It’s been seven years since the Toronto Raptors had their own first-round pick fall in the top-14 of the NBA draft — in the so-called lottery, reserved for teams that have missed the playoffs and designed to help teams fast track back to contention.
As the Raptors work to extend their playoff streak to seven straight seasons, replenishing their roster through the lottery hasn’t been an option. It’s the price of winning.
The one lottery pick the Raptors did have over that span was in 2016 when the selection they acquired from the New York Knicks in the Andrea Bargnani deal became the ninth overall choice with which the Raptors took Jakob Poeltl, who in turn was dealt to the San Antonio Spurs when they acquired Kawhi Leonard, along with their own first-round pick in the 2019 Draft.
And yet, as the Raptors make their way through an early season rash of injuries — they are an impressive 9-4 heading into their match-up with the Orlando Magic at Scotiabank Arena Wednesday night — they continue getting important contributions from young rotation-caliber players they’ve acquired either deep in the draft or signed as free agents.
One common denominator?
Toronto seems undeterred by how old their rookies are when they put on a Raptors jersey.
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In a league obsessed with upside, younger athletes get the benefit of the doubt with the hope that a 19 or 20-year-old will have more runway to improve.
But the Raptors have shown that even at the grand old age of 21, 22 or 23 — which is how old former Raptor Delon Wright was when Toronto took him with the 20th pick in 2016 — there is plenty to learn and plenty of room to grow.
Norm Powell was 22 and a graduating senior when the Raptors acquired him on draft night in 2015; Pascal Siakam was 22 and had three years of college under his belt when he was taken with the 27th pick in 2016.
Similarly, the Raptors signed Fred VanVleet as an undrafted free agent who was a 22-year-old senior out of Wichita State and picked up Chris Boucher after his one year with the Warriors saw him make his NBA debut at age 25 following four years in college.
The latest example of the trend is Terence Davis II, the promising combo guard who was signed as a free agent this past summer after he played four seasons at the University of Mississippi and made his NBA debut as 22-year-old.
Almost on cue, he’s proven that the Raptors got a steal and a long list of NBA teams seem to be making a mistake in overlooking older draft prospects.
Davis went off for 16 points and seven assists while knocking down four triples in the Raptors’ win Monday against the visiting Charlotte Hornets, all career-highs.
In his last five games Davis is averaging 10.2 points, 3.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 2.2 threes per game in 20 minutes of floor time.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, among first-year players with at least 150 minutes or 10 games played this season, Davis ranks first in Wins Shares/48 minutes (.186), first in box score plus/minus (2.9) and second in three-point shooting percentage (46.4).
With the usual caveat that the season is still in its early stages, how Davis did not get drafted in the first-round — let alone drafted at all — seems to be a pertinent question.
“I don’t know anyone to blame, but I would say God just made it this way for me,” says Davis. “I’m a firm believer in Jesus Christ and he knew I would end up in the right situation and I feel like this is the best situation possible I could have ended up in. Luckily it’s been working out for us.”
His agent, Adam Pensack, has some experience in these matters. He also represents potential Rookie of the Year candidate Kendrick Nunn of the Miami Heat, who went undrafted after four years of college and made his NBA debut this season at age 24, and Kenrich Williams of the New Orleans Pelicans, an undrafted senior in 2018 who started 29 games as a rookie last season.
“As a senior, it’s not easy to get drafted. I think there were two seniors taken in the first-round [in 2019] and in the last three years there have been seven seniors taken out of 90 first-round picks.
“It’s very difficult for a senior to go on the first round no matter what they do. “
“The older guys — quote and unquote — 21, 22, they don’t get the benefit of the doubt to have potential,” says VanVleet. “You think of potential for 18 and 19 year olds. It’s funny that way. A lot of teams are going for the jackpot in the draft and sometimes you hit and sometimes you don’t. More often than not, you don’t. Other than that, I think some of the older guys that have done it over the course of a few years come in more mature, more ready to play, more humble, and it helps them transition.”
Not that going undrafted is the end of the world. It can even work out in the player’s favour.
Once it was clear Davis wasn’t going to be taken in the first-round or in the upper reaches of the second-round, Pensack began turning down teams that wanted to take Davis later in the draft and offer two-way deals – team-friendly contracts that allow teams to stash players in the G-League at a far lower salary.
As a free agent Davis could pick his destination and could cash in two summers from now – he’s on a two-year deal with a team option for year two that is almost certain to be picked up for 2020-21 – before he hits the market again.
It was the same path VanVleet followed and the two-year, $18-million deal he signed after his second season in Toronto indicates it was the right strategy.
But from a wider perspective, perhaps a re-evaluation may be in order. The 2016 Rookie of the Year was Malcolm Brogdon, then with the Milwaukee Bucks, drafted as a 23-year-old fifth-year senior in the second-round.
One of the most impressive rookies this season besides Nunn and Davis has been Brandon Clarke with Memphis, who played four years of college and was 23 when the season started. Eric Paschall, a 22-year-old rookie with Golden State, is averaging 16.7 points a game on 51.5 per cent shooting.
The Raptors’ record selecting upperclassmen the past few seasons speaks for itself.
“When you start to see more of that stuff happen there is no question that people start wondering if they are over-valuing youth in the draft process,” says Pensack. “Even in the past week I’ve sat with different NBA guys and they’ve said they think the pendulum might be swinging back in the direction of older players.”
Certainly Raptors head coach Nick Nurse sees the advantages of having a couple of extra years of development before reaching the NBA.
“[They] are more mature physically, first of all. Growing into their body, a little stronger, probably. Just age in general provides more opportunity for basketball,” he says. “They’re out there a little closer in age to the guys they’re playing against. That’s one thing about this league: It’s grown men out there playing, and it’s a physical game. The age gap is a real thing.”
“From what I’ve seen, from the seven years I’ve been [with the Raptors], a lot of the battle really starts physically,” Nurse continues. “Can you move your feet and keep up with people? Can you bang around a little bit and take a few hits or deliver a few hits and hang in there?
“Because I think that goes a long way toward the mental state of how you feel out there. Both are important, physically and mentally. The maturity on both of those levels are important. I think the physical level is an important one.”
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Davis certainly meets those criteria, as did VanVleet and Powell before him.
But another attribute the Raptors seems to have tapped into is identifying players who still have holes in their game that are willing to work on them.
Davis checks all those boxes, too.
“Work ethic is the biggest differentiator but it (is) the hardest thing for NBA teams to measure,” says Pensack. “How do you calculate that?”
“[But] it works massively in Terence’s favour… Terence is at the top of the charts in terms of wanting to get better and going out and doing something about it. Figuring out who has that is the No. 1 thing that teams struggle with, but the Raptors seem to have done a better job than most.”
Almost since the day the Raptors signed him in July, Davis has been working daily with the club’s player development staff. It was Raptors assistant coach Jim Sann who helped correct an alignment issue with Davis’ feet on his three-point shot and alter the position of his shooting elbow as well.
Davis was a respectable 37 per cent three-point shooter at Ole Miss as a senior but is shooting 46 per cent from deep through 13 NBA games and shows every sign of being a reliable three-point shooter at the NBA level, something that should compliment his explosive athleticism.
“You have coaches that really focus in on things like that, development,” says Davis. “Toronto is one of the best development teams in the NBA. Anything with development, your shot, ball-handling, anything of that sort.”
In Davis — their latest ‘old’ rookie — it’s apparent there is plenty to work with and the best is yet come.