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Searching for the Diamond in the Rough

Every summer NBA teams prep for the upcoming season by putting together their respective summer league squads. These teams generally consist of newly drafted and second and third year players who haven’t had much playing time yet in their NBA careers. Furthermore, various other players who have been playing professionally overseas or in other developmental leagues find themselves dotting summer league rosters.

Besides getting the team’s own draft picks and young contract players some NBA experience and evaluating their skill sets, it’s also an attempt to evaluate other non-NBA players who may be ready to help a team out. Every summer a player who was previously forgotten or not considered to be NBA worthy steps out of the shadows and earns a spot in the league. Last summer, players like Keith McLeod and Zaza Pachulia played their way into permanent rotation on NBA rosters after strong summer league showings. Likewise, previous summers have been coming out parties for players like Rasual Butler, Ronald “Flip” Murray, Josh Howard, Willie Green and Chris Andersen. Strong summer league play can go a long way towards a guaranteed NBA contract, especially for teams looking to improve in a certain area. Defensive stoppers like Ronald Dupree, Adrian Griffin and Greg Buckner were late or un-drafted players whose summer league play earned them spots on teams needing to fill that niche.

Looking towards the 2005 NBA season, the Toronto Raptors have many holes that need to be filled. Next to Atlanta, the Raptors were the worst team in the league for holding opponents’ field-goal percentage down (.467), fourth worst in rebounds per game (40.09) and sixth worst in blocks per game (3.86.) Many times this past season, the Raptors lost close games due to the lack of a defensive stop, key rebound or costly turnovers.

So the question remains, can any of these needs be addressed by players who may show up in summer camp this year?

I feel the answer is yes and we’ll now take a look at three players who could have an immediate impact in three main areas which the Raptors must address going into the next season.

Apart from Chris Bosh and Jalen Rose’s periodic work in the post, the Raptors were primarily a jump shooting team in 2004/05. With this style, it was imperative for the Raptors to get into their offensive sets early and get great ball movement to find open shooters. This did not always occur and some of the blame must fall on the Raptors point guards. The good news is that Raptors may already have a potential solution in the fold this year in Omar Cook.

The NBDL’s assist and steal leader in 2004 has been much maligned and almost forgotten since he left St. John’s after his excellent freshman season in 2001. He was drafted in the second round that summer but teams questioned his shooting touch and he has since bounced around the league and played a great deal of his career with the Fayetteville Patriots of the National Basketball Development League. However in his short stay with the Raptors this year (5 games), he played the part of distributor to perfection. In the Raptors final game of the season, Cook doled out 9 assists along with his 19 points and 2 steals. Cook also logged 31 minutes as opposed to the Raptors’ usual starter Rafer Alston’s 17. Alston’s tendency for show-time exploits and shoot-first mentality did not always go over well with fans and coaches alike and Cook’s court vision was a welcome addition. His stellar play in his short time with the team has hopefully earned him an invite to the Raptors’ summer league squad.

The second area which obviously needs to be addressed is defense. The Raptors could really use a stopper along the lines of the aforementioned Buckner whose athleticism and defensive presence would help the Raptors in close games. Unfortunately the Raptors had a chance to draft such a player in Andre Iguodala last spring but chose Rafael Araujo instead. Eric Williams, acquired in the Vince Carter trade, was supposed to be that player. But after his first few games replacing Jalen Rose in the starting lineup, Williams found himself amidst controversy over his complaints involving playing time and the Raptors organization in general and was not the player the Raptors had envisioned when they obtained him. This need could be addressed internally as well. In Pape Sow, the Raptors have an athletic young player who rebounds and defends with ferocity. This was especially evident as his playing time grew towards the end of the season. While comparisons to Ben Wallace are a bit overblown at this time, he will be on the Raptors summer league roster looking to make good on his enormous upside and earn a permanent spot in the Raptors rotation.

Finally, the Raptors could really use help in the big man department. The center by committee approach didn’t work out last season and with the eminent departure of free agent Donyell Marshall, this is a MUST FILL niche. However, finding a big man who can come in and have an immediate impact is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Loren Woods and Aaron Williams have not had the impact that was hoped for and it is obvious that Araujo is still a long way from contributing. Sow stepped in and showed great promise as an athletic shot blocker and rebounder but needs more experience.

With four draft picks potentially available to them in this year’s draft, the Raptors will obviously attempt to fill the void through the draft to some capacity. But is there anyone else out there? The first player that comes to mind is, once again, a player the Raptors are familiar with.

Maceo Baston spent the last four months of the 2002/03 season with the Raptors after playing for Joventut Badalona in the Spanish League overseas. He wound up with the Raptors’ Summer League team in 2003 but his services were not retained for that upcoming season. However, his play in recent years overseas begs another look. A 6-9 forward with great athleticism, Baston has always been potentially dominant defensively. But it’s his improved offensive play and all-around game that is turning heads overseas.

Playing with Maccabi Elite Tel-Aviv of the ISR Premier League Baston was named to the All-Europe 2nd team and All-Imports and All-Defensive Teams in the past 2 seasons. In addition, he helped his Tel-Aviv squad defend the European Final Four title pouring in 18 points and 7 boards in their win. The Raptors could really use someone with his athleticism and defensive work ethic in the post as both Matt Bonner and Rafael Araujo aren’t quick or athletic enough to guard the NBA’s best bigs.

Unfortunately, there are only 15 spots on the Raptors roster for the upcoming season. With the return of Donyell Marshall and Milt Palacio unlikely and the status of oft-injured Alvin Williams unsure, the Raptors may have 3 open spots on their roster. However, with the potential of adding up to four new players solely from the draft, there may not be room for any other additions. This does not however mean that the Raptors shouldn’t bring some of these players in for a second look as the Raptors desperately need experienced players who can come in and help them right now. As teams like the Chicago Bulls showed last year, drafting experienced college winners (Chris Duhon and Ben Gordon) along with experienced over-seas vets (Andres Nocioni) can provide a fast effective method of righting a ship that’s been sailing off course for the past few seasons.

- Adam Francis