With the 2016-17 season in the rearview, next up for the Toronto Raptors is the NBA draft. The team kicked off its first pre-draft workout session on Wednesday at BioSteel Centre. The team held a six-player workout, featuring Canadian Dylan Ennis from Oregon, Tyler Lydon from Syracuse, T.J. Williams from Northeastern, Rawle Alkins from Arizona, Jeremy Hollowell from Georgia State and Rashawn Thomas from Texas A&M C.C. The Raptors held a second workout on Thursday, this time featuring just two players: Tyler Cavanaugh from George Washington and T.J. Leaf from UCLA. The Raptors will select 23rd in this year’s draft.
“This is always a good time to really learn who these guys are, not only as players but as people,” Raptors director of player personnel Dan Tolzman said of the pre-draft workout process. ”You get them up close and you really get to know them on a personal level and see them interact with coaches and other staff members.”
With Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright on the team’s current roster, the Raptors are no stranger to drafting four-year players. Ennis, the older brother of Los Angeles Lakers point guard Tyler Ennis, is in a unique situation as a 25-year-old senior navigating the pre-draft process. He talked about how his experiences in college have helped to prepare him for the next level of basketball.
“There’s a lot of guys who go to college and go straight to the league, and they haven’t been through the things I’ve been through,” Ennis said. “I’ve came off the bench, I know how to deal with that. I’ve been a starter, I know how to deal with that. I know how to play off the ball, I know how to play on the ball. And I’m experienced. I know what the coach is gonna want, I’m an extension of the coach on the floor. So instead of being older, I’m more experienced than a lot of guys.”
Ennis broke into a large smile when he was told that he has been described as a coach in a player’s body.
“Yeah, I hear that a lot actually,” Ennis said. “I love it. Coaches love it. If the NBA coaches watch me and they believe that I’m an extension on the court, then that’s a positive. I’ve been around a lot of younger guys. I know Payton Pritchard, my point guard [at Oregon], is about seven years younger than me, and I’m able to mold those guys in college. Now I get to this level and obviously the older guys are gonna teach me a lot of things but they won’t have to teach me as much as the younger guys. So it’s definitely a positive for that.”
Though some teams will question the potential upside of seniors and four-year players, the Raptors have benefitted from the experience and maturity of the four-year players on their roster.
“We’ve had a lot of success drafting seniors and bringing guys in,” Dan Tolzman said. “They just have the right mentality in terms of working hard in developing. Older players in the draft, as long as they have that approach, they’ll get better just because the amount of time that they can now put into the game and the level of coaches they have around working them.”
Owning the 23rd pick means looking at a wide range of potential draft targets. One thing that appeals to Toronto’s front office is a player who can come in and shoot the ball.
“It’s really important in today’s NBA that all five positions can offer some sort of stretchability in terms of shooting the ball and I think the more spacing you can create on the floor, the easier it makes the other job for everyone else,” Tolzman said. “So, you know, we do a lot of our workout tailored around our regular sets and the regular way that we play and how [players] shoot the ball and decision make and pass the ball within that workout program, it helps kind of get a feeling for what these guys can do for us.”
Syracuse’s Lydon, a 6-foot-9 forward, feels he would fit in with the Raptors because of his ability to shoot ball.
“It’s definitely an area I feel like I can go in and help a team out with,” Lydon said. “Shooting the ball, spacing the floor out, making it easy for other guys.”
Lydon said he can play multiple positions, giving whatever coaching staff he’s playing for multiple options of how to use him. As for the workout, he was pleased with the effort and results.
“I think I went out and I thought I played pretty well,” he said. “I think I can handle the ball a lot better than people think. I know that coming from Syracuse, a lot of people question my defence, so that’s something I know right off the bat I’ve gotta work on and get better at. And my strength, and everything. But I feel like I can come in and make an impact.”
Leaf, like Lydon, is a player that is intriguing for Toronto because of his shooting stroke. At 6-foot-10, Leaf played just one season in college, but shot 47 percent from three and 62 percent from the floor. Leaf’s father, Brad Leaf, played professionally in Israel before returning to the U.S where he also served as coach of T.J.’s high school team. The benefits of growing up in a basketball household were easy to see in Thursday’s workout.
“You can tell just, he plays the right way,” Tolzman said. “Not only in this setting, but scouting him so much, when it’s decision-making, team-oriented basketball, he’s elite at that. Always seems to make the right passes, finds himself in the right spot for opportune rebounds and that sort of things. I think a lot of that comes from being around the game from such a young age and having the fundamentals ingrained in him in terms of how to be an effective player when you don’t have the ball in your hands. He’s a classic example of doesn’t need to be dominating the ball to have an impact in the game.”
Thursday’s workout was Leaf’s third. He said it was the hardest of the three he’s gone through so far and that he was enjoying his first time in Toronto. Leaf talked about the importance of pushing through when the workout gets hard.
“Every team I go to knows what I can do,” he said. “They’ve watched my games, they’ve done their homework. Nothing is going to surprise them or what not. They just want to get me in, get a feel for me. A lot of that, I just think, is how hard you work. Everyone is going to miss shots here and there, but they just want to see how hard you’re working and if you’re going to push through it.”
Every NBA franchise is looking for the player that everyone else is slipping on. Owning picks in the latter half of the first round in the previous two seasons — in addition to ninth overall pick Jakob Poeltl in 2015 — means the Raptors front office is used to this process.
“It’s one of those things where it’s a good thing because [owning the 23rd pick means] the main team is doing well and it’s just on us to dig a little deeper and find guys who might slip through the cracks as far as the lottery,” Tolzman said. “But, I wouldn’t say it’s easier [drafting 23rd] because the pickings are slimmer. The pressure is a little bit less on hitting home runs in this range but at the same time there’s always, every year, there’s always players from 20-60 who always make an impact in the NBA and they end up being really good players and it’s up to us to find those guys.”
One thing Toronto’s front office isn’t concerned with is outside projections.
“I think we kind of just go for players that we like as a staff,” Tolzman said. “All the mock drafts online and the consensus lists that you see out there, we kind of don’t listen to those at all and if a guy we really like, we have in the 20s and everyone else might think he’s in the 50s we’re going to take him in the 20s regardless of where we should take him.
“That’s the way we approach it and it doesn’t really matter if it’s [pick] 23 or 43,” he said. “It’s our one pick and we try to make the best one we can.”