Twenty-five years ago, the greatest basketball team was assembled. The USA Dream Team. Thanks to a rule that allowed professionals to represent their country in 1990, the Americans were allowed to field an All-Star team that left the international basketball community in awe, and in its wake en route to a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
The Dream Team made its debut during the 1992 Tournament of the Americas in Portland at the Memorial Coliseum. The top four teams from the qualifying tournament would obtain berths into that summer’s Olympic Games.
Nearly six and a half hours away from the Coliseum, the Canadian men’s basketball team assembled a mix of players at the University of Victoria, located in British Columbia’s capital city, Victoria.
This is the story of the 1992 Team Canada squad in the words of its players.
Guards: Ronn McMahon, Trevor Williams, Phil Ohl (listed as guard/forward)
Forwards/centers: Leo Rautins, Gerald Kazanowski, Alan Kristmanson, Mike Smrek, Greg Wiltjer, Bill Wennington, J.D Jackson, David Turcotte, Martin Keane
Head coach: Ken Shields
PART 1: THE ASSEMBLING
The 1992 team had a different set of characters from its previous incarnations. Coach Ken Shields succeeded coach Jack Donohue, who had coached the national team for 17 years, won gold at the 1983 World University Games in Edmonton, and participated in four Olympics. Shields’ resume included seven national championships with the University of Victoria and was named Canadian Interuniversity Sport’s Coach of the Year three times.
Shields was planning on having four returning players from the 1988 Olympic Team roster: Gerald Kazanowski, Alan Kristmanson, Eli Pasquale, and David Turcotte. A fifth, Jay Triano, had become an assistant coach for Team Canada. With Pasquale on the roster, the Canadians would have an experienced leader at point guard, and a logjam at the position with teammates Ronn McMahon and Trevor Williams waiting in the wings.
Meanwhile, the new International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rules that permitted NBA players to participate allowed guys like Mike Smrek and Bill Wennington to play for Canada. The Canadians also sought Leo Rautins, who had played in the NBA before playing for various teams in Europe. However, controversy swirled around Rautins when he considered playing for Lithuania (his mother is of Lithuanian descent) instead of his home nation.
Ken Shields, head coach: Martin Keane. Trevor [Williams]. Al Kristmanson. Kaz. Gerald Kazanowski. Bill Wennington. Leo Rautins. Phil Ohl. Mike Smrek. Greg Wiltjer. Ronnie McMahon. David Turcotte. J.D. Jackson.
We wanted to put together the best team. These were the guys that were available that I thought we could make the best team out of.
Bill Wennington, centre: I don’t remember our guards. There were young guys I hadn’t played with before. Wow. I remember Leo Rautins was there. Ken Shields was coaching. Was Smreky on the team? Wiltjer was. Wiltjer and Smrek were on the team. Was Jay [Triano] there?
Jay Triano, assistant coach: I kind of got added to the staff a little bit late. I was coaching the Canadian junior team at the time. Ron Adams was helping the Canadian team, he’s with the Golden State Warriors now. He’s been around a lot of NBA teams. He got a job, I believe it was with San Antonio. He had to leave the Canadian team to go. I was coaching the junior team and I was in town, so Ken Shields asked me to join the team and be an assistant just prior to the competition starting.
Gerald Kazanowski, forward: We had a very strong team. Most of the team centralized in Victoria, the year before. Had some great players.
Martin Keane, guard: Coach Shields came on, at the time, he was one of the leading, most winningest coaches [in Canada]. Seven championships.
J.D Jackson, forward: I was one of the young guys who was on that team, with Trevor and Martin Keane. I had played with Coach Shields on his Junior national teams and the year before, I was already on the senior team. I was pretty confident.
But we had a lot of veterans on the team, some NBA guys, and I didn’t know if I was going to play well enough to gain the coach’s confidence and actually get some responsibility and some playing time. Worked out really well and I was actually one of those guys that got a lot of playing time.
Alan Kristmanson, forward: We were big. I think the biggest adjustment for us is that we went from real small to real big. We had three seven-footers (Kristmanson, Kazanowski, Wennington). I think the biggest adjustment was how to incorporate big players. At Seoul [in 1988] we weren’t real big, but we were a real good team. We finished sixth.
THE POINT GUARD PROBLEM
Ronn McMahon, guard: I had been playing ball in the U.S. [I was] in the [Continental Basketball Association] and then they called me and said, ‘Hey, you might be eligible [to play for Canada].’ I knew I was Canadian, I just hadn’t thought of it that much. It happened really fast. I was in Florida playing for a team. [Canada] said come up to the tryout. ‘Can’t guarantee you’ll get a spot.’
Trevor Williams, guard: To be honest, I wasn’t over-the-top excited about the team. About anything. At that time, that was my makeup. I kind of thought, you know, I could compete with anybody and I felt confident about my ability and stuff like that. I wasn’t over-the-top excited about anything like that. When I was in the camp, I was playing behind Eli Pasquale and he’s kind of like a legend for the Canadian national team.
At that age, I was the kind of guy that was very headstrong so I told Ken Shields I’m out of here. And I left the team. ‘I think what you guys are doing to me is ugly, and God don’t like ugly.’ So I went back home. I went to the barbershop where I had my business at the time and I continued working.
Wennington: Well, I remember we lost Eli Pasquale because I fell on his leg and it broke. So he was on the team but he couldn’t play because he was injured.
Shields: We lost Eli Pasquale in a tournament in the States, in Puerto Rico actually. Bill Wennington fell and rolled on Eli. Broke his ankle. So we lost our starting point guard. That was a huge, huge loss. All that experience. Eli’s experience. National team play. It was a huge loss. Plus he was the captain, he ran our team.
If Eli Pasquale was on that team, it would’ve functioned far better. It did function far better. Because of all of his experience.
We were a very different team without Eli Pasquale. I don’t say that negatively about any other player, at all. Speaks for itself. He was a class above any other player, or the other point guards.
McMahon: For me that was my first year coming to try out. I knew a little bit but I hadn’t really known his legacy as much as it really was until, probably, later.
It was kind of a bummer for us, because he would’ve provided some stability.
Wennington: I’m going to be honest with you, when I fell on Eli I felt horrible. I was trying to take a charge, Eli was behind me.
I remember someone was driving along the baseline and I stepped in to take a charge. Right about the edge of the lane and I kind of fell back as he ran into me and Eli was standing behind me. I kind of just caught his leg under my shoulders and my back. And he kind of just went down under me. He said he knew right away that something was wrong. Bad.
Eli Pasquale, projected starting point guard for Canada: I was on the weak side, guarding my guy. Hanging one foot in the key. Bill, all of a sudden, he just got hit, and he landed with his body on my left leg, which in turn just twisted in and then the fibula bone got broken and my ankle ligaments got basically torn up. Thanks to Bill, that goddamn guy.
Wennington: It got quiet. And everyone really understood, your starting point guard has an injury and he doesn’t feel good about it. It’s bad.
Pasquale: We had an x-ray and [Team Canada doctor Andrew Pipe] saw it was the fibula bone, which is a non-weight bearing bone, which isn’t the issue. But it was the fact that my ligaments got torn in my ankle.
Wennington: What are we going to do? Who’s going to come in? And we got another guard to come in. Someone that had been left home from training camp.
Williams: The phone rang at the barbershop and it was Ken Shields. He said to me: ‘Eli broke his ankle, would you like to come back to the team?’
Shields: [Trevor] was the very next person that we had in the group who could play the point guard position, so I called him and he seemed happy to come back.
LEO FOR LITHUANIA?
Leo Rautins, forward: I had retired. Then I started to play again and then I blew out my knee. I just finished my first season after blowing out my knee in Europe, in Spain.
I was really excited to play for Canada again but there was some issues just with the way the team was being run.
By ’92, there were some questions about whether I was going to play on that team. As much as I wanted to go to the Olympics, I was really concerned about what might happen with that team. I also, believe it or not, was asked to play for the Lithuanian team because Lithuania became a free country. My family was Lithuanian. And they wanted to give me a passport and have me play for Lithuania. I talked about that and that created a bit of a stink. I had already played for Canada and I wasn’t going to not play for Canada. That created a bit of a buzz, the fact that they asked me to play. I wouldn’t have even given that the time of day had the situation been different if Jack Donohue was still coaching. Things had just become different with Canada. I wasn’t too excited about the way things were going with that team.
I went head-to-head with Ken Shields before the tournament. I basically told him. We were in Mexico and I think I gave him six or seven reasons why this team will not qualify. And every one of them hit dead on. And I said if you don’t change it, we’ve got a real problem.
One was how he was coaching this team. He was allowing some guys to do whatever they wanted to do. Rubbing some guys the other way, not asserting leadership on this team. Not establishing who the go-to players have to be on this team. Allowing some players to run with way too much freedom and ultimately one of those players I talked about ended up taking the final shot against Venezuela [in the quarterfinals] and missed. And he should’ve never taken that last shot against Venezuela. Just things like that. I told him all those things are going to bite us in the ass.
Shields: I’m not prepared to talk about issues between coaches and players. It’s not fair. Players can say all they want. But coaches can’t say all they want publicly. I never felt it was right for me to discuss specific player issues with anyone. They’re between me and that player.
I didn’t have any personal problems with guys on the team that I’m aware of. Any that I would have, I wouldn’t go into.
Phil Ohl, guard/forward: [Leo] was a bit of a challenge in himself, so if he’s criticizing Shields than he should probably take a pocket mirror out and look at his contributions to the team. Or lack thereof. As all of us needed to have done.
PART 2: “ON THE COURT, THEY BELIEVE THEY’RE GODS”
Two games into the 1992 Tournament of the Americas, Canada had a record of 1–1. They lost a close encounter against Cuba before rebounding against the Argentinians. Meanwhile, the Americans were coming off a 79-point drubbing of the Cubans to open the tournament. Seven Americans scored in double figures and they were up 100–34 with 12 minutes left to play. The Canadians met the Americans in their third game of the tournament.
That’s not to say that Team Canada was unfamiliar with the Americans. Some were college or professional teammates, or adversaries, of the Dream Team players. Others remember playing against the Americans in international competition, including a legendary upset in 1983.
HERE COMES THE DREAM TEAM
Doug Smith, basketball reporter for Toronto Star: The NBA had, for a long time, resisted FIBA’s urge to even put pros in the Olympics. They didn’t want to do it. And then FIBA convinced the NBA that it was a good idea. It would help grow the game. And when they put them together, everybody realized they were by far the greatest team ever assembled. But the hype came when they got to Europe. In Portland, they were just a great team that was going to steamroll the opposition and the opposition back then was in awe.
Rautins: The opening ceremonies of the tournament, they marched in every team and the USA was the last team to come out. At that time, they had some of the best players in the world playing. Oscar Schmidt for Brazil. You had the Argentinian guys. You had players from all these Americas teams at the time, who were big deals for their countries and international ball. And then the U.S. team comes out and these guys were all jumping up and down like little kids to see the U.S. team. It’s something I’ll never forget.
I just had a feeling that there was a whole other gear that the U.S. could go to. That they weren’t going to. Just from having played against some of those guys. Just that feeling you get. I guess as well as we competed against that team, they had another gear that they could’ve gone to and they didn’t. It’s kind of an odd feeling when you’re playing and you know that.
McMahon: It was overwhelming. You recognize who you’re playing against but you have your own personal pride in playing too. The fact that [reporters from] your own country would interview you and they wouldn’t ask you one question about your team or about qualifying for the Olympics. All they would ask about is who’s going to stop Patrick Ewing.
Jackson: Even though we’re playing to qualify for the Olympics. We knew the draw, we knew we’d be playing against the Dream Team; it was more than just what the U.S. team is now, as far as the impact it had on us. And that was back in the day when the borders weren’t so open, so to speak. Most of us, except for a couple guys who made it into the NBA, didn’t ever get a chance to play against that calibre of players. All year long, I think everybody was just thinking about that almost more than actually making the Olympics, to play against the Dream Team.
Kristmanson: I played in the ‘88 Olympics and we lost to the U.S. by four in that game. At that time it would’ve been the biggest upset ever in the Olympics. We had them.
Some of the teams like [Cuba] and all those other teams that were there, it was just embarrassing. They were standing, taking photos beside guys. It was a bit of a joke.
Smith: I remember their first game against Cuba. The players on the Cuban team were taking pictures of the players while they were on the bench getting beat by them.
I don’t think the Canadians were in awe because they knew them all. They played against a lot of them in university. Jack Donohue would take the team down on tours where they would play against the best Americans.
Kristmanson: All we kept hearing was that [the Dream Team] is going to beat you by 80. We just came off a really successful Olympics against them. Most of us have the NBA guys and most of us had played against a bunch of those guys on U.S. teams in the past.
Pasquale: We beat the States, their national team, when I played, beat them in ‘81 at the World University Games in Romania. Beat them in ‘82 at the Knoxville games in Tennessee, beat them in ‘83 at the World University Games. And that had Barkley, they had Karl Malone, and [Jay] Humphries, and Johnny Dawkins.
Wennington:  was a giant victory for basketball. Obviously, USA Basketball was huge in the ’80s and obviously in the ’90s in which it was growing. Chris Mullin was on it. Barkley. Patrick Ewing. They were a good team. All college elite players were playing so they had a lot of notoriety. For us to win it, it was huge and it was actually special because it was in Canada. Every one of us loved that we were doing it on our own floor and it provided a little inspiration for us. I remember Coach Donohue talking about it: ‘We’re at home, we’re protecting our home floor.’ And one-in-a-million was kind of the theme that year. Going through everything and preparing. But to beat the U.S.A., I don’t want to say it was kind of a dream come true but obviously when you go out and you beat the considered best at your craft… The U.S.A. was pretty darn good, considered the best.
Kristmanson: I’ve run into Charles [Barkley] a couple times at golf events and chatted about those years. He remembers losing in Edmonton during the Student Games in ‘83. He was still pissed about that. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Seriously, all these years?’ and he’s like, ‘One of my biggest losses ever. Still pisses me off to this day. Y’all stole my gold medal from me.’
Kazanowski: I’ve been trying to get a video of the game, but it’s nowhere to be seen… I guess it’s something the U.S. doesn’t like to document too much.
Wennington: I knew Chris, I played with Chris. I played against Patrick Ewing a lot in college and in the pros. I banged with David Robinson a little bit.
Shields: I knew [assistant coach] Mike Krzyzewski. I knew Lenny Wilkens. I knew… his name is escaping me. He had the incident with Latrell Sprewell… [P.J.] Carlesimo, I knew him.
Kristmanson: I think [the U.S.] took it really seriously. P.J. Carlesimo followed us for a year. I saw of photo of them standing in front of a chalkboard with my name on it, saying exactly what my tendencies are. They took it really seriously. They had nothing to win, they had everything to lose.
Kazanowski: Going into the ‘92 [tournament], we knew they had to have an off game and we had to play a game without any errors to make it close.
Rautins: I’ve played against a lot of those guys before. I actually knew a lot of guys on that team. Charles Barkley and I played in a summer league. I got traded because of Charles. I played against Michael, I played against Magic back in college, too. Patrick Ewing and I battled, you know—Syracuse-Georgetown. You go through those guys. So I knew most of those guys. Chris Mullin and I played at St. John’s-Syracuse.
McMahon: I knew John Stockton. I wasn’t friends but I played with him in the summers a lot. I was pretty familiar with John.
Kristmanson: The guy I probably knew the most, or saw the most, was [David] Robinson. Jay [Triano] and I played for an AAU team called the Brewster Packers, out of Brewster, Washington. David played for the Armed Forces, before he went to the NBA. I probably played against him 10 times; I saw him a lot. I saw him at Seoul. I knew him enough to sit down and say hi, and chat a little bit. Laettner. I saw Laettner a bunch.
Wennington: You’re talking about every single player on that team was an NBA All-Star and it really didn’t compare at all. My mindset going into this was to play well. If we could compete with this team, we may have a chance to win. Small, however small that is, but if we could compete and only lose to them by 5–10 points, we’re heroes. Because at that point they were beating everybody by 30-plus points.
They were that good. It was just a matter of, if we could go out and compete, just give them a good game, we’d be ok.
Williams: The day of the game against the Dream Team, NBC’s here. We’re very excited. We’re warming up against the Dream Team and I’m like, whoa. I’m taking the ball out of stands and there’s Bill Cosby, Bon Jovi, Lionel Richie, and all these people are in the stands.
Shields: Quite honestly, I wouldn’t know Bon Jovi if he walked through the door. Those guys would but I didn’t. When you’re coaching in a game and you’re not looking in the crowd, you’re not looking for celebrities.
Keane: I just remember when we went through the pre-game and we had to go back out again to start again and [coach] did matchups.
He said ‘Ronn McMahon,’ and he had his height, 5-9, ‘you guard Magic.’ And that sort of nixed the mood.
Turcotte: I remember we’re going through [the game plan]… and [coach] said, ‘All right, Turcotte, you’re going to be starting with Jordan.’ There’s this dead silence in the room and then all of a sudden everyone starts laughing.
JT: Before the game against the U.S., [Ken] was like, ‘All right, Ronn you got Magic, you got Bird, you got Jordan.’ And we kind of looked around and everyone started laughing. Talk about the Dream Team, it was a crazy scenario where we were just really happy. We were going to be guarding these guys who were so good.
Kristmanson: The one moment where I knew it was real: [Running] across the court and exchanging gifts and I look up and it’s Jordan. ‘Okay. It’s for real. Here we go.’
Before the game, both the Americans and Canadians came together for a team photo. It drew mixed reviews from the Canadian players.
Rautins: I remember our coach, Ken Shields, walked in the locker room and said, ‘Who wants to take a photo with Team U.S.A., the Dream Team?’ And I’m just looking like, ‘Are you serious?’ And all the guys are jumping up like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ And I’m like, the game’s over. You’re just waving the white flag. I remember, I thought… Well, one I was pissed off.
It was crazy to me because that was like putting 20 points on a scoreboard right there.
Jackson: They could’ve given us those 20, they still would’ve whooped us.
Ohl: They allowed us to have our picture taken with them.
I didn’t mind it and I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought to be honest.
Kristmanson: It meant nothing to me.
Williams: In my mind, I was like, I didn’t understand that concept because they’re the enemy.
We lost the game before the jump ball.
McMahon: I don’t want to be on the worship altar of these guys when I’m competing against them. Saying that with all respect and humility on who they are. I did have a sense that we were supposed to be kissing their rings before we ever played the game. But I didn’t care about the picture.
Smith: I thought it would be a memorable photo for everyone who was on the Canadian team because these were the greatest stars in the NBA, greatest stars in basketball at the time.
If you ask all those players, honestly, that’s a keepsake that they’re glad they have.
Triano: I do not have that photo. I’ve never had one. Never offered one. Or cared to have one.
Kazanowski: As a player, we were always trained to play every game like you were going to win. And having a photoshoot before the game was a weird feeling. The ‘84 Olympics, it was the same thing. Every game we played, we wanted to go in and win. So you’re geared up to be very competitive.
Shields: I had said to the team we’re not here to get our pictures taken with the U.S.A. team. That’s not why we’re here. I didn’t really want to do it. But most of the teams did that with them. In fact, every team did that with them. And I think it’s a good thing to have a picture of that. The picture’s sitting right in front of me.
Jackson: [Team U.S.A.] was just the classiest guys. Those guys were really respectful. The players, team, they were really classy. They took the time to talk to you after the games and really encouraged you. You know, they weren’t in any way pretentious. So, I thought taking photos with them or any kind of posterity like that was an honour? I had no trouble taking photos with the Dream Team, are you crazy?
I’ll tell you the thing that I did, and I’m still super happy I did this. I went and I found the local reporter, the cameraman. I saw this guy, there’s how many accredited photographers there with their huge equipment. All the world’s great magazines everywhere. Back then [cameramen used] film. You chewed off a roll of film and developed it. Now you wouldn’t do this because images are everywhere. You can get a hold of them. So I asked this guy, he was courtside. He had his accreditation. I said, ‘Look, I’m going to be playing against all my heroes. Can you just at one point during the game, when you see me get on the floor, can you just follow me and shoot off a whole roll of film? Just me playing against Jordan, Drexler, Pippen, and all these guys?’ He said, ‘Yeah, these guys are your heroes, I’ll do that for you.’ Sure enough he did and he gave it to me after the game. Still have a lot of these. My mom has most.
The Canadian starting five: Leo Rautins, Bill Wennington, Ronn McMahon, David Turcotte, Greg Wiltjer
The American starting five: Chris Mullin, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Michael Jordan
Williams: I walked on the basketball court and I looked at Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson. I could just feel the energy from those three men. They’re like, ‘The world is here to see me perform and I’m about to drop 30 on everybody.’ I just feel the confidence from those three men. It was over the top. I don’t know if they’re like that off the court, but on the court they believe they’re gods. And that was a learning experience for me.
Wennington: Yes. But that’s who they were. They understood it. They conducted themselves that way and went about their business that way.
Williams: I think [Barkley] was the best player on that team at that time. He was doing incredible stuff. Any ball that went in the paint, he was getting the rebound. Michael Jordan, yes, in terms of his quickness. Getting in the passing lanes and how he was quick. He was just as quick as I was. He’s 6-4, 6-5. I’m 5-11, but he was just as quick.
Karl Malone. He talked the whole game when I was on the court. He’s a big time trash talker. Michael Jordan, a little bit. Not very much but he did his action more than he did talking. He might say a little something but he’d back it up by stealing the ball right away. I just thought Charles Barkley was a trash talker, he didn’t shut up for the whole game. ‘You just don’t come back down in this paint, little man. Don’t come back down in this paint, little man.’ He just kept saying stuff like that.
Keane: I’m on the bench. I wasn’t even supposed to be on the team. I played 10 minutes.
For 10 minutes I played my heart out. I was nervous. Trevor and I were roommates. People calling us from high school: ‘I sat behind you in science class.’ I went to the University of Washington so I had a lot of my peoples there, because it was in Portland.
Jackson: David Robinson, I remember him soaring over me at one point, with a double pump, in transition, dunk. I wasn’t used to seeing that.
Keane: I knew, I didn’t know him personally to go have a drink but, I was familiar with David Robinson. He dunked on me. I was familiar with Charles, he was talking to me a lot.
Kazanowski: I had one steal. Magic was trying to pass to Barkley. And a couple passes, but nothing super spectacular. Wasn’t a strong game for me.
McMahon: I was assigned to guard Magic. I remember trying to pick him up full court and trying to get close to the ball and he’d just stick his butt out. I’d be 10 feet from the ball.
There was a two-on-one where I was coming down and Magic had somebody on the wing. I was in this spot, do you try to block it? Can I try to, maybe, take a charge? But then he would just drop it off. So I took a gamble that maybe he would probably pass it. He wasn’t trying to score so I thought maybe he’d pass it. So I went for the pass and he faked it in laid it in. When they show the Bird and the Magic highlight reel from that game, it shows that clip. That play is played over and over again over the years. I’ve seen it, or people call me up and say, ‘Hey, I saw you getting burned on TV by Magic.’
Triano: These guys were so efficient at passing the ball. I say that to this day. The biggest discrepancy wasn’t anything other than the way they passed the ball. They passed the ball better than anybody we had ever seen before in the world. Guys were getting the ball on time and on target. Balls were zipping, they were having no problems catching them. Nobody else could catch up to the speed of the ball.
Kristmanson: The biggest thing I took away from that team was, and I don’t think it gets talked about now, is that was a really good team. They had their roles. Jordan’s role was a stopper. Turk had 25 or 26 the game before and Michael just picked him up full court and shut him down. I think he only had 18 against us, or 16. But [scoring] wasn’t his role on that team. It was Magic’s team. He ran the team.
Keane: I just remember Turcotte was guarding Jordan. This was the most amazing thing I’ve seen in a game. Jordan denied him. I’m talking denied him to the point where he could never touch the ball. It was so funny because we had to get the ball to Turk, he was the best shooter on the team at the time. He was going around and we would double him. And Jordan was just high-side like a cat. Wherever he went. It was the most incredible thing. They were trying, they were going full blast.
Turcotte: He was coming at me one time and I was guarding him and I actually stripped the ball and stole the ball from him. I was so excited that I stole the ball from Michael Jordan that I ran in the wrong direction. I got Ronn McMahon going, ‘Turk! Turk!’ I give him the ball and finally ran the right direction.
THE BUMPS AND BRUISES
Williams: I get an outlet pass and I’m pushing the ball, a lot of people don’t notice this. I’m pushing the ball and Michael Jordan is reading me. He’s reading my eyes and he’s reading my body language. So when I’m pushing him, I gave him that eyes and he went for the fake that I gave him. When he went for that fake, he ran into John Stockton. And John Stockton broke his leg. I think that’s the play where I went down the middle and I handed it off to my roomie [Martin Keane]. I think he missed the layup. I can see that and I remember it vividly in my mind because I was there. Exactly what happened.
Jackson: I remember John Stockton breaking his leg at one point. That was a big deal.
John Stockton suffered an undisplaced fracture of his right fibula during the game. He was out for the rest of the Americas tournament, but he ended up joining and playing four games with the U.S.A. Dream Team in Barcelona that summer, averaging 2.8 points and 2.0 assists in a backup role (per Basketball Reference). But Stockton wasn’t the only player who picked up an injury in the game.
Shields: We were seven points behind with five or six minutes left in the half. Bill Wennington hurt his head. A big cut.
Wennington: David Robinson got me. I got like seven stitches in my forehead. Got a good clip in that game. Got a little dizzy.
I was going for an offensive rebound and he just came down, caught the ball, and swung his elbow back around and just caught me above my eye in the head. Went down quick, got up. It hurt a little. Saw a couple of stars, kind of stood up, rubbed my head a little bit and my hand was full of blood. Just hit that spot where it bleeds a lot. Went in and got a few stitches. Then I tried to go back out and play in the second half, but I was dizzy. I really couldn’t focus on what was going on so I didn’t play a whole lot in the second half. Battled for a rebound and it happened. I guess David Robinson’s quicker than I was.
Kristmanson: They had to wrap him up pretty good, he looked like Frankenstein running around there. It was pretty funny.
Turcotte: Charles Barkley and I got tangled up. There’s video of him actually literally throwing me to the ground. We were going for a rebound and he and I were colliding.
It took the Canadians a few minutes before they scored their first two points of the game, but they held their own with the Americans for most of the first half. The Canadians spent most of the half keeping pace, but ended up down 50–33 after two quarters.
Turcotte: We actually kept it fairly close because we tried not to get emotional, we tried to make it a grind. We tried to make the game fairly slow-moving and do a lot of ball control. Instead of coming down and taking the first shot we could get, we would come down and reverse the ball and be in the post, out of the post, and try to wait for a great shot. Tempo was our friend and it kept the game close. That part of the strategy worked well in the first half.
Ohl: We hadn’t woken the bear yet. We hadn’t poked the bear. We had NBA size on our team, we could compete on the boards. We had two NBA guys on the front lines with Mike Smrek and Bill Wennington. From that perspective we were able to compete that way. Defensively, I think we managed to contain them a little bit. I don’t think they really hit their full gear until something happened, where we did poke them.
Down 17 points, Canadian guard Trevor Williams did his best to rally the troops in the locker room.
Jackson: I remember at half in the team room, when we were ready to go back out there, a lot of guys were really frustrated. A bit of yelling, a bit of negative energy. Because we were banging with them until that last minute or two [of the first half]. It was a four-to-five point game for most of the half.
Williams: I’m walking in the locker room at halftime and I’m pumped up so I start saying, ‘Yo,’ excuse my language, but ‘fuck them Americans. Yo. Let’s get in Jordan’s ass.’ And they’re looking at me like I’m crazy. I think they literally thought I was crazy.
They were so in awe of Michael Jordan that they were looking at me like I had horns in my head.
Turcotte: Trevor was pumped. He felt like, ‘Okay, we’re in this fucking game.’
Rautins: Trevor, Martin and a couple of other guys, Turcotte, were always outspoken and saying ‘Screw these guys’ and ‘Screw everybody, let’s just play.’ But then you had a bunch of other guys who just sat there and nodded their head. No one’s listening. I don’t know if anyone believed. I don’t remember it specifically, but usually myself, Trevor, or Turcotte were usually the ones—or Martin—were the ones who spoke usually. It was almost like you were a black sheep with the coaching staff for doing that which made no sense.
HE SAID, HE SAID
One story that has emerged from this game is whether Team Canada’s J.D. Jackson talked trash to one of Team U.S.A.’s players. It seems unclear as to whom it was directed, and even J.D. doesn’t remember it.
Shields: One of our guys trash talked Charles Barkley just before halftime.
Turcotte: When the first half went to the second half, we were all walking down the same tunnel. Somebody, I won’t say who, basically said, ‘See, fellas, we can play with these guys!’ and was starting to pop off a little bit. One of our players.
Shields: J.D. Jackson. I have no idea what he said but it was really not a smart thing to do. Why provoke them? We’re staying with them, it’s a close game. Why would you provoke one of those guys, especially Charles Barkley?
I was appalled that he did it. He did it just before half time.
Ohl: There was some sort of scuffle on the floor and J.D. was competing, and didn’t back down. And I guess the Dream Team guys took it personally.
Wennington: I [told him], you don’t need to do that. These guys can turn it on whenever they want. And you let a sleeping dog lie. Honestly, I don’t think they played real well in the first half. But no reason to wake them up, but yapping at them, kind of gets them going a little bit more. All of a sudden, it’ll turn personal. And when it turns personal for them, you don’t have a chance.
He looked at me like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Just, stop talking to them.’
Jackson: I think when I blocked Ewing I said, you know, whatever, like everybody did back in the day. I don’t remember anybody calling me out or saying, ‘What are you doing?’ Perhaps. But I was in my world back then.
I remember [Patrick] Ewing when I blocked his shot. I was like, ‘Yeah,’ or whatever you say when you block a shot. I don’t know. I didn’t say any cursing. I really don’t know. I didn’t notice. I don’t remember Ken saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to respect these guys.’
McMahon: I remember that one a little different. I know that J.D. made a shot, this was in the second half, and he made a shot, a three-pointer, right in front of Michael Jordan. I think he said something, and I think he was half-joking. But I think Charles Barkley picked up on it.
Turcotte: I was so pissed at that. He was standing behind me and the guy who heard it turned his head and said, ‘Okay, Turk,’ was Magic Johnson. And Charles was there too.
Eight guys jumped on him to shut his mouth but it was too late.
Kazanowski: That’s the first I’d ever heard that. If he said something, it probably would’ve been very light. This is the first I’d ever heard that J.D. was talking smack. I’m sure players talk, whether it was bigger than something that was, in my mind, insignificant.
PART 3: THE FALLOUT
While Canada kept pace with the Americans in the first half, the second was a much different story. What started as a manageable 17-point lead eventually grew and grew to 30 and beyond. The massive lead meant that fringe players like Phil Ohl got their chance to play.
Ohl: I was the 11th or 12th man so I wouldn’t get in some games. Other games I’d get in and play my role. At halftime, I went to Ken—I don’t know if he remembers this—but I went to him at halftime and I said, ‘Ken, do not forget me on the bench. Make sure you get me in. I want to play in this game, I don’t want to have sat against this particular opponent. I want to be able to say I played against them.’ To his credit, I got in with eight or nine minutes left in the second half.
I was so jacked, so excited, and so aggressive, and not smart about it. I was just in guys’ faces, playing as hard as I could. Obviously these guys see that type of enthusiasm and they take full advantage of it.
I was out on the wing, I was right up in Clyde’s grill. And he just swept through and went to the basketball and I fouled him really hard. I picked up a few quick fouls based on my exuberance and enthusiasm.
The Americans poured it on and never turned back, winning 105–61.
Point leaders: Charles Barkley (19), Karl Malone (15), Michael Jordan (14), Chris Mullin (13), Magic Johnson (13), David Robinson (9), Clyde Drexler (8), Scottie Pippen (7), Patrick Ewing (6), Christian Laettner (1), John Stockton (0)
Point leaders: Mike Smrek (14), Alan Kristmanson (11), J.D. Jackson (10), Bill Wennington (8), Leo Rautins (6), Greg Wiltjer (4), Ronn McMahon (2), Trevor Williams (2), Martin Keane (2), Gerald Kazanowski (2), Phil Ohl (0), David Turcotte (0)
Statistics via FIBA
The Americans, unsurprisingly, went on to win the tournament and won every game at the ‘92 Games in Barcelona, resulting in a gold medal.
Canada had a chance to qualify for the Olympics in a quarter-final match versus Venezuela at the Americas. The winner would gain a berth into the semifinals and an automatic place in that summer’s Olympics. Unfortunately, the Canadians lost to the Venezuelans after missing a last-second shot. As a result, Canada failed to qualify, which remains on the minds of some players to this very day.
The Canadian who missed the last shot against Venezuela?
Rautins: J.D. Jackson.
Jackson: I had the last shot to put [the game] into overtime. It was bouncing around the rim and Mike Smrek tried to tip it in, and that didn’t go in. Then it was a jump ball, it was a brouhaha and we ended up losing that game in the last seconds to go to the Olympics. [You have] the greatest experience of your life, and then the worst the next day.
Smith: It was a terrible shot. It was in the middle of the key, coming across the key. Was an absolute prayer. It was a terrible shot.
[Coach Shields] didn’t call the play for me, it was for Leo. I was ballside and Leo was supposed to fake off of my screen. I can’t remember what they did defensively but he was supposed to fake and come up off a high screen up top and get the ball and play the one-on-one. I don’t know what his read was, but he tried to cut the other way. And then we got to a three-count and because he cut the other way, he cut to my side where I was supposed to cut, so I cut back up top where he was supposed to. So the pass came to me. Broken play. I ended up getting the play in isolation, where Leo was supposed to play. There was a handful of seconds left so I drove to the bucket, got a decent shot, a 10-footer. I don’t know if it front-rimmed or if [went] in and out. And then with a few seconds left, Mike Smrek had a real good look at the tip-in. Mike’s tip-in also hit front rim or back rimmed and came out. And then a scrum, it ended [up] being a jump ball. There was a couple seconds left, and there was a crazy jump ball and nobody got possession.
Ohl: That Venezuela game was a complete wash. No way we should’ve lost that game.
Shields: It was the single-most devastating experience of my life not qualifying for the Olympics with that group. There was absolutely no question that we should’ve qualified. And we didn’t. And I was the coach. So I bear the responsibility for it. It sticks with me. It’ll be with me until I die.
It was a real, real struggle to coach national teams once professionals were involved. We never, ever had our full team together. This time we don’t have Rick Fox. In Toronto, we have Rick Fox. But we don’t have Bill Wennington. It was just one difficulty after another and it hasn’t changed.
Turcotte: Of all of my career, that’s probably the greatest disappointment. Maybe I got lucky because we qualified in ‘84 and then we qualified in ‘88.
I thought qualifying was normal and then to realize that we qualified in ’88 and it would be the last time for a long time.
Rautins: Even with Eli’s injury, that team still should’ve gone to the Olympics. This team’s in an elimination game with Venezuela. You beat Venezuela and you’re going to the Olympics, and the team loses. There’s no way that team should’ve ever lost to Venezuela to not go to the Olympics. How we lost to Venezuela, how we approached that game, was a microcosm of everything that happened with that team.
Canada had a legitimate shot to medal in the Olympics. Eli Pasquale would’ve been back and helped by the time the Olympics were there. And I think we had some other guys who could’ve been on that team that would’ve made our team even better. That’s why it’s just unfortunate. It was a missed opportunity and in all my years of playing for Canada there weren’t a lot of missed opportunities. We just maxed out what we could do.
Kazanowski: We were disappointed. We felt we had a really good team and unfortunately we didn’t make it to Barcelona. We played well in spots but we didn’t play enough to be able to go to Barcelona and compete as a team.
Keane: I just remember a lot of disappointment. A lot of people were upset.
We knew we could’ve beat Venezuela.
Wennington: I honestly thought we were good enough and it was just a matter of not playing well enough to win. I think we had the talent. I think Ken had a good strategy, a lot of the things that he was doing were a little bit different for me but I liked them a lot. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out. I don’t want to blame everything on Eli getting hurt, but obviously, that’s something we point out and say, ‘Hey, our best point guard wasn’t there.’ But everything else just didn’t fall into place as quickly as we needed it to.
Pasquale: It took a long time to finally get down to the group that we wanted. Then of course I get injured so that kind of messes it up a little bit. Presumably, I would’ve been starting. So I wasn’t with the team for a lot of that point and I’m usually one of those guys that sort of lead the way.
I think as we went through it, [we] were always trying to figure things out. Even in Puerto Rico, there was an, ‘Oh, who’s going to backup Eli?’ We never got to the point of establishing our team early enough… Ken’s very meticulous and a perfectionist. And I think sometimes when you’re a perfectionist you’re trying to look under every stone and trying to see if you’ve left something out or not. And sometimes you’ve got to say to heck with it, here’s who we have and that’s it, and go with it.
Kristmanson: I think the biggest thing in ‘92 is that roles weren’t defined. That’s what happens when you bring in guys last minute. You saw that with Canada with Wiggins down in wherever they were when they lost to Venezuela, when they beat them again. You get guys kind of standing around looking at each other. ‘Are you going to be The Guy? Am I The Guy?’
I’m not going to point fingers or name guys, but I just think the result of bringing guys in last minute creates a bit of a vacuum. And we lost our leader, he got hurt. On any team when you’re bringing in guys last minute, it’s going to be tough. You’re going to have to figure that out.
Williams: I believe if I could’ve picked three of my homies from Montreal and three of my homies from Ontario and two other players, we would’ve definitely went in that tournament and we would’ve qualified and shocked a lot of people. In terms of getting the team to perform, we underachieved. In terms of picking the best players, I don’t think that happened. There were guys like Ron Crevier that played with me two years before, he was a seven-footer. He was better than the other seven footers that they picked.
Rautins: No disrespect to Ken Shields and his accomplishments as a coach for Canada. But on the national team, I think he struggled with personalities of people. As Trevor said, there were players that were on those teams leading up and in that qualifier that probably shouldn’t have been there.
Ohl: There were a number of guys that were using that arena, or team, as a springboard to further play somewhere. It was a means to an end, rather than being a real honour to play on that team and to give up a little bit of yourself for the greater good.
It’s been 25 years since the tournament, but the memories of the training camp, the game against Americans, and its aftermath still flow. Canada hoped for a better result against the Dream Team, but it’s not everyday you get to play versus the greatest basketball squad ever assembled.
Smith: I think they weren’t afraid. They weren’t in awe, they were just playing. There was a sense of inevitability, that they were going to lose to this team eventually. But I don’t think the Canadians were at all cowards against the Americans. They just played.
I give the Canadians a lot of credit. They didn’t shy away from the competition regardless of the skill of the Americans.
Turcotte: If we had beaten the Dream Team, it would’ve been a bigger victory than U.S.A. Hockey beating the Russians in the 1980 Olympics.
Keane: I wasn’t in awe, but I knew all the commercials run through your head, and these guys are gods. And little-bitty old me… who’s to think I’d play against the Dream Team?
Lonzo Ball: The New Face of the Lakers
Lonzo Ball is the new face of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. The new savior. The Big Baller Brand is now here to stay and LaVar Ball’s family’s future is set. But is that enough?
Lonzo Ball is a great kid and athlete who knows his talent will take him to another level. The major question mark that remains is whether or not he will take the Lakers there as well. He has the platform and skillset to do so, but with that comes the added pressure from the city and league to basically become part of the next version of Kobe and Shaq. It’s too strainful for a young kid—a rookie—to achieve.
Magic Johnson, the recently named President of Basketball of Operations for the Lakers, is taking an aggressive approach to get this team back into playoff contention his first year in. One of his first moves was sending D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick. Brook Lopez is definitely an upgrade at center, but has a couple of years already under his belt.
Lopez will provide a much needed veteran presence with a great IQ for the game at his position. The only downfall is that a couple of years under his belt doesn’t really transfer to great experience, but simply wasted miles on his body. He isn’t as quick as he used to be and doesn’t even rank in the top 10 centers in the league. In fact, Bleacher Report had him last season at exactly 15 out of the top 30 centers in the NBA. While he is has improved by adding the three-point range to his arsenal, there is no doubt that he is nearly past his prime, and although he can still contribute on a nightly basis, who knows how much and what effect it will have with Lonzo Ball running the point.
Ball has great court vision that has been often compared to that of LeBron James. Combined with his passing skills, he is a true PG with tremendous upside in the backcourt. With that being said, he will only reach a certain extent. His full potential is years from being maximized and people are buying into it early on. In fact, the pressure for him to lift a sub .500 team to the playoffs for the first time in five years is daunting.
These are Lonzo Ball’s stats during his rookie—and only—year at UCLA:
- 14.6 Points
- 7.6 Assists
- 6.0 Rebounds
- 1.8 Steals
- 0.8 Blocks
- 55.1 FG%
- 41.2 3P%
He did a tremendous job maintaining that statline and even added a triple-double in the NBA Summer League, earning him the Summer League MVP.
Don’t get me wrong, Ball seems ready for the challenge and is definitely a one-of-a-kind talent mirroring that of Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, but he is not an All-Star or MVP—at least, not yet. These way-too-early predictions that he is the Lakers’ new savior are farfetched. He has yet to face the elite NBA offensive threats and superstars that have been at it for 10-plus years. Defensively speaking he will not be able to keep up. Not in his first year. He still needs NBA experience and a more rounded roster to be able to reach the playoffs.
He is off to a good start, but being named NBA Summer League MVP doesn’t necessarily mean a spectacular season is coming as some think it does. Especially if you consider the previous Summer League MVP winners.
|2012||Damian Lillard (co-MVPs)||PG||Portland Trail Blazers|
|Josh Selby (co-MVPs)||PG||Memphis Grizzlies|
|2013||Jonas Valančiūnas||C||Toronto Raptors|
|2014||Glen Rice Jr.||SG||Washington Wizards|
|2015||Kyle Anderson||SF||San Antonio Spurs|
|2016||Tyus Jones||PG||Minnesota Timberwolves|
|2017||Lonzo Ball||PG||Los Angeles Lakers|
With the exceptions of Damian Lillard in 2012 and Jonas Valanciunas in 2013, the past five Summer League MVP winners have gone on to produce very mediocre NBA careers. All I’m saying is, don’t read too much into NBA Summer League. It’s the pre-preseason that no one really watches or cares about.
The NBA season is nearing—exactly a month away—and my somewhat harsh criticism of Lonzo Ball isn’t too cruel. I am just not ready to jump on the Ball bandwagon following LaVar’s prophecies of his son being the Lakers prodigal son. He won’t be. Again, at least not yet. He needs to earn his spot and the transition will surprise him his first year in. It will hit him hard, but, despite my concerns, eventually Lonzo Ball will become a future NBA All-Star and a daring NBA point guard.
Not yet though, and until then all we can do is prepare for his official NBA debut. Until then, we can enjoy and bask in his newly released rap single paying tribute to his little brother LaMelo Ball.
If the NBA doesn’t end up being his calling in life, at least he has a back up career in mind.
Carmelo Anthony has been traded away from the New York Knickerbockers to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
You probably knew this before you laid eyes on these words.
It honestly doesn’t matter much who the Thunder traded away for “Melo” and who the Knicks received, because they weren’t anywhere near Melo’s overall value. But, it matters that Melo himself is gone and away from New York City, and for all his accolades, he honestly had a major part to play in his exodus.
New York has agreed to a deal to send Carmelo Anthony to OKC for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a draft pick, league sources tell ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 23, 2017
Melo altogether is a player that both outplayed and underplayed his own potential. No one that saw him at Oak Hill Academy as a high schooler could for-sure say that he’d be a superstar, and everyone that saw him at Syracuse University might say he was a can’t-miss by then.
And he didn’t miss on most of what he’s teased, he’s delivered in a lot of ways; but, the reason why he didn’t work out in New York was because he was selfish to a fault in the key places that required compromise.
Do you remember how he got to Kings County in the first place? He forced a trade to the Knicks from his then-Denver Nuggets, a team that was teasing with talent abundant, but not unlike today, stuck in the mighty Western Conference. With title contenders like the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers at that time of the NBA, the 2010–2011 season, the Nuggets just weren’t going to make the noise they wanted to make. Melo was a free agent-to-be at the completion of that season, and it was likely that he’d leave. His time with the Nuggets, a very successful time, had run its course. The change was coming, and he was catalyst to the change he wanted to see in his world. Nothing wrong with that.
The problem was that Melo didn’t want to wait for New York. He wanted New York then and there, and it didn’t matter how it was going to happen.
It didn’t matter that the Knicks weren’t in a position to compete for a title during that season, something he long wanted to bring to New York upon his eventual arrival.
It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to gut their team’s best assets in a trade for the Brooklyn-born, Baltimore-raised native. It didn’t matter that if he waited until the season was over, he could be playing with a young and promising Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov (a revelation upon his arrival to the States from Russia), amongst others.
It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to sacrifice draft picks for him, instead of keeping them upon signing later.
It didn’t matter to Melo.
And so, when he arrived in New York, in early 2011, he received the adulation and praise of a prodigal son. Sure, the team lost some valuable talent and depth, but surely Melo would will the Knicks into wild success — just like he did in Denver, right?
And sure enough, after he rebuked the Linsanity of 2012 when Jeremy Lin became an overnight NBA superstar and balked at the prospect of Lin’s resigning, he gained some success.
The 2012–2013 season saw Melo as the closest thing to being an MVP candidate that anyone had ever seen from him as a professional in an 82-game season, but not before being totally indifferent to former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s wishes for him to play more at power forward to stretch the offensive side of the ball for the Knicks and the defenses of the opposing league teams. D’Antoni quit before the end of the 2011–2012 season, because of Melo’s loathsome resistance to D’Antoni and the coach’s embrace of Lin.
A big aspect of Melo’s failure to bring glory to Manhattan was his resistance to doing what has made him a legend in USA Basketball. Having won multiple gold medals as a stretch-four shooter, that he refused to embrace that positioning as an NBA pro limited the ability of his teams to win.
As a four, Melo, who had gained grown-man weight from natural maturity and strength and conditioning, didn’t have to be the cavity in his team’s defense as he struggled as a man-to-man defender. Moving from his formerly-natural small forward slot could allow him to defend more ably and allow someone more fleet of foot to stop the dominant wings that Melo often matched up against. Becoming something different and better in a new place would’ve allowed him the opportunity to be greater than anyone had known him to be in an NBA uniform.
But, he refused and rebuked such a change.
And one last thing: Injuries and front office politics aside, Melo was loyal to the Knicks organization through and through. But, he had a choice to go.
So, to recap, Melo forced a trade to New York that gutted the talent of the roster, and then he refused to change to a position that would behoove him and the team in the journey to championship gain.
Well, he also had a chance to leave for greener pastures and become a Chicago Bull, where he could experience more success with a front office committed to his development and surrounding talent. He didn’t want to do that, and that’s fair. New York was home, but if he was going to win in New York, seeing as to how being the way that he’d always been wasn’t helping — that is shoot-first, ask questions and defend later — why return to The Big Apple if you aren’t going to change?
He saw what being a score-only wing was giving his teams — it gave his teams very little success for the vast majority of 14 years. Sure, his Nuggets and Knicks made the playoffs (not so much New York) much of the time, but he said he wasn’t playing for that.
In the end, Melo and the Knicks not working out could be seen before he even became a Knick, when Melo stomped his way out of Denver to play immediately for New York when it would’ve behooved him to stay put for two more months.
Championship or bust, they say.
He couldn’t really compromise too well for the chip, it appears.
In the end, Carmelo Anthony — despite years of league-leading jersey sales, runway appearances, and bright lights on the New York City streets with LaLa — was a big, fat, shining, New York bust.
Reloaded Raptors Banking on Young Guns
Masai Ujiri is a smart guy.
No matter which conference your team is in, you’re either stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out the Warriors, or you’re stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out LeBron James. For Ujiri’s Raptors, the latter is the elephant in the room. So when the offseason came, the club had some decisions to make that would indicate the direction of the franchise’s future, both immediate and long-term.
Ujiri and Toronto GM Bobby Webster were somehow able to re-sign Kyle Lowry for a three-year deal instead of the five years that Lowry desired, and then managed the same with Serge Ibaka. This effectively put the Raptors on a three-year timeline until the next big shift in the franchise. For these upcoming three years, the Raps will stay competitive with their tried-and-tested core, and they will simultaneously cultivate young talent around their stars.
It’s a great formula. LeBron is going to be 33 years old this December, and by the time Lowry and Ibaka’s contracts are up, he will be entering the twilight stage of his career. Suddenly, the East could be wide open again. Ujiri knows it, and he wants to be ready for it.
But what about the present? The Raptors lost a couple of their veteran role players this summer in the re-signing of their core, including Patrick Patterson (an advanced analytics darling), and P.J. Tucker (a terrific perimeter defender). The team also traded away DeMarre Carroll—who was never able to return to his Atlanta peak—to Brooklyn in order to shed his contract, as well as Cory Joseph to Indiana, who snagged them sharpshooter C.J. Miles—swiftly signed to a three-year deal, no less—as a return.
These changes have left the Raps with a squad that, outside of the starting lineup, is quite young. None of their bench players have played more than three seasons in the NBA, and their total average age is about 23 years old. A number of them have yet to see significant minutes, with Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, and newcomer K.J. McDaniels being the exceptions.
The regular season is a marathon, not a sprint, and the keys to racking up wins in order to put yourself in a good position come playoff time are chemistry and consistency à la the Spurs. If the Raptors are to continue their regular season success of the last few years, then they’ll need their young guns to step into formerly veteran roles and rise to the challenge.
Thankfully, a few of them already seem prepared to break out and have impactful seasons. Both Powell and Wright gave the team some fantastic minutes last year, especially in the playoffs. Norm in particular was a standout, putting the league on notice with his athleticism and tough defensive play. He was part of the best lineup the Raptors had in the postseason (a +5.3), and the team’s offensive rating shot up from 101.7 to 107.9 when he was on the floor compared to when he wasn’t.
In the first round against the Bucks, Powell went for 55/91/92 per cent shooting, averaging 12.4 points per game and torching his opponents. He was a key cog in helping the Raptors win that series and fully earned Dwane Casey’s trust, which is not an easy thing to do for a young player.
Wright didn’t get quite as much time to shine with CoJo being the primary backup point guard, but when he was on the floor he scrapped defensively and showed in flashes that he was able to run the team. His length and effort have been the two most noticeable qualities when watching him so far, and his nose-to-the-grindstone mentality is one that Casey must love.
Siakam is another high-energy guy, and good for a few minutes a game, although playing him for a substantial amount of time isn’t a great idea since he’s undersized and a below-average rebounder. Jakob Poeltl should get more run, and like Wright—though less frequently—he showed instances of strong play, both on the boards and around the basket.
Perhaps the two most interesting youngsters are the newcomers: Raptors 2017 draft pick OG Anunoby and K.J. McDaniels. Anunoby has been touted as an excellent defender, a grinder, and he already has an NBA body that should allow him to guard multiple positions on the floor. Unfortunately, he’s recovering from an ACL tear and therefore it’s possible he doesn’t even play this season. Still, this is the kind of player you get excited for as a fan and as a coach—he’ll likely be impactful right away, at least in one aspect.
As for McDaniels, he’s spent time bouncing around the league during his three seasons. He’s already played for Philadelphia, Houston, and Brooklyn, and has never had a chance to get comfortable. He’s another player with defensive potential—he’s got some pretty sweet block highlights—but has yet to find any sort of consistent shooting. If he can’t show Toronto something this season, he may be on the move again.
And finally, as we ask every year, is this the season when Bruno Caboclo breaks loose and starts going Brazilian Kevin Durant on the rest of the league? My answer: Unlikely. It may be hard to believe, but Bruno is still one of the youngest guys on the team at 21 years old. His time in the D-League—now the G League—can only be good for him, but his scoring dropped off significantly last season compared to the year prior, when he was putting up double-figure numbers almost every game. There’s still a lot of time left for Bruno to prove himself, and as such it’s tough to imagine that time being this season.
It’s difficult—though intriguing—trying to judge a group of players who don’t have an extensive NBA resume as of yet (I feel for you, Philly fans). Even if one has seen a player be productive in spurts, it’s impossible to know whether or not they’ll be capable of handling a bigger role long-term without actually seeing it. For the Raptors in particular, Powell is probably the only young player that the team has a good grasp on.
So let the experiment begin. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
And remember: It’s all part of the three-year plan.