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Player Preview: What’s next for Justin Champagnie after earning a roster spot?

The Raptors decided to bank on the development they saw from Justin Champagnie this past season, but the stakes are now higher, and he’ll have to prove that the Raptors are right to keep him.

Raptors 905 v Long Island Nets Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

I wrote Justin Champagnie’s player preview here at RaptorsHQ last year, and back then, after pouring over his college tapes and watching his summer league and preseason games, I concluded that Champagnie might have a lot of holes in his game, but he’s one key skillset away from fighting for a rotation spot.

Champagnie’s game entering the NBA was one of a power forward trapped in a shooting guard’s body. He excelled in outworking bigger opponents in the paint, as he’s got an excellent nose for the ball, athleticism, and the relentlessness to get “at it.” Champagnie feasted on interior scoring, crashing the boards, and moving off the ball. However, at the NBA level, he would have to transition into a 3+D prospect to have staying power in the NBA.

Champagnie got his first real taste of rotation minutes against the New York Knicks back in November and showcased his talent for crashing the boards. However, he quickly discovered that even against bad teams, the athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster than at the collegiate level.

Champagnie made his Raptors 905 debut alongside Dalano Banton in Mississauga, and he missed all of his shots past 4 feet. Perhaps the nerves played a part in it, but the offensive struggles we saw in the Summer League to his NBA minutes were evident. Champagnie struggled to do whatever worked for him in the half-court set at the collegiate level. His lack of first step and face-up game were on display.

Unfortunately, Champagnie would not get consistent reps with the Raptors 905 during the Showcase Cup, as the main club was going through personnel issues, and the curse of being a borderline rotation player kept him on the Raptors bench, waiting for his number to be called. An assignment back to Mississauga unleashed his offense a bit, perhaps starting to get used to the NBA defense, as he put up his then-best game as a pro, 34 points, nine rebounds, and three steals while seeing his first perimeter shot go in. It was a classic Champagnie Pitt game.

Unfortunately, Champagnie couldn’t build up on that momentum, as his play with the Raptors 905 and the main club came back to earth, struggling to find his place offensively. However, coach Nick Nurse’s tendency to throw curve balls when his team is on a rut ensured that Champagnie would get a random look here and there, and his first impact game as a Raptor was on display against the OKC Thunder last December.

Down nine entering the final frame, the Raptors just had a forgettable third quarter, getting run off the floor via a 33-12 third quarter drubbing. Nurse called Champagnie’s number to start the quarter, but he didn’t make any immediate impact until halfway through the period. The Raptors were mounting a late rally, and Scottie Barnes found him cutting along the baseline for an and-1. With less than 20 seconds left, Champagnie did the same cut, only this time, on the opposite side, finishing a tough acrobatic reverse layup to cut the lead to two. Champagnie then tapped in the game-winner!! ... only it came a hair after the buzzer and didn’t count.

Champagnie would play in 16 of the next 19 games, with more than half of them as a rotation player, mainly because of the injuries and covid hitting the team, but also because of the energy he brought every time he was on the floor. Champagnie’s best offensive game came during this stretch when he dropped 14 points via four trifectas against the San Antonio Spurs. That was the first game as a professional Champagnie hunted instead of turning down or reluctantly shooting perimeter shots.

Champagnie would continue to see playing time with the main club until the team started to get their players back from the protocols, and that meant a reduction in role and minutes and being on the outside looking in again on Nurse’s rotation. He transitioned back to the Raptors 905, where he surprised everyone with his production.

In the Raptors 905’s regular season, we saw a confident, decisive, and much-improved Champagnie. He bumped his production from 13.5 points per game during the Showcase Cup to 21.1 points in the regular season, but the biggest improvement came from his new-found confidence and marksmanship from the perimeter. The Champagnie we saw in the Showcase Cup was hesitant at best and turned down open looks from the perimeter, as evident with his 12.5% clip on four attempts per game. The Champagnie 2.0 was aggressive, confident, and skilled. He scored in various ways, but more importantly, he was hunting perimeter shots.

Champagnie erupted for 27 points on 5-for-10 perimeter shooting against Cleveland Charge back in early February, dropped 45 points on 7-for-11 perimeter shooting against the Wisconsin Herd in March, and another 7-for-11 perimeter shooting against the Greenboro Swarm to end the regular season.

The playoffs saw Champagnie shift into another gear, scoring 32.5 points while shooting 36.8% from behind the arc in 9.5 attempts, as he almost carried the team to the finals. That was a fun Champagnie, as most of his output came from moves that should translate when he gets reps with the main club.

Unfortunately, coach Nurse went into playoff rotation mode after the all-star break, which meant running his core players to the ground so that they could salvage a playoff spot, so we did not see Champagnie back with the Raptors.

It was supposed to be a big summer for Champagnie, who, despite not seeing plenty of time with the main club, had the momentum based on the growth he’d shown with the Raptors 905. He was rewarded with a pay bump, getting a standard contract, but he would have to earn it in the training camp to get it guaranteed.

However, the summer wasn’t too kind to Champagnie. He missed the Vegas Summer League with a broken thumb, and though he would resurface now and then on the highlights of Rico Hines’ ball runs, Champagnie then injured his hip, and missed most of the preseason games.

Despite a so-so preseason stint, the Raptors decided to keep Champagnie over Josh Jackson, DJ Wilson, and Gabe Brown. It appears he’s shown enough in the training camp and throughout his rookie campaign for the Raptors to bet on his development. Of course, despite the investment in Champagnie’s development, if the Raptors didn’t see enough or were underwhelmed, they could have easily moved on to other prospects.

Now that Champagnie’s secured a regular roster spot, he’s faced with a different, perhaps a harder challenge — keeping it. Looking at the prospective rotation, it’s likely that Champagnie would be on the outside looking in, as coach Nurse doesn’t like to play more than eight players every night. However, the Raptors’ offense can get ugly pretty fast, and Nurse likes to throw curve balls when games like this happen. We can expect the intangibles that Champagnie can bring to the table, but can he be ready to showcase his development and show more than what we saw with the main club last season? Can he be a decent wing/guard defender and hit that corner three?

There might be a small window of opportunity for Champagnie to make a case on the court, with injuries to Otto Porter Jr and Chris Boucher opening up some minutes. However, I won’t be surprised to see Champagnie start the season with the Raptors 905 as he continues to work on reinventing his game to suit the NBA. Maybe we’ll catch the twins going head-to-head in the NBA G League, but I’m looking forward to seeing Champagnie showcase his development with the big boys.