Raptors do without live visits from potential recruits as NBA draft approaches

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TORONTO — Any other season would have the Toronto Raptors’ getting to know potential draft picks over intimate dinners in Toronto. They’d be showing them around the city. They’d be seeing how they take direction in on-court drills at OVO Athletic Centre.

But on the heels of a season unlike any other in history, next month’s NBA draft presents unique challenges for the Raptors. With the travel restrictions around COVID-19, the Raptors haven’t had the opportunity to bring players into their training facility in Toronto.

“It’s very different than what we’re used to, I can tell you that,” Dan Tolzman, the team’s assistant GM and vice-president of player development, said Wednesday.

The Raptors have the No. 29 and 59 picks in a Nov. 18 draft that Tolzman called “very balanced.”

And with the global shift to virtual meetings amid the pandemic, most of their pre-draft work is happening online through extensive film work, discussions as a staff and background digging, Tolzman said.

“We are doing what we can within the guidelines that the league has given us, and we’re making the best of it,” Tolzman said. “It seems like forever since we’ve seen these players.”

While March Madness was cancelled, the Raptors had been closely studying draft prospects before that.

“So we feel pretty comfortable with where things were at when everything got changed,” he said. “I think it’s going to come down to trusting in our gut feeling in some of these players.”

The one-on-one interaction is a big loss.

“We value the visits that the players usually come up to Toronto and get to know them in person. And honestly, it’s a really good opportunity to sell the city, too, to a lot of these guys who have never been out of the country or especially to Toronto. It’s unfortunate for that side of things to kind of miss out on that opportunity.”

Every pre-draft workout ends with a discussion among coaches. They’ll dissect everything from speed and athleticism, to interaction between players, to understanding of drills.

“We’re still getting some one-on-one time,” Tolzman said. “We’re doing a lot of Zoom interviews. Of course, it doesn’t recreate the inter-person discussions, but we’re doing our best to at least get to know them through those sorts of interviews, but then also reaching out and talking to people within their circles to just kind of learn as much as we can.”

While the Raptors must adhere to the federal government’s travel restrictions, Tolzman said the inability to see players in-person is a league-wide issue.

“The NBA is restricting a lot of the player travel just out of an abundance of caution. They don’t want people traveling around in too many different markets,” he said.

Player development is another issue. While the NBA resumed in a “bubble” in Florida, the developmental G League cancelled the remainder of its season outright. What next season looks like is a big question mark. The Raptors’ player development has fluorished since their G League affiliate moved to nearby Mississauga, Ont., and became Raptors 905.

The Raptors’ time in the bubble ended when they were dispatched by Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Tolzman was asked whether any of the unique aspects of the bubble could be carried over to when some semblance of normalcy returns to the league.

“It was such a unique experience to be able to live with your team, you were so closely intertwined with everybody that you really got a fun college dormitory-type feel to it of working together towards the common goal,” Tolzman said.

Tolzman said the bubble had an “all hands on deck” feeling. With a reduced staff, trainers, equipment managers and security personnel pitched in to rebound balls, for example.

“As an organization, we have the capabilities to step up and help where needed, so . . . we have a little better idea of what’s possible.”

Led by RJ Barrett, who was drafted No. 3 by the New York Knicks, Canada had six players drafted in 2019, setting a record for a country outside the U.S. The other five were: Nickeil Alexander-Walker (New Orleans), Brandon Clarke (Memphis), Mfiondu Kabengele (Los Angeles Clippers), Ignas Brazdeikis (New York) and Marial Shayok (Philadelphia).

Six Canadians have declared for the draft: Karim Mane (Vanier College), Nate Darling (Delaware), A.J. Lawson (South Carolina), Andrew Nembhard (Florida), Isiaha Mike (SMU) and Marcus Carr (Minnesota).

The Canadian class isn’t nearly as deep or as high-profile as past seasons.

“(But) there’s definitely some interesting players who we see with the right development, the right program put in front of them,” said Tolzman. “They could absolutely turn into legitimate NBA players.”