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Player Review: Isaac Bonga’s road to position-less basketball

The Raptors “labbed” Isaac Bonga with the Raptors 905 for the entire season in hopes of developing him and becoming part of the front office’s vision: tall but position-less basketball

Fort Wayne Mad Ants v Raptors 905 Photo by Christian Bonin/NBAE via Getty Images

I won’t blame the Toronto Raptors fanbase if they forget that Isaac Bonga was on the roster for the entire year. Bonga only played a career-low 69 minutes this season after getting an extended look on a rebuilding Washington Wizards for almost two years.

The numbers are paltry, Bonga appeared in 15 games, playing less than 5 minutes of garbage time each game while not having any counting stats averaging at least an integer.

If we base it on what seems to be a regression based on his stints between the Raptors and the Wizards, it’s fair to conclude that this is a failed experiment. Yet another low-risk swing-and-miss for this front office. Or is it?

Bonga barely made the roster after going through a competitive training camp, edging out NBA vet Sam Dekker and fan favourite Ish Wainwright. However, given the way the roster panned out, it’s clear that he was on the outside looking in as he had several proven players ahead of him on the depth chart.

Enter the Raptors 905 G League stint.

Road to position-less basketball

Before we begin on his Raptors 905 journey, I would like to point this out — I wasn’t sure what Bonga’s role was heading into the G League season. He’s not really good enough to play point full time, while his offense consists of flashes of great euro-step and spin moves. Given how we had David Johnson, Dalano Banton, and perhaps Malachi Flynn possibly getting PG reps in Mississauga, I didn’t expect Bonga to play the point for coach Mutombo.

Looking at his preseason games, heck, even going back to his Wizards stint, Bonga looked like he was just running around doing cardio and not as involved in the offense. Defensively, he has the tools to be a versatile defender and looking at his first four games with the Wizards last season, he was their best defender on the floor, so there’s some promise. Not up to the Raptors’ standard, but it’s evident that there’s a solid base there.

Enter the G League Showcase Cup, and Bonga started with a bang. In his first game, he showcased everything offensively. Catch-and-shoot threes, pull-up threes, attacking downhill, cutting to the basket, passing and playmaking. He was very dangerous in transition, either as a ballhandler or a finisher. All the while sharing point guard duties. Then the next game was the Dalano Express 905 debut, and Bonga played an excellent “Robin” to Banton’s “Batman.” What was more apparent in that game was his defensive versatility, sealing his game-winner with an excellent on-ball defense on the Westchester Knicks’ Brandon Williams, who torched the Raptors 905 the entire game.

As the 905 games went on, his role changed several times, as we saw the emergence of Reggie Perry as another #1 option on the team while the team’s point guards (Ashton Hagans and Breein Tyree) got healthy. Bonga became the glue guy on this team and basically filled whatever the roster needed. There was a point when he was the backup centre in the regular season and eventually became the starting centre when Perry received a couple of call-ups. The Raptors 905 weathered all the personnel changes and did not skip a beat, finishing at the top of the regular-season standings, and Bonga was a big part of their success. He essentially played whatever role the team needed. It wasn’t a surprise that Bonga finished a cumulative +193 (narrowly the 2nd best) for the season.

Defensively, Bonga made some strides in two areas. The G League is loaded with smaller, quicker guards, and Bonga had enough reps switching on them. It’s not perfect, but his stance is much better now, and he can stay in front of quicker guards much better. Bonga uses his length to keep in front of his man, or if not, quickly recover to keep it a contested shot. Perhaps a bit of a surprise given his “lack of strength” issue coming into the season was the great job he did filling in as the backup centre, and, later on, the starting centre. The bigs in the G League might be smaller compared to the NBA, but that was probably the least comfortable position for Bonga to play, and he held his own for the most part. If anything, he was a much better rim protector than Reggie Perry was with the 905.

Reservations

However, it wasn’t peaches and cream for Bonga with the Raptors 905. Even after a full stint as a developmental prospect, he’s still had a big summer ahead to prepare for a training camp battle. For one, his perimeter shooting needs to improve. Bonga has to show that he can make at least one per game on a short stint and scale that up to 2-3 makes if his minutes go up as a potential 8th or 9th rotation player. Bonga shot 38.1% from behind the arc during the Showcase Cup on six attempts per game but struggled with fewer shots during the regular season, shooting 30.3% on 4.1 attempts.

Another issue that Bonga needs to address this offseason is his strength. Clearly, he’s still growing into his body, and he’s gotten stronger as the season went. However, he was just strong enough to play as a “big” at the G League level, and the NBA’s a different monster. It’s a root cause of a lot of his issues — he can’t take advantage of his mismatch if the defender is showing enough physicality, produces subpar finishing with contact, and limits his moves to the basket with the preference of avoiding contact. Sure, Bonga’s handles need some work as well, but getting stronger should elevate some of the things that he can do on both ends of the floor.

Outlook

It’s apparent what the Raptors are trying to do with Bonga. With the main club playing as close as possible to a position-less style, they need players that can do everything decent. The player must understand free-flowing from one position to another, game to game, and possession to possession. However, the front office is also limited in getting resources that can be an immediate plug-and-play to this brand of basketball. They will have to “farm” these types of players with the salary cap.

It’s not common for fourth-year players to spend their season with the G League, and normally, that’s not a good sign. However, the Raptors and Bonga had a plan in place heading into the season, and the one-year contract was pretty much the cost of a closer look at Bonga as he develops under the Raptors’ developmental system. Bonga is a low-risk investment, and I think he made enough strides last season to warrant another look this coming training camp. If he can get even stronger, which is not farfetched as he’s getting stronger as he grows into his body, there may be a special player that can be unlocked there. Perhaps it’s time to reap what they’ve sown.

Overall grade: C-