On Friday afternoon the Toronto Raptors announced they had signed free agent forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu for the remainder of the season and the move received little to no fanfare. Why would fans care? This is a player who had enjoyed brief stays in Dallas and San Antonio with a year-and-a-half playing in Europe sandwiched in between.
This is hardly the kind of move that piques the interest of fans here in Toronto. And, to be brutally honest, when I received the press release from the Raptors PR team I skimmed it before quickly dismissing the move.
Turns out this was shortsighted on my behalf as the talented big man gave fans at the Air Canada Center something to cheer about when he celebrated his new contract by snagging 10 rebounds in just under 15 minutes of playing time against Miami.
This just goes to show how little I know. But, for what it’s worth, I’m not in the minority when it comes to people who haven’t given Mensah-Bonsu a fair shake. San Antonio signed Mensah-Bonsu signed to a 10-day contract last month but cut him loose on Wednesday. He saw action in three contests with the Spurs, averaging a modest 5.0 points and 3.3 rebounds in just 6.7 minutes.
For Mensah-Bonsu, playing in San Antonio was just a case of young player not being a good fit for a veteran team.
“In San Antonio they were more veteran based and I felt more like a young player on that team,” Mensah-Bonsu explained to the members of the media waiting for him after practice Saturday afternoon. “I just took a back seat and watched a lot. Coming to Toronto I got 15 minutes in my first game and that helped me feel like a player who had been here. I feel more comfortable in my role.”
For Mensah-Bonsu, his situation in San Antonio mirrors that of his time in Dallas: stuck on a veteran heavy team that resides near the top of the standings and little time to groom a younger player.
This is never a good situation for any young player, especially one that lacks the minutes a guaranteed contract helps to provide.
“I always felt like I was good enough to be in the NBA and I don’t think I’ve changed that much,” said Mensah-Bonsu. “I’ve improved as a player but as far as my athleticism, my rebounding and my defense, that’s been in me since I started playing the game. Out of college I got hurt and I don’t know if that hurt my draft stock, we’ll never really know, but I was in still in the NBA. I went to Dallas who at that time was a veteran based team, probably the best team in the NBA at that time, so it was hard for me to get minutes.”
After being waived by Dallas he did what countless other players do: he went to Europe to refine his game.
“After my release came from the Mavericks I went straight to Italy and it was a humbling experience,” a modest Mensah-Bonsu admitted to the media this afternoon. “I don’t think I needed to be humbled but it keeps you working and it keeps that drive in you. Every day I try to work hard because it’s tough going from chartered flights to flying commercial in a foreign country and small hotel rooms. The arenas were smaller but you’re still getting paid to do something that you love.
“That experience humbled me and it made me more of a skill player because over there those big men have to learn how to shoot. You can’t get by just on athleticism as much over there. I think it’s made me more of a skilled player and I’m getting closer to that finished product.”
One area in particular of his game that he improved was shooting the ball. During his senior season at George Washington he shot a sizzling 56.4% from the field but most of his scoring came from dunks or points in the paint. His shooting woes were shown through him shooting a putrid 53.4% from the charity stripe that same season; not exactly the kind of offensive arsenal that will help you stick on an NBA roster.
During his time in Europe he dedicated himself to becoming a strong enough shooter that opposing defenses would have to guard him from 17-feet and in.
“That’s what two years in Europe does for a player,” Mensah-Bonsu explained to the media when asked about his improved shooting. “I was 22-years-old when I came out of college and then I spent three years in Europe working on getting my touch together. So now from 17-feet in I think I can consistently hit a wide-open jump shot and help my team out. I think that’s why I’ve become more of a threat. Having an outside shot helps me in my overall game because when they read the scouting report they don’t just see athlete, they see that I can hit the 17-foot jump shot.”
Sometimes all a player needs is a team that’s the right fit, hopefully for Mensah-Bonsu Toronto is the perfect fit for him to kick-start his NBA career.