The Raptors 905 season had been over only for a week when their presence was felt once again. In Game 2 of the Toronto Raptors’ first-round playoff series against the Washington Wizards, head coach Dwane Casey looked down the bench and gave Lorenzo Brown the call. Brown would play nearly seven minutes in the victory, then play the entire fourth quarter in a Game 3 loss.
To Brown, this was just the next logical progression for him.
“Enjoying every moment of it, honestly,” he said at BioSteel Centre on Tuesday, as the Raptors get set for Game 5. “It was unexpected but I’m prepared for it, to tell you the truth.”
Signed to a two-way contract in the summer, Brown was brought into the organization to provide depth at both guard spots and help lead the 905 while continuing his own personal development as a player. To say he did that would be an understatement – Brown won the G League’s Most Valuable Player award for his efforts in helping lead the 905 to a 31-19 mark, played 139 minutes with the Raptors as point guard injuries called for him, and then he helped take the 905 to the G League Finals.
The Finals didn’t go exactly how the 905 hoped, as they dropped a 2-0 series to the Austin Spurs. To get there, though, the 905 had to fight through early roster turnover, a rough 4-9 start to the season, and, once they made their way to the league’s third-best record, three straight single-elimination games – two of them on the road because of the way the league seeds division winners with priority – all of which they won.
“We came in with a new bunch of guys who were definitely new to the NBA lifestyle, and the G League as well. We made it to the finals, and you can’t take that away from anybody,” Brown said. “Man, we accomplished so much this year, given we weren’t supposed to. We started off slow but we picked it up midway in the season and can’t be nothing but proud of those guys. We didn’t have the big names this year but we still came out and fought and made it to the finals, so we have to be proud of ourselves within that.”
Brown pulling double-duty was on full display in the final week of the season, as he went from Austin to Detroit to Mississauga to appear in three games over three days for the two teams, playing 25 minutes or more in each. So, too, was his improvement over the course of the season. It wasn’t enough for Brown to be one of the most experienced and steady G Leaguers, he needed to grow himself, both to take the 905 where they needed to go and get where he wanted.
“I feel like this was one of my best seasons in the G League, not even just because I played well, I feel like I became a better leader,” Brown said. “And I feel like that’s what I pretty much needed to be an NBA player was to be a better leader and run a team.”
While he had the most obvious success – an MVP and the Raptors converting his two-way contract to an NBA contract ahead of the playoffs – Brown was not alone in growing over the season. This, even more than wins and losses, is how G League teams are measured in the long-run. The 905 saw inexperienced G Leaguers take major steps forward as professional prospects, helped two-way player Malcolm Miller through recovery from offseason surgery and to where he was starting for the Raptors at one point, were tasked with getting mid-season acquisition Malachi Richardson up to speed, and worked to fine-tune a G League All-Star in his NBA rookie season in Alfonzo McKinnie.
“I think I learned a lot,” McKinnie said of his experience playing under head coach Jerry Stackhouse. “He knows what the league teams are looking for, and he knows what the Raptors want me to do. He put me in a position to learn some stuff to help me when I do go back up. Overall I gained confidence, definitely, playing at the three (small forward) spot, guarding the perimeter. I would say that was my biggest growth this year, just being able to guard wing guys, and hit our coverages and get into them, and contain wing guys.”
Miller was a little harder on himself, though the caveat of a slow ramp-up to full health over the course of the season colors his evaluation.
“The fact that I played in a couple NBA games, that helps out, but couple of my goals I think I fell short of,” Miller said. “I’m content with the progress I’ve made, but I always want more, I expect more out of myself. I don’t know, I’m kind of even keeled with it. Every time you see me that’s what you get. You know I’m going to go all out, attack, hit threes and play defence. I can give more than that, but those are the three things I’m going to hang my hat on.”
Stackhouse, too, continued developing behind the bench and putting together quite an early resume.
“Proud of all those guys. They left all they had on the floor, that’s all you can ask for,” he said after the championship-deciding loss. “It was a great year. Guy that grew into an MVP. I didn’t think he was the MVP at the start of this season, but he grew. Helped his team, helped the big club…Really proud of our group, how they stuck together. How we decided to stick with this group. We’re here. We’re two of the last teams standing. Obviously we’re not on the side of it that we would have liked to be on, but at the end of the day we can take some pride in knowing that at least we won back-to-back Eastern Conference Championships. Got something to show for it.”
The impact of the 905 program is obvious in more than just Brown’s minutes. Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam are playing heavy rotation minutes, Norman Powell has seen time, and Fred VanVleet will stand to when he’s recovered. (Jakob Poeltl only played two games with the 905, but he’s obviously been important, too.) The 905 had plenty of success this year, and Brown’s ascension back to a full-time NBA roster spot – playing playoff minutes, no less – is emblematic of that.
“Yeah, for sure, man. It’s a process,” Brown said. “We’re all going through it right now, and hopefully for the next guys coming up in this program it’ll be the same.”