As they enter into their sixth season, there’s been a lot to celebrate for Raptors 905.
The team has become a model feeder to its NBA counterpart, polishing its young players -- Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher to name a talented few -- into full-time pros that have become impact players for the Raptors. The team won the G League title in 2017 and Boucher was named the league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. The 905 will need to make room in its trophy case.
The team has been named the NBA G League Franchise of the Year. They’re the third recipient of the franchise of the year award, which goes to a team that exemplifies the NBA G League’s three core pillars: Compete with intensity, lead with integrity and inspire play.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Raptors 905 GM Chad Sanders said.
“I think it’s a product of the last five years, of all the work and dedication that everyone’s put in with Raptors 905, from everyone who started the organization to everyone who’s here now.
“I think we’ve constantly strived to continue to grow the organization and looked to the Raptors for guidance on how we can improve. We want to develop players but we want to develop coaches and staff at the same time. It’s really been a great opportunity to work under a Raptors organization that truly cares about the product in Mississauga and to continue to work and develop all of those areas.”
Culture may be the most difficult thing to build in a developmental league. There are always pieces in movement. Coaches rosters can change daily. GM’s coaching staff can change by the season. If you speak with people involved with the 905 though, it quickly becomes clear that there’s a commonality, that there are principles in place and an encouragement to push against the grain, to follow instincts and wander far outside the box to see where it takes you.
“We built something really, really special out there in the last five years. And I think we were given our marching orders by Masai (Ujiri), by Bobby (Webster), by Teresa (Resch) and Dan (Tolzman) to become the flagship franchise of the NBA G League,” said John Wiggins, who started as 905’s director of team operations and became the VP three years later. He’s now the Raptors’ VP of organizational culture and inclusion.
“I think there's an amazing story of what was being built down there at 905 by everybody that had a hand in it. It’s a really collective award with respect to the amount of people that have helped build it, helped develop themselves and then helped grow our larger clubs and our larger organizations. It really is rewarding to look at it and say, we did that, we built that.”
The G League team found ways to connect themselves and the Raptors, while building meaningful connections with their fans. Prior to the cancellation of the 2019-20 season, the team saw its attendance at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre in Mississauga jump 11 per cent. Fans watched online to the tune of six million combined minutes of game action through Twitch and ESPN+, making them one of the most popular teams in the league.
“I think, for me the biggest gap was how do we create greater opportunity?” said Meghann O’Hara-Fraser, the director of marketing at MLSE. Now in her third year in her role, she wanted to better link the 905 and the Raptors to show fans that the experience can have some differences but when the ball goes up it can be on par.
A season-opening event with the Larry O’Brien trophy on hand helped bridge that connection, as did 905 alumni nights, where bobbleheads of VanVleet, Powell and Siakam were given away and the players were on hand, checking out the games.
“Fans would get the bobblehead and hopefully see and interact with the guys and then understand the story of the 905 and the Raptors,” O’Hara-Fraser said.
Throughout the organization, there seems to be an understanding of the experimental nature of the G League itself. Some might see that as a pitfall for inconsistency. With the 905, the Raptors have seen it as opportunity.
“It's a combination of identifying the people that wanted to invest kind of in themselves and in our organization but also giving them the freedom to try something different and apply yourself and carve your own way,” Wiggins said. He pointed to people like Jerry Stackhouse, who took his first head coaching job and won the G League title with the team. He mentions Shelby Weaver, who came to the 905 intent on player development. She’s now the Raptors’ Director of Basketball Advancement.
“We wrote the manual for player development for the G League and maybe for the NBA in terms of how to use your G League team,” Wiggins said. That led him to how his role with the 905 let him put together two consecutive years of Toronto hosting the G League Showcase in a way that the league had never seen it before, with multiple courts running at the same time.
“That couldn't have happened if we didn't have that freedom, if it wasn't a trusting organization to expand your wings and learn and grow. It's a bit of a combination of being fearless and taking the opportunity of development and applying it but also being trusted by the club to go out there with the mandate of being the best and to really execute.”
For O’Hara-Fraser, she took the opportunity with her marketing team to try to step away from traditional theme nights that many development leagues lean on. Getting a positive response from fans on events like Giants of Africa, Black History Month and International Women’s Day games. With the NBA deepening its commitment to the quest for social justice and equality, she’s excited about the types of post-pandemic opportunities that the 905 could pursue with their fans.
“What my team is focused on is understanding how those messages connect to our fan base, which ones really resonate and stand out and are powerful instigators of creating a conversation and continuing to do more of that,” she said.
“Another rewarding benefit of being very data centric is seeing the positive response that we're getting that surpasses our typical kind of content, that this is not only the right thing to do, but it's resonating with our fans. They're responding to it, they're celebrating with it, they’re engaging with it. That's really rewarding to me as a marketer, when the story you're telling isn't just, ‘Buy my product.’”
Accolades don’t change the focus for the 905. Asked what he saw for the future of the club, Wiggins still thinks bigger.
“We're ready for a full building, not just sporadically,” he said.
“There's always been a vision that 905 can bring that NCAA college atmosphere to the Mississauga area. For me, that's the one thing Canadian basketball in general is missing.
“I've always likened it to a combination of your Duke Blue Devils and your Hamilton Tiger-Cats because I've been there for a CFL game. That city goes black and yellow. They love them. We want to create that. We want to have that atmosphere. I think that is the next step and I think that just lifts the entire business and the organization.”
It may seem like a big dream but if the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that this group sets lofty goals and sets about making them reality.