As the conversation gets around to Raptors rookies Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris, Fred VanVleet is unequivocal in his assessment.
It’s blunt and it’s complimentary and it speaks to the style the youngsters have shown, a style that VanVleet knows so well.
They just play.
They play hard, they’re not flashy and, like VanVleet himself, they get the job done in whatever way is necessary.
VanVleet uses the same word to describe the first-year guards. “He’s been ballin’,” he says of Flynn. And Harris? “Jalen’s a baller.”
High praise, indeed.
It is a tremendously small sample size — 41 NBA games for Flynn before Thursday, eight for Harris — and there are significant holes in their games, as should be expected given their inexperience. But getting the early stamp of approval from VanVleet should carry some weight.
Both rookies are in some ways reminiscent of a young VanVleet, willing to listen and learn from more experienced teammates and coaches, and with enough potential to be intriguing long-term prospects.
They don’t possess the most startling athleticism, they aren’t especially big and strong. But in very short snippets this season, they’ve shown a toughness that could allow them to become players.
Harris is more raw than Flynn right now and a bit behind. He lost much of the season to injury and played only seven games with the G League 905. Depending on how the last five games of the NBA regular season play out for the Raptors, he could be force-fed minutes to see how he develops but there is ground to be made up.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs throughout my whole career, so I think it’s just more of that,” said Harris, who broke his back and missed a high school season and sat out a college year while transferring from Louisiana Tech to Nevada.
“I’ve been pretty used to the adversity … that’s kind of been my mindset. I think opportunities are starting to come in and I’m just trying to maximize.”
The Raptors have seen more of Harris in practices and shootarounds than anyone has in games and they’ve come away impressed. It’s too early to suggest the former second-round pick has a future in Toronto but he’s given every indication of being worth a longer look.
“Obviously you see the confidence, the shotmaking,” VanVleet said. “He’s got to get his feet wet a little bit. He’s a little fresh out there but, as he gets more comfortable, I think you’ll see more of his game. But he’s just a baller. It’s not the prettiest, not the prototypical game, but he knows what he’s doing out there.”
There is a far greater sample size for Flynn, who has appeared in more than half of Toronto’s games this season, starting nine. He goes through predictable ups and downs, especially with his shooting, but the confidence is there.
“I think I’m being more comfortable on both ends of the floor,” he said. “Knowing what my strengths are on both sides and just trying to play to that. Try to take away my disadvantages as much as I can.”
Flynn, who won the Eastern Conference rookie of the month award for April, has a leg up on Harris in the one thing that matters most. As a first-round pick, Flynn has a contract guaranteed for at least three years while Harris is on a two-way deal that expires at the end of the season.
There’s a greater likelihood that Flynn has a brighter future and his Raptors teammates will do what they can to nurse him along.
“You just got to stay in his ear, keep him confident, keep supporting him,” VanVleet said. “Understanding that somebody’s highs and lows, you just got to go through it. There’s nothing really you can do to cheat the process. You’ve just got to be patient and try to help him when you can.”
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