With the season fast-approaching, the Toronto Raptors recently announced their trio of training camp invitees: Yuta Watanabe, Alize Johnson, and Henry Ellenson. All three hopefuls have been around the NBA for at least a couple of years. Which means for the first time in over five years, the Raptors won’t have an undrafted free agent from the recent draft class as one of their campers. No pressure, guys!
Per The Athletic’s Blake Murphy, Watanabe’s and Johnson’s deals are Exhibit 10, so there’s a financial incentive for them to stick around with the Raptors 905 should they get cut. Ellenson, on the other hand, has a partial guarantee if he doesn’t make it. The Raptors own his G League rights. Meanwhile, Oshae Brissett signed a partially guaranteed contract as well and has higher guaranteed money than Ellenson. If nothing else, I can’t help but get excited of the prospect of seeing a Raptors 905 lineup of Jalen Harris-Paul Watson-Watanabe-Johnson-Ellenson.
Overall, it still feels like that final NBA roster spot is Brissett’s to lose, but anything can happen in the training camp. Let’s have a look at his competition:
Height: 6’8” (w/o shoes)
Previous Team: Memphis Grizzlies / Memphis Hustle
Yuta Watanabe’s 2019-2020 Season
Yuta Watanabe is a former Memphis Grizzlies two-way contract player, where he spent the first two years of his professional career. As with most two-way contract players, he was relegated to garbage time duties and spent most of his time with the Memphis Hustle, their G League team.
Watanabe could not make enough impression to get consistent minutes with the Grizzlies, and the only time he did get an extended look was when Memphis was injury-ravaged during his rookie year. When the Grizzlies reloaded during the 2019-20 season, he found himself outside looking in behind Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke, Jae Crowder, and Solomon Hill.
In the G League, Watanabe was a different player. He was a versatile two-way swiss-army knife. He was one of his team’s better defenders, able to switch against most guards and forwards. Offensively, he looked good in a variety of roles, even as an occasional first option.
Watanabe brings a lot of things to the table that fits with the Raptors’ philosophy and needs. Defensively, his length and quick feet allow him to switch on-ball against most positions. Watanabe’s effort and ability to contest perimeter shooters also matches what the Raptors like to do defensively. He can also be a help defender around the paint and offer his length and athleticism to bother shots around the rim. He’s not a defensive stopper per se, and his defense is still rough around the edges, but there’s a lot there to like.
Offensively, Watanabe offers a team another playmaker on the floor. He sees the floor well and is capable of making quick passes to cutters. He can put the ball on the floor, often settling for a mid-range jumper or generating a drive-and-kick opportunity if he’s well-defended. Off-the-ball, Watanabe is an excellent cutter, whether he’s coming from the perimeter or hanging around the dunker’s spot.
Watanabe’s lack of defined position and slightly below-average offensive skills are what’s holding him back. His perimeter shooting is still streaky, even though he made some strides last year. Overall, Watanabe just didn’t look comfortable in his NBA minutes but looked good with a more defined role with the Hustle.
As a result, Watanabe is still a long shot at making the Raptors, but he could be a player to keep for the 905 as a “second draft” player for next year. Perhaps they can refine Watanabe’s game and maybe turn him into a bit of a Joe Ingles-type bench piece in the future.
Fun Fact(s): Watanabe is the oldest of the group (26 years old) and also the most popular, with over a hundred thousand followers on Twitter and Instagram. Being one of the few Japanese-born players to make it to the NBA can have that effect.
Height: 6’7.25” (w/o shoes)
Previous Team: Indiana Pacers / Fort Wayne Mad Ants
Alize Johnson’s 2019-2020 Season
|Fort Wayne Mad Ants||19||19||36.7||52.00%||1.1||33.90%||62.50%||3.4||9.5||12.8||4.6||1.4||0.3||3.5||2.4||20.1|
Alize Johnson is perhaps a casualty of what’s wrong with the Indiana Pacers. For one, their ownership is cheap, and while Johnson is still an intriguing prospect, his team has been trying to duck the luxury tax. Another issue: Nate McMillan, the team’s previous coach, had a fixed rotation and was unwilling to give prospects much of a look. The most crucial part: the Pacers just could not develop Johnson enough to compete for a rotation spot.
Johnson was a force in the G League, often outworking multiple defenders in the paint. Right now, he is a power forward trying to become more of a wing player — with hustle, motor, and athleticism etched on his calling card.
Johnson’s offense is best found off-ball, as he’s a pretty good cutter. Aside from that, he’s definitely a player who gets after 50/50 plays to cash in on those possessions. He’s also fun to see in transition, and the past couple of iterations of the Raptors 905 were great in the open floor. It could be a good fit between player and team.
In the G League, Johnson has shown flashes of perimeter shooting and shot creation. Still, unless things changed dramatically during the hiatus, those skills will remain as weaknesses. Johnson has also shown that he can hit the open man for an assist, but he often plays with tunnel vision once he gets close to the rim.
Johnson is someone that can come into a camp and impress a team with his physical tools and activity. The Raptors are looking a little lean in the power forward spot, and he could provide depth at that position. However, Johnson won’t provide the spacing the Raptors need. We’ve seen how limited coach Nick Nurse was when using Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for the same reason.
Johnson can stay in front of guards on switches, so that’s a good sign. However, he does look a little bit lost when not defending the on-ball offensive player. He does offer that randomness that Nurse likes to harness when the team’s in a rut, but that’s not enough to stay on the floor consistently for the Raptors.
Ultimately, Johnson could be a cheaper project than, say, Stanley Johnson, as based on his 2019-20 campaign. Alize’s shooting form needs some work, and he doesn’t have a lot of moves in the bag offensively, but he may have found the perfect place to improve his game with the Raptors 905.
Fun Fact(s): Johnson played the point as a high school freshman before he had his growth spurt. He is also just a month older than fellow Johnson, Stanley.
Height: 6’10” (w/o shoes)
Previous Team: Brooklyn Nets / Raptors 905
Henry Ellenson’s 2019-2020 Season
|Long Island Nets||10||6||31.5||49.0%||2.1||31.8%||96.2%||1.6||8.9||10.5||2.2||0.8||1.2||2.8||2.8||20.1|
We got to see Henry Ellenson play up-close with the Raptors 905, and it’s clear he was miscast as a power forward in Detroit. His sweet stroke is pretty good, and he can shoot it from anywhere. The problem lies with the other things teams expect from their big men: rim protection, rebounding, and, more recently, defensive versatility, particularly switching against smaller guards.
Playing with the 905, Ellenson’s weaknesses were exposed when playing with subpar defenders. Last season’s 905 team had many holes defensively due to roster imbalance and injuries throughout the season. Ellenson is just not strong enough defensively to fill that gap, but he was solid on D when the team was at full strength. I’m highlighting his technical weaknesses here, but we’re not talking about Andrea Bargnani. Ellenson at least fights hard for rebounds and his position, and you can see that effort on every play.
Offensively, Ellenson is not only a perimeter threat. While he doesn’t have the first step or foot speed to blow by his defender, he can make defenders pay if they bite on his pump fake. He’s shown the ability to read what the defense is doing and making passes that are one step ahead of the defense.
For more, I profiled Ellenson earlier this year a few games in with the Raptors 905.
Out of the three featured here, Ellenson has the most NBA-ready game and should fit in nicely with the Raptors’ lineup. Offensively, he’ll be a floor spacer and can be a good pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop target. He won’t solve the Raptors’ rebounding issues, but he’s a big enough body to grab boards against smaller defenders, and he works hard to contest shots around the rim.
Ellenson’s shooting, size, and mobility would allow Nurse to develop some funky lineups, especially with the bench unit. The Raptors have enough defensive players for Ellenson to play with, and their scheme has more flexibility in hiding someone like him. There are players similar to him who managed to make a career off the bench, e.g. fellow white stiffs like Kelly Olynyk, Frank Kaminsky, Luke Kornet, Nemanja Bjelica — so Ellenson isn’t too far from his dream.
Ellenson is entering his fifth year as a professional basketball player, and he’s still unable to find a team to give him a shot. He’s too good to keep grinding it in the G League, as he’s already shown what he can do for a few years now. What Ellenson needs is a chance at the right system and environment. Sticking around with the 905 might be the best option for him to get a call-up into such a place in the NBA.
Fun Fact(s): Ellenson is the youngest of this group (23 years old), but has been in the NBA longer, since he declared for the 2016 NBA draft. Based on team need, Ellenson was one of the names most mocks associated with the Raptors leading up to the 2016 Draft — and he worked out for the team at the time too.