVleet. “And he can defend so we need that, we need more of that. Anytime his number is called he's ready to go. He's in there working his butt off every day and whenever he gets his opportunities he's out there and he's producing at a pretty high level.”
So, why hasn’t he been able to hold on to a spot in Nurse’s rotation? He’s had a few solid stints, including a three-game stretch in late February just before the team signed veteran journeyman Will Barton, who was miscast as a backup point guard (and it showed). The problem is that the Raptors have had to be conscious of and manage his games, especially over the past month as he’s approached his maximum.
It’s a double-edged sword. Two-way contracts were introduced in 2017 to give players like Dowtin an opportunity they may not have gotten before. Teams are allowed to carry a couple of extra players that don’t count toward their 15-man roster or under the salary cap, while those players get some valuable NBA reps and a bump in salary compared to their development counterparts in the G League. Dowtin’s two-way deal allowed him to get his foot in the door, but it’s also what’s prevented him from earning a bigger and more permanent role with the Raptors.
That should change over the coming weeks. To convert his deal, they’d have to waive somebody from their regular roster. Sparingly-used shooter Joe Wieskamp would seem to be a likely candidate – he’s played just 13 minutes since they signed him on Feb. 11 and isn’t owed guaranteed money beyond this season. Neither is Banton, who’s had an underwhelming sophomore campaign, but the 23-year-old still has plausible upside and several high-ranking fans in the organization.
Thaddeus Young’s contract only has a small guarantee of $1 million for next season. He is an interesting case. The veteran forward has various incentives in his deal that are all contingent on him playing at least 60 games this season and would make him eligible for bonuses up to $500,000. He’s appeared in 54 contests and has been a healthy scratch in each of the last seven, which probably isn’t a coincidence.
On the surface, it seems a bit ruthless, but Young has been in and out of the rotation all season and that $500,000 – which would count against the cap – could loom large, especially if they intend to convert Dowtin. The Raptors will likely cut ties with Young this summer – his contract becomes fully guaranteed for $8 million if he’s not waived by June 30, and that’s an expense they simply cannot afford if they plan to retain their free agents, VanVleet, Trent and Jakob Poeltl. It’s possible they decide to let him go now, but even when he’s not playing, they value his leadership and veteran presence in the locker room.
As it stands, the Raptors don’t have much breathing room under the luxury tax, which is calculated based on the team’s cap sheet after the final game of the regular season. They took on some short-term money to acquire Poeltl at the trade deadline, and then again when they added Wieskamp and ate the balance of Juancho Hernangomez’s contract to sign Barton off the buyout market.
If they waive another player, the balance of their contract would still count against the cap. As would Dowtin’s new deal, prorated from the date he signs it. Assuming they want to wait until the last possible moment, they could convert his deal after the Apr. 9 season finale and still have him available for the play-in games. However, if they wanted him to play in each of their seven remaining contests to close the season, they would have to convert him after he reaches his 50th active game in Charlotte on Apr. 4.
For what it’s worth, Dowtin isn’t losing sleep over the minutiae of his contract. He doesn’t know how much room the Raptors have under the luxury tax and he isn’t even positive how many more games of NBA eligibility he has left. He’s focused on making the most of them.
“I’m not really thinking much about any of the other stuff except winning ball games and just playing when my name is called,” Dowtin said. “I’m grateful to have multiple opportunities to play the game of basketball, so I take pride in that. Anytime I have a chance to step on the court, I’m going to give it my all.”