With the youth movement and rebuild in full effect for the Toronto Raptors, the HQ talks to one of the key personnel responsible for working with the club's young foundation...
Last off-season we had a chance to talk to Toronto Raptors' Assistant Coach, Eric Hughes, as the Summer League version of the Dinos, under his watch, had just come off an extremely successful campaign.
With an even bigger emphasis now on a youth movement in Toronto, I thought it would be interesting to talk with Coach Hughes again, to get his take on just how many of the players we had originally discussed had developed last year.
I caught up with him via phone from LA last week as we touched on subjects like DeRozan, the lack of an NBA Summer League this off-season, and the future of guys like Ed Davis and Solomon Alabi...
1. Raptors HQ: For starters, take us through the end of the year process really for the coaching staff; speaking to the players, what's going on in Raptorland etc...if anything!
Coach Hughes: Well, right now, it's just the process of getting ready for two things; one, our current roster players organized for the summer, and then the next process would be seeing where we fall in the draft lottery and then kinda figuring out what we're going to do in regards to how many players we're going to work out in the month of June after the lottery, and then Chicago and all that. Those are kind of the two things that are going on right now.
I'm in LA right now actually and I'm going to spend some time with DeMar (DeRozan) today so, kind of slowly getting those guys going again. You know there's no Summer League this summer in the NBA, so that would have been something, I don't know if DeMar would have played, but that would have been something for Eddy (Ed Davis) and Solo (Solomon Alabi) for sure, and maybe James Johnson, and then obviously the guys we would draft, to play in. So with no Summer League we're trying to spend as much time as we can with our guys in May and June, whereas in years' past, we've spent most of that time in July and August with the season coming up.
But with the unknowns, we're trying, like I said, to spend as much time as we can now.
2. RHQ: There are a lot question marks right now, be they with the NBA season itself, or the contractual situations with management and coaching, do you guys have a bunch of contingency plans in place or how does that work?
CH: I think what Bryan (Colangelo) said in his post-season press conference is the same statement that I will make; we're going at it like its business as usual. We're working with our young guys and our current roster players and trying to get them on track. At the end of the year we sit down with our coaching staff, with Jay and the rest of us as well as our strength and conditioning staff and kind of figure out the strengths and weakness of all of our guys and here's where they need to get better, here are areas they need to get stronger in, whatever the case may be. And then we kind of implement a plan, between myself and Alvin, what guys we're going to work with and where we're going to go, and our strength coach Francesco Cuzzolin, and Johnny Lee, we try to coordinate with them on what our guys need to work on so when we're spending time with them, they're getting both strength and conditioning as well as basketball skill work. And like I said, with no Summer League, which is the only thing we know for sure won't happen this summer, we're trying to spend more time with them early in the summer than we normally would.
3. RHQ: Just how big of an issue is it for a young team like the Raptors to not have a Summer League?
CH: I think Summer League is great. If you look at the Summer League of, let's take DeMar for example, the Summer League he had last year, making the all-tournament team and being one of the best players at the Vegas Summer League and then carrying it on to the year that he had, I think Summer League is big, especially for the young guys. It's extra practices, it's extra games, you know a guy like Ed Davis, he wasn't a huge factor and not necessarily a number one option as far as throwing the ball into him this past season, but in Summer League, he would be. And I think that helps you gain confidence, it helps show you that you can score at the NBA level, and like I said, I think that was a huge factor in DeMar's development this year - the success that he had, and the confidence he gained at Summer League last year.
So for a guy like Ed, a guy like Solo, that didn't play a lot of minutes, Solo was back and forth, up and down from the D-League this year, I think Summer League is a huge asset for guys like that.
I don't know if DeMar would have played this year, maybe it would have been a situation where he plays one or two games, but he could at least come out to Vegas and get some workouts in, and practice and get some shots up so I think Summer League is a huge asset, especially in terms of gaining confidence and getting more reps in a structured situation.
4. RHQ: Without Summer League, are there any other leagues you try to encourage the young guys to participate in?
CH: Every city has a league, DeMar plays in the Drew League which is a league out here in LA...Sonny's talked about maybe going to Philadelphia and maybe playing out there in a league with Alvin (Williams), I know Ed plays in a league back home in the Richmond area, so there's Summer Leagues all over the place. Now, obviously, NBA-sanctioned Summer Leagues, something like that, that won't happen this year, the NBA's already confirmed that, but leagues within their towns, sure. Now is it the same competition, the same structure? I don't know the answer to that but at least the guys I mentioned and others are going to get out and play in a structured environment if they can.
5. RHQ: Switching back to the season that was, a lot of youth on this roster right now and going forward, can you give us a general overview from your perspective of how you thought the development of the key youngsters went this past year?
CH: I think at the end of the year it showed how far along some of those guys came. Ed struggled at the beginning of the year, you know, the knee injury obviously set him back a bit, he didn't get the chance to go through training camp, he didn't get the chance to go through exhibition games, and those are great opportunities for a young guy like that. He gets to play in games that don't necessarily count, he gets extra reps and practice, and to miss all of that and probably the first 25 to 30 games or whatever, it was tough for him to get himself going. You gotta play yourself into shape first, then you have to try to play, and guys are already IN shape and guys have already PLAYED two months and here you are, a rookie, trying to come in and find your way.
That's why I think the D League was good for him and arguably, the last 25-30 games, he might have been our best power forward on the court. He showed that he has a great feel for the game, an ability to block shots, an ability to run the court. He's got to develop that 15 to 17 foot jump shot but he got better at it last year, he definitely worked on that, he came every morning before practice and we worked on it and you know, I think Ed has a great upside but no Summer League hurts. That time gives him a chance to be with our coaching staff, to get stronger, to get reps, to gain confidence playing in regulation NBA games, albeit Summer League but still NBA refs, an NBA court, NBA competition, I think that would have been big for him.
So a guy like Ed Davis, no Summer League hurts him, a guy like James Johnson, I think no Summer League hurts him but getting back to the development, I think you saw all those guys when they were given the opportunity to play together, what they could do, and we had a lot of them on the court at the same time, and I think you saw the future of the Raptors. I think you saw what we're trying to build and what Bryan is trying to do, kind of rebuild this club with the young guys and get a great draft pick and add to it, and with a lot of money to spend in free agency, to get a couple maybe key veteran guys or maybe a true center. But I think the future's bright with that core group of young players.
6. RHQ: When we last spoke, we talked a lot about DeMar obviously, he had come off a great Summer League session, and you had mentioned that he had improved but he wasn't quite where you wanted him to be. You had noted things like his confidence shooting the 3, kicking out his legs in terms of form etc, but after the season he had, can you give us your assessment of where he is now?
CH: I think DeMar's come leaps and bounds for starters in terms of his ability to knock down that 15 to 17 foot jump shot consistently. And it's made him a much better player, because before I don't think people were even guarding him, and I think once he had the ability to knock that shot down consistently he became a better player, a better scorer. Also his ability to get to the free-throw line improved; he led us in free-throw attempts and his percentage went from low 70's to above 90% after the all-star break, ending up about 81% I believe.
He worked at it though. DeMar worked at it. He comes back late at night and gets his shot up, we started a routine about halfway through the season where he comes every morning, about a half hour before shoot-around and gets his shots up then, so he worked at it. Repetition and getting those extra shots up, you can't help but become a better shooter.
But I think a lot of those guys worked at it. Ed worked at it, Jerryd came back every night, Sonny was in the gym a bunch, and that's what you have to do. This is their craft, this is what they do for a living and to rest on your laurels and not get the extra shots in because you feel like you're getting better, that's where guys fall off. I think if anything, when DeMar started getting some confidence and started having a couple of those games where he was up in the high twenties and he had a couple games over thirty, I think it was kind of like a drug, he became addicted and that's when he decided even more so that he wanted to get in the gym and get those extra shots up.
So, a lot's said about DeMar's growth but DeMar's growth has come from DeMar's work ethic and DeMar's "want" to be in the gym. Like I said, it's May 4th and I'm actually living in LA this summer, and I had lunch with him last week and he's chomping at the bit, he wants to get shots up today. Now I don't know how much we'll actually do, but just the fact that he wants to start working in May says something about how much better he wants to be. He had a taste of success this year, and a taste of people complementing him and I think DeMar has a chance to be a really good player. He's got a ways to go, he's gotta develop the ability to knock down the 3-point shot consistently, he's gotta be more consistent, you know, DeMar would have a 30 point game and he'd come back with a six point game, you can't have those. But his play in the league this year, and upping his scoring to about 17 points per game, I think says a lot from where he was last year.
But also last year he didn't get the opportunity as much. We had Andrea, and when we had Bosh and Turk, and there weren't as many shots for him last year as there were this year so again, he was getting the opportunity and he ran with it and had success with it.
7. RHQ: Other than the 3-point piece and consistency, any other areas you want to work with him on this summer, maybe on the defensive end, or strength...
CH: Well he definitely needs to improve his body, and he needs to get stronger, and again, you have to look at DeMar; if he had stayed in college, this would have been his senior year. So his body is not quite developed. I think that really changes when you get to 24 or 25 and DeMar's just getting ready to turn 22 so he's still young. But his body needs to change, he knows that, he's hired a coach to work with him out here in LA this summer, and he's gonna concentrate not just on the basketball stuff but on changing his body as well.
And defensively DeMar has the ability and at times has shown that he can be a defensive presence for us, getting out, getting after people. But at times, whether it be lack of effort or want, or also just his physical strength, at times, he struggled. He especially struggled with more physical players.
A team that comes to mind is Milwaukee. I mean Corey Maggette and Carlos Delfino and those guys just beat him up, just put a body on him every time and he really struggled against physical play. And I think again, his body needs to mature, but he needs to help his body's maturation by getting into the weight room and changing his body a bit.