If you asked anyone on the Raptors 905, they’d tell you the end of the season has left a bitter taste in their mouth. Obviously G League basketball isn’t the most important thing in the world right now, but having the season end prematurely is hard to swallow regardless.
And why’s that? Well, the 905 were on the cusp of securing a wildcard spot for the G League playoffs. The season was halted with seven games left, and the team sitting tied for that last spot. How far they could have gone is debatable, but the G League playoffs are much more unpredictable compared to those of the NBA.
There’s a chance that the 905ers might have faced the Maine Red Claws (Tacko Fall, Carson Edwards, Tremont Waters) or a balanced Canton Charge team (Dean Wade, Matt Mooney). Should they have moved on, the Wisconsin Herd, atop of the Eastern Conference standings, were waiting for them (minus Dragan Bender). Some tough teams, but down the stretch, post-trade deadline, the 905 had gone 2-0.
Winners of eight of their last ten games, and their final four in a row, the Raptors 905 were the best team in the G League since February 1st, with a 10-3 record. In short, they were shaping up to be the most dangerous team heading into the playoffs.
There was hype for the Raptors 905 coming into the season. You have a high profile local talent Tyler Ennis, two-way players in Oshae Brissett (another local talent) and Shamorie Ponds, and the highlight reels of Sagaba Konate, Devin Robinson, and sharpshooter Matt Morgan. Rookie Dewan Hernandez was expected to spend most of his first season with the 905 too.
The ever-reliable Duane Notice was the only returning player from last year’s Loyd-Boucher era. Paul Watson, Jawun Evans, and Justin Reyes rounded up the roster, providing fringe NBA-level skills and veteran leadership.
On paper, the 905 looked good. There was a lot of firepower in the backcourt, but the squad was fragile upfront, with Konate, Hernandez, and open-tryout Nicholas Baer as their big men. It became the defining issue of the team as the season progressed.
With the 905’s reputation as a developmental team, and their proven success for the past three years, it was easy to be confident and think they would easily be back in the playoffs — despite even all that roster turnover.
Injuries Run Amok
One of the other defining issues for this year’s 905, however, was injuries. Who would have thought that Tyler Ennis’ well-documented past injury would be the least concerning thing for the 905?
Sagaba Konate was initially supposed to miss the first three weeks of the season. Still, his knee issues kept him from making his debut until January of this year. After a few games, he was on a heavy minutes restriction (one stretch of five minutes per game) and was held out of some games for precautionary reasons.
Dewan Hernandez, meanwhile, started at centre for the Raptors 905, but then suffered an ankle injury back in December, and was not able to recover as expected. (He was still injured by the end of the season.) It was a big blow to his development, as Hernandez had also been unable to play in his last collegiate year before entering the NBA.
Elsewhere on the roster, Jawun Evans had not played since February 22nd, and missed three games between Feb. 1 and 12th due to lingering hamstring injury. But wait there’s more!
Devin Robinson’s knee injury late November forced him to miss almost a month, and could very well have cost him a call-up (he was one of the top performers to start the season). Robinson was just getting hot and leading the 905 in scoring when he was struck down by injury. When he returned, Robinson had to settle as the third or fourth scoring option as Justin Anderson, Paul Watson, and Oshae Brissett had become bigger parts of the rotation. Then, just as Robinson was settling in as that option, he turned his ankle in late February, missing a few more games.
Early Fit Issues
The Raptors 905 entered their season with a roster imbalance: Dewan Hernandez was their only active big, and only Devin Robinson and Nicholas Baer, both power forwards, were backing him up. Having three guards close to just six-feet playing rotation minutes alongside Tyler Ennis put a lot of strain on the 905’s thin frontcourt too.
There would be times where at least three of Tyler Ennis (6’3”), Jawun Evans (6’), Matt Morgan (6’2”), and Shamorie Ponds (6’1”) were on the floor together. (Note: these measurements are most likely with shoes on.) None of them have a defensive reputation to guard their own position, let alone being tasked to defend bigger players.
Injuries to Sagaba Konate and Dewan Hernandez forced coach Jama Mahlalela to use Baer, Robinson, Oshae Brissett, and Paul Watson to man the middle — which was obviously tough for all involved.
As with any newly assembled roster, it can take time for a team to mesh, and the Raptors 905 struggled out of the gate, dropping their first five games. Tyler Ennis looked better than anticipated but had his struggles finding his teammates at times.
The acquisition of Justin Anderson added more firepower for the Raptors 905. Still, his addition was not out of need and created more redundancy on the roster. It forced coach Mahlalela to go further into micro-ball (yes, the Raptors 905 did it before the Rockets made it cool), with Anderson as the team’s pivot.
Chris Boucher and Jordan Loyd’s banner season that followed coach Jerry Stackhouse’s year with mature prospects in Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller, and Alfonzo McKinnie spoiled Raptors fans a bit. This year was the first time the Raptors and 905 were looking at young, promising, but raw prospects. After a few games in, it was clear that Hernandez, Brissett, and Ponds needed to put more work in to succeed at the next level.
Hernandez struggled on both ends, looking lost on defense at times, and unable to find what works for him offensively. However, there were moments where he would do something offensively that would make one go “that’s an NBA player right there.” It was good to see, even in small doses.
Brissett started the season looking out of control, lacking any offensive polish, unable to finish around the rim, but a ball of energy whenever he was on the floor. As the season went on, he eventually found his footing (in the NBA too!), but Brissett needed time to figure things out.
Meanwhile, Ponds’ shot selection was suspect, but he was tasked with the Lou Will-esque role for the team. At the time, he was the 905’s best hard/bad shot taker and maker, and the team relied on him at times to bail them out, particularly in clutch situations. Defensively, he struggled to keep his man in front of him though (also like Lou Will).
Justin Anderson’s 905 career did not last long, as he impressed the Brooklyn Nets enough with his G League production. Anderson came in and immediately became the 905’s number one option, chucking three after three to show he can hit (or, at least, shoot) them from anywhere, in any situation.
Paul Watson also received a call-up from Atlanta Hawks, after an impressive start to the season as the 905’s secondary scoring option. Watson then averaged 18 points per game and shot just under 48 percent from deep with a high volume of attempts. His play was strong enough to earn him the second two-way contract spot on the Raptors (sorry Shamorie!).
It’s easy to point out that the trade between Justin Anderson and Henry Ellenson as the start, but I would argue that transaction was actually the last piece for the 905’s turnaround.
The team’s turnaround really started with the Raptors recalling Oshae Brissett. Playing and practicing with the main club looks to have done wonders for Brissett’s game. When he came back to Mississauga in early January, Oshae put together a string of consistent solid performances for the 905.
Around the same time, the Raptors 905 also picked up Michael Bethea Jr, a 6’6” shooting guard with a reputation as a hard-nosed defender. The team also received a bump from the main club by assigning Stanley Johnson, Matt Thomas, and Malcolm Miller a few times. Also, as mentioned, the 905 essentially traded Ponds for Paul Watson, who provided another boost.
Anderson would eventually come back to the Raptors after a couple of 10-day stint with the Nets. The Nets would end up trading Henry Ellenson for Justin Anderson so that they could keep a close eye on Anderson for the remainder of the season.
After the Ellenson trade, and all the other happenings, the 905 went 12-5. Even with Ellenson’s limitations defensively, he allowed Robinson, Watson, and Brissett to play their natural position for the most part — helping the 905 win.
Aside from Hernandez, the Raptors also assigned Malcolm Miller, Stanley Johnson, and Matt Thomas to the 905 a couple of times. Due to the injuries the main club went through, the three only donned the 905 jerseys for one to three games.
Thomas’ lone appearance was one of the best Raptors 905 games of the season. He had to shake off some jitters, starting the game 1-for-5, including 0-for-3 from three, but then hit four of his next seven shots.
Miller was sent down to help the 905 and stay in game shape, but he failed to find his shot in the three games he played. Still, Miller put in work on defense. A lot of his activity there doesn’t manifest in the boxscore, but Miller showed why coach Nick Nurse trusted him for as long as he did during that 30-point comeback against the Mavs.
Stanley Johnson’s assignment was met with mixed reviews. At times, he displayed why other teams had given up on him; then again, he also showed his potential as an NBA player. Johnson struggled to find his place in the 905’s offense, sometimes becoming black hole with the ball in his hands. He would struggle to finish in the paint sometimes, but then would find another gear and make a surprising play. That’s the Stanley Johnson experience.
Run for the Wildcard Spot
As mentioned, the 905 went 12-5 after the Ellenson trade. They were also winners of eight of their last ten games, their final four in a row, and were the best team in the league since the start of February. It was a special run.
What’s more, the 905 were no longer dropping close games as they did earlier in the season. They defeated top teams such as the Memphis Hustle, Grand Rapids Drive, Wisconsin Herd, Lakeland Magic, and Maine Red Claws. Coach Mahlalela showed versatility and creativity with his lineups and game plans during this stretch too. The key players stepped up, with Tyler Ennis, Devin Robinson, Henry Ellenson, Oshae Brissett, and Paul Watson putting up numbers to help their team win.
Overall, the 905 had a better balance of spacing and defense brought by Ellenson, Watson, Morgan, Notice, and Bethea Jr. The energy on and off the bench was provided by Robinson, Brissett, and Justin Reyes. And at the point of attack, the 905 could rely on the steady Tyler Ennis, who displayed excellent floor leadership and composure.
The 905 were no doubt peaking at the right time, which makes the abrupt end of the season that much more of a bummer.
Hopefully, COVID-19 will be a thing of the past by the time the next NBA season rolls around. It is still very much undecided how the 2019-20 NBA season will eventually play out — and no word has been put out there about the G League just yet.
For the 905, Dewan Hernandez will most likely toil in the G League once the season starts again. He’ll need all the seasoning he can get by playing as much as he can. There’s a lot of lost time for him to make up.
Paul Watson and Oshae Brissett are expected to compete for full roster spots next year. Whether they make it or even get rotation minutes will heavily rely on what Masai Ujiri does with the Raptors roster this coming offseason.
Devin Robinson, Henry Ellenson, and Tyler Ennis are fringe NBA players now and should get at least training camp invites somewhere — if not in Toronto. There’s always the option of a stint overseas in pro leagues too.
Duane Notice, Jawun Evans, Justin Reyes, Bethea Jr, Sagaba Konate, Nicholas Baer, and Matt Morgan’s future with the organization could be up in the air. Depending on their priorities, we could see some of them back with the 905 next year. They could also move on from the team, or watch as the team itself moves on from them.
Such is the unpredictability in the G League — and, given how this season ended, life too.