Raptors’ only camp battle a dance between disparate options

Title: Raptors’ only camp battle a dance between disparate options
Date: October 3, 2014
Original Source: Raptors Republic
Synopsis: This article once again looked at the competitors for the Toronto Raptors’ 15th roster spot, this time with input from the players themselves.

There’s never a paucity of things to prove in an NBA training camp, but the 2014-15 Toronto Raptors’ preseason is staggeringly short on competition. The starting five probably won’t be tinkered with, there is clarity of role for most, and so the only battle comes at the absolute margin, with three players vying for the 15th and final roster spot.

Ahead of the preseason, the Raptors signed Will Cherry, Jordan Hamilton, and Greg Stiemsma to partially guaranteed deals. The message seemed clear: even for that 15th roster spot, the Raptors are willing to forgo a modicum of cash and a little flexibility on the books to make sure they find the best player for that role.

The issue for the players and, to some degree, the coaching staff, is that the three players invited couldn’t be less alike. There’s somewhat of a journeyman, a prospect who hasn’t quite panned out, and a player trying to get his first shot in the league. There’s a rim protector, a shooter, and a lockdown perimeter defender. There’s a center, a forward, and a guard.

The tough part for all three is that they may not necessarily be competing against each other, but trying instead to argue the validity of their individual roles. One player can certainly look better or worse than the others, but it will be an apples-to-oranges comparison. Before the preseason, the merits of keeping each were explored, and they’ve changed little. Who you prefer to get the final roster spot likely depends on how you evaluate the rest of the roster.

“I just try to control what I can control and do what I do,” Cherry said, a defense-first point guard who has impressed in D-League and Summer League action. “Those two dudes that I’m kinda going up against are great.”

Based on comments from head coach Dwane Casey earlier in the offseason, Cherry may have the inside track on a job. Casey likes to have a third point guard on the roster, and it remains unclear if the team considers new recruit Lou Williams as a shooting guard or a combo guard. Even if Cherry were unlikely to play big minutes, there’s certainly value in a tenacious defender pushing your players in practice every day.

“In our league, that position is hard, it’s really deep. It goes two-to-three players now,” Cherry said. “That gives you a little leeway, but naw, not at all. Those are two great players beside me. Greg is a great big man and Jordan Hamilton, he’s been in the league already. I’ve watched his game, and I played against him in high school, so I already know what he can do.”

What Hamilton can do at the NBA level is still a matter of question to many, if not Cherry. Acquired in a draft-day trade by Masai Ujiri, then with the Denver Nuggets, in 2011, Hamilton is yet to put his obvious gifts to consistent use. On talent alone, he’s probably the best player of the three, but he also faces somewhat of an uphill battle given that Stiemsma and Cherry more obviously fill holes.

With his fourth-year rookie-scale option declined and his services dealt in the middle of last season, Hamilton seems to understand that “first-round pick” no longer carries cache. On a team full of players who have had to work hard to prove doubters wrong, Hamilton has found kindred spirits.

“I’m around a great group of young guys and they seem like they’re gonna all play hard,” Hamilton said. “That’s what I’m about…Shooting, I’m a shooter. Defense. Coach wants guys to go out there and do all the intangibles and I feel like I can be that guy.”

It’s little surprise that defense is a recurring theme. There has never seemed a better way to ingratiate yourself to Casey than by working hard to stop the other team rather than getting your own numbers. If the scouting report on Cherry is top-flight defense and Hamilton has great potential on that end, it’s Stiemsma who has actually proven his worth at the NBA level.

“Definitely rim protection,” Stiemsma said of his potential role with the team. “This has been a defense-first team, rim protection is important for these guys. When you start breaking down some of the numbers, not a huge shot-blocking team but still a pretty good rim-protecting team.

“I think they were top-10 in defense last year and we obviously want to improve on that. There’s always room for improvement when you start breaking down film.”

Stiemsma is spot on: the Raptors were ninth in points allowed per-100 possessions despite ranking just 24th in blocks per minute, with a middle-of-the-pack mark in opponent field goal percentage at the rim. It’s one area the defense can stand to improve, and the roster is a little thin on centers with that ability. Behind Jonas Valanciunas, there’s the under-sized Chuck Hayes, the raw Bebe Nogueira, the inconsistently-deployed Tyler Hansbrough, and Amir Johnson, who the team probably hopes to avoid burdening with too many minutes at the pivot.

There’s always the chance an additional backup center presents himself on the trade market later in the season, but for now Stiemsma seems to fit a need more than his competitors – he’s averaged 2.8 blocks per-36 minutes for his career and held opponents to a respectable 51.5 percent shooting mark at the rim last season.

If Stiemsma’s reputation hasn’t preceded him in Toronto, it doesn’t seem like it will take long for fans to get behind him. The city of Toronto loves itself a tough guy, and Stiemsma is hardly shy in the paint.

“I’ve had a couple of physicals lately,” Stiemsma said. “One of the first questions is ‘have you had any concussions?’ And I always kinda joke, ‘well I’ve given a few but I’ve never had one.’ Hopefully I can keep that mentality of being a physical guy. That’s always kind of been my niche – nothing malicious or anything intentional, but I feel like the game should be played a certain style. That physical nature just comes out when you’re in the post, and sometimes somebody ends up on the floor and hopefully it’s not you.

“Maybe if I was missing a tooth, I’d fit in a little better.”

Casey and the Raptors’ brass have four weeks to figure out just how well Stiemsma, or Cherry or Hamilton, fit. With the roles the team sees them in, with the rest of the roster, and with the culture and attitude the team discovered last season.

On the reality that two of three will be cut
Stiemsma: The more we (he and his agent) talked about it, the more we kept going over scenarios, we just felt like this was the best fit and I have the confidence that this is where I’m gonna stick.

Hamilton: It might sound kinda crazy but I feel like things for me are already destined in line. If it’s not here, then I feel like something else is gonna be a great fit for me. I’m not gonna hang my head over anything, it’s the NBA, things happen.

Cherry: I just gotta control what I can control. At the end of the day, when I do that, I’m happy with the decision they make, just knowing I gave it my all. No regrets.

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