TORONTO – There were roughly six seconds on the clock when Gary Trent Jr. grabbed the rebound and looked up court.
Nick Nurse was standing at the scorer’s table and made the split-second decision not to call a timeout and let Washington set up its defence. The Raptors were down by one point.
The team’s newest member, Trent Jr., dribbled up the floor, extended his arm to brush off Wizards guard Raul Neto – who accentuated the contact in the hopes of drawing a foul – and pulled up from 26-feet out.
What was going through his mind in that moment?
“Make a play,” said the third-year guard, moments after his buzzer-beating, game-sealing jumper propelled his new club to a comeback 103-101 win on Monday night. “I felt if I got a clean look off I’d have a pretty good chance of it going in. It did. That’s just the work I do. I practice those shots. It’s part of the game.”
“We were due for one of those to go in,” joked Nurse, whose team has not fared well in those late-game situations all season. That’s not Trent Jr.’s cross to bear, though.
Two weeks ago, the 22-year-old was playing in what would turn out to be his second-to-last game with the Portland Trail Blazers. Rookie point guard Malachi Flynn, also 22, was playing behind a pair of veteran point guards in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, which mostly meant watching from the bench. Meanwhile, the Raptors were making their way through one of the worst months in franchise history.
However, following the deadline day trade that brought Trent Jr. to Toronto in exchange for Norman Powell, and with injuries to Lowry and VanVleet thrusting Flynn into a prominent role, the two young guards have helped lead the team to its first winning streak since late-February.
With Lowry nursing a foot infection that has sidelined him for three of the last four games and VanVleet sustaining a hip injury in Friday’s 53-point win over Golden State and then missing Monday’s contest, Flynn has played the best basketball of his brief professional career. He scored a personal-best 16 points in 31 minutes against the Warriors and then matched it with another 16 points in 34 minutes in the win over Washington.
Nurse had considered giving the rookie his first start but didn’t want it to come against the dynamic Wizards backcourt of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. Although Beal – initially listed as questionable with a hip injury – was ultimately ruled out just ahead of tip-off, Nurse stuck with the plan to start the bigger and more experienced DeAndre’ Bembry out of position at the point.
Regardless, Flynn played nearly 17 straight minutes to close the first half and was on the court for the game’s final 17 minutes, and he didn’t disappoint. His defence, which Nurse has been raving about as his role’s increased this past week, was typically excellent.
Even before Toronto selected him with the 29th-overall pick in last November’s draft, Flynn was drawing comparisons to his future teammate, VanVleet, for his defensive instincts as an undersized guard. Those similarities were on full display Monday night, as Flynn was credited with four steals and three blocks, while VanVleet watched – and even tried his hand at coaching – from the sideline.
Midway through the second quarter, Flynn stopped Neto at the rim on a two-on-one in transition. Moments later, he showed off his quick hands, slapping the ball away from former Raptors teammate Alex Len, initiating a fast-break that led to an OG Anunoby dunk and capped off a 10-0 run. In the fourth quarter, he channelled Lowry and stole a rebound from Wizards forward Anthony Gill, who has half a foot on him.
“I think he’s learning a lot from his veterans that he’s playing behind because he’s making a lot of similar plays,” said Nurse. “Instinctual, anticipation, quick hands, all those things come into play when you’re making plays like that.”
“I think just being active, having active hands is kind of something that I've tried to do my whole life,” Flynn said. “You just got to be smart with it, can't reach too much. But definitely watching for how Fred does it, he's real good at it, and then just going out there and trying to do some of the same things.”
While Flynn is further along than you would expect a rookie point guard to be on the defensive end, Nurse has wanted to see him be more aggressive on offence – looking for opportunities to get into the paint and attack the rim to score or make plays for his teammates. His progress on that side of the floor over these past two games – particularly against Washington – has been encouraging.
He’s done a better job of keeping his dribble alive, changing speeds and beating his defender off the dribble. Both of his fourth-quarter field goals came on the drive – blowing by the speedy Ish Smith early in the frame and then turning the corner on Len with six minutes to go.
The Raptors’ final five points – and their two-biggest buckets of the night – came from Trent Jr., though. With about 100 seconds left, he drilled a pull-up mid-range jumper. Then, the dagger.
In just six contests with Toronto, Trent Jr. has already recorded two of the 10 highest-scoring games of his career, including a personal-best 31 points against Oklahoma City. He’s posted the best plus-minus in franchise history (plus-54 in the win over Golden State), knocked down six threes in consecutive outings, and now he’s got a game-winner on his resume – all of it while adjusting to a new team and trying to learn on the fly.
“I don’t think it’s ever easy to all of a sudden wake up on a new team when you’ve been traded, but you can see he’s got a real scorer’s mentality in there,” Nurse said. “He’s got some game in there that travels, obviously, that’s pretty valuable, it really is, to be able to just be a bucket-getter like that.”
Granted, the degree of difficulty has been fairly low of late – Golden State was missing Steph Curry and Draymond Green, while Washington was without Beal – but after going 1-13 in March, and dropping some very winnable games, the Raptors have won their first two contests in April. They’re just one game behind Chicago – who they’ll face on Thursday after hosting the LeBron James and Anthony Davis-less Lakers in Tampa on Tuesday – for the 10th seed and final spot in the play-in tournament.
With only nine players available on Monday, their hope is to get VanVleet and Lowry back at some point this week – a busy one for Toronto, with five games in seven nights. Regardless of who’s in or out of the lineup, or the results of these upcoming 22 games to close out the season, it’s hard to see Nurse and the Raptors veering away from the youth movement.
Not only have Trent Jr. and Flynn given the team some life during a listless stretch in an uninspiring campaign, but they’re both important pieces of the franchise’s future. And on Monday, that future sure looked bright.
“I knew that if I was given an opportunity I would be able to help or showcase what I could do,” said Trent Jr. “Coming here, they’re giving me the opportunity of a lifetime so you must take full advantage, you must go out there and go hard. Just play hard, play your game and whatever happens happens. Just believe in your work.”