Andrew Rowsey is 27-years-old, as is Romaro Gill. They are both also the oldest players on the Raptors 905. Yes, the rest of this Raptors G League affiliate is as young as it comes with an average age of 21.8.
There is a natural energy and enthusiasm to this squad, one that head coach Patrick Mutombo demanded plenty out of during training camp and the practices leading into their season opener. They went so hard against each other that they were champing at the bit to go against some real opponents.
After over 600 days removed from playing in Mississauga, Mutombo wasn’t about to try and control their emotions. He didn’t view the energy as over the top or at a level that might see them fall flat. From a leadership standpoint, Mutombo’s way has been to let the players be themselves and allow all those questions about who the vocal leaders are or who the leaders by example are to be answered naturally. Leadership has been by committee and as long as they hold themselves accountable to playing as hard as possible and giving everything they have, Mutombo is not going to be too fussed by much else.
“Biggest thing is energy,” Mutombo said before the season opener. “At the end of the day, it’s not very complicated, it’s not very tricky. We want people that when they look at the 905, [they say] ‘Man, that team plays hard.’ We’ll figure out the Xs and Os, we’ll figure out the rotations but if you can go, and at the end of the game everybody can look at each other and say, man, I couldn’t have gone any harder, I’ll be happy with that.”
The exuberance of youth overcame its naivety over the last couple days as the 905 opened its season with back-to-back wins within the friendly confines of Paramount Fine Foods Centre on Thursday and Friday, beating the Westchester Knicks both times. The first win came a lot easier than the second — which came down to the final seconds despite the additions of Dalano Banton and Justin Champagnie — as the Knicks looked determined to show much better effort and fight after being blown out 119-95 on Thursday.
While it’s a perfect start in the standings, Mutombo — a perfectionist’s perfectionist, or in other words, a coach’s coach — saw plenty of opportunity for growth. There was the third quarter of the first game where the team seemed to let up after building up a 30 point lead as well as the 26 turnovers, and in the second game the defence seemed to take the entire first half off.
“We’ve got to remain gritty and relentlessly seek to shut people down,” Mutombo said. “When in doubt, just play hard. I thought there were really good moments and then I thought there were moments where we kinda relaxed and didn’t play our brand of basketball, but that’s youth for you, that’s youth.”
While still young, Banton and Isaac Bonga have gained an understanding of what it takes at the highest level and were standout performers. Banton used his Mississauga opportunity to rack up 30 points, seven rebounds and nine assists in 29 minutes in front of his parents and over 30 friends while Bonga averaged 24 points, 7.5 rebounds, and three assists over the two games. Not to be outdone was the Raptors’ 47th overall pick this year David Johnson, who averaged 18.5 points, four rebounds, and six assists while Justin Champagnie made the most of his one game with 10 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and three steals.
“I feel like as basketball players whether we’re in the league as young guys or down in the G League, we just understand the situation and understand the circumstance that it is,” Banton said. “Whenever you can go out there and get reps I’ll be the first person to be for it. They asked me if I wanted to play, I said yeah. I’ll never turn down an opportunity to play, get reps… I had a good time, I had a lot of people out here so it was fun.”
It wasn’t just Banton’s local friends and family who were watching. One of the greatest benefits of having the 905 back in operation in Mississauga is reigniting the synergy between the NBA franchise and affiliate. Masai Ujiri, Nick Nurse, Fred VanVleet, and Scottie Barnes were among those in attendance to show their support and showed no signs of fatigue as they remained engaged throughout despite having come off a road back-to-back in Boston and Philadelphia.
While there are no days off with Coach Mutombo in charge, the 905 won’t be back in game action again until Nov. 19 in Long Island to play the Nets and they won’t return to Paramount Fine Foods Centre until Dec. 4 against the Capital City Go-Go. It’s new territory as far as scheduling is concerned because of the introduction of the Showcase Cup before the regular season begins, but regardless of what format is being followed or where the games are being played, the biggest takeaway here is that the two-way support is back in all its glory with short drives and quick turnarounds.
“It’s all family between both organizations, they’re basically one,” Banton said. “We feel like whenever they can come out and show love for us, it’s great… They’re gonna continue to support.”