Bryan The Bold

Go ahead, Raptors fans. Spend all the time you want complaining on message boards or calling into talk radio shows to demand Bryan Colangelo’s head for his drafting of yet another Euro.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but he doesn’t really care – nor should he.

Colangelo’s selection of Lithuanian big man Jonas Valanciunas with the No. 5 over-all pick in the 2011 NBA Draft was met by much consternation among the team’s faithful, but you wouldn’t know it by the look of fatigued satisfaction on the face of the GM as he spoke to media late Thursday night.

“I can tell you that, without question, we’ve found a combination of the best talent and the best fit for this team,” says Colangelo. “[Valanciunas] is thought of as the best young ‘five’ prospect out there, regardless of where he’s from.”

It’s the “from” part that becomes a point of contention for the Euro-weary Raptors’ fan base, who are quickly tiring of Andrea Bargnani’s allergic reaction to defence and rebounding and recently experienced the colossal disaster that was Hedo Turkoglu’s tenure in Toronto. But it says plenty about the team brass’ opinions on the 19-year old when they still selected him despite being fully aware of how the pick might be received.

“I know there’s been some angst out there with regards to the reaction,” acknowledges Colangelo. “I can’t really worry about that. [...] This pick is going to be one that people look back at and say ‘this was the right guy’”.

Colangelo knows something that most of the naysayers don’t: that Valanciunas is far from your stereotypical ‘soft’ European player. As a member of Lithuanian club team Rytas Vilnius, the 6’11” centre caught the attention of scouts for his rebounding, shot-blocking and length, while supposedly showing flashes of some low post scoring skills.

Unfortunately for Toronto, that’s just half the story. Teams were also wary of complications involving his contract with Rytas Vilnius and how easy a buyout would be to facilitate, particularly when NBA clubs can only offer up $500,000 to put towards such a deal. While Valanciunas was direct in his optimism of reaching the NBA (“[the buyout] will be done this year”), Colangelo remained a little more tentative.

“If it’s just the buyout that’s in place, I’m comfortable with that,” suggests Colangelo. “[...] I’ve got to take a long-term view of this pick [...] and we’ve got to determine what’s right for this young man and this organization.”

That Toronto would draft Valanciunas in spite of his contract issues says two things: they really, really like the kid and Colangelo has a long-term plan in place despite his limited two-year contract.

At the moment, it can’t be determined if Valanciunas was the right call, nor can anyone verify whether the club was right to retain Colangelo, but the former Executive of the Year is running the team boldly and without fear – which is all you can ask for.

In The Scrum With Dwane Casey

New Raptors head coach Dwane Casey met with the media in Toronto on Thursday following the team’s selection of Jonas Valanciunas with the No. 5 over-all pick. In addition to speaking excitedly about the 19-year old Lithuanian, Casey addressed his involvement in the selection process and the next steps as he eases into the new role.

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In The Scrum With Jonas Valanciunas

Shortly after being selected with the No. 5 over-all pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, new Raptor Jonas Valanciunas spoke to Toronto media for the first time via conference call. Calling in from New York, Valanciunas talked about his idol, Arvydas Sabonis, and addresses complications pertaining to his buyout from his Lithuanian club.

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In The Scrum With DeMar DeRozan

DeMar DeRozan was in Toronto this week to meet with new Raptors head coach Dwane Casey and to serve as a celebrity judge for the All-Canadian Classic dunk contest. Speaking to the media prior to the 2011 NBA Draft on Thursday, DeRozan offered his thoughts on his new coach and reflected on his draft experience two years ago.

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In The Scrum With James Johnson

James Johnson spoke to the media in Toronto on Thursday prior to the 2011 NBA Draft. He detailed his grueling, new ‘navy seals-style’ training regiment  and talked about his desire to improve and embrace a bigger role on the team.

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Intensity Rising as Draft Nears

Say this for the slew of college athletes about to become NBA players: they seem to have the media training down pat. Heading into next Thursday’s NBA Draft, they are saying all the right things, demonstrating humility and refraining from burning any bridges along the way.

They don’t care whether they’re picked first or 60th, as long as the fit’s right.

They don’t pay attention to any of the projections being bandied about as to where they will land (heck, Brandon Knight claimed not to know what a mock draft was).

They aren’t nervous heading into draft day because they know that whatever happens is what was meant to be.

But, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and Wednesday’s pre-draft workout in Toronto which featured Kawhi Leonard, Tristan Thompson, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris, Cory Joseph and Demontez Stitt, made it clear how eager these players are to emerge from the pack.

Calling it “by far our best and most competitive workout,” Raptors’ Director of Scouting Jim Kelly was quick to point out that this wasn’t just a run of the mill opportunity for the six draft-eligible players to go through the motions.

“We’re getting down a little bit closer to draft day and some of these players realize that they are getting pretty close to where we’re picking,” explains Kelly, “and they want to get into the best possible position heading into the draft.”

According to HOOPSADDICT.com’s most recent mock draft, the four forwards that hit the floor of the Raptors’ Adidas Practice Court are projected to be separated by just 10 picks (Leonard – 6th, Morris – 9th, Thompson – 11th, Harris – 16th), highlighting the importance of each having a standout showing against the others.

All four are seen as versatile frontcourt options with similar size (all range between 6’7” and 6’9” from 210 to 235 lbs.), making the need to differentiate themselves through the workout critical.

Even with the depth of talent on hand, there was no mistaking the marquee attraction of Wednesday’s workout.

Along with likely second rounder Joseph, Thompson grew up a little over half an hour from the Air Canada Centre in Brampton and had been on the Raptors’ radar since, according to Kelly, the two played in an Under-16 exhibition game in Toronto. While a top five selection would be a reach for the former Longhorn, he would set a Canadian draft record if he’s selected before the No. 15 pick (Steve Nash, 1996).

But on Wednesday, Thompson seemed less interested in his own potential record (he hadn’t even heard of the Nash mark) than in the influence that his rise could have on other young basketball players in the Greater Toronto Area.

“It’s exciting that me and Cory led the way for the younger generation and I want to know who’s after me – who’s going to take my place,” says Thompson. “[...] I think there are a lot of young guys coming up now that might beat me and might surpass that No. 15 record.”

The “Local Kids Realize Their NBA Dreams” storyline represented the over-arching theme on Wednesday (more than twice the media was on hand compared to the Kemba Walker / Brandon Knight workouts), but the intensity of the session made it abundantly clear that we are just days away from the NBA Draft.

In The Scrum With Kawhi Leonard

San Diego State alum Kawhi Leonard spoke to the media in Toronto after working out for the Raptors on Wednesday. Leonard, who could be an option for the team at No. 5, talked about some of his NBA player comps and offered his thoughts on the draft experience.

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In The Scrum With Tristan Thompson

Brampton, ON native and former Longhorn Tristan Thompson was the star attraction for local Toronto media during his workout with the Raptors on Wednesday that also featured Kawhi Leonard, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and life-long friend Cory Joseph. Speaking to the media afterwards, Thompson talked about Joseph and the bright future of Canadian basketball.

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In The Scrum With Jim Kelly

Toronto Raptors Director of Scouting Jim Kelly spoke to local media once again after the latest set of workouts, which saw the team host Kawhi Leonard, Tristan Thompson, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris, Cory Joseph and Demontez Stitt. Calling it “the most competitive workout thus far”, Kelly described what impressed him about the draft candidates.

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In The Scrum With Cory Joseph

Texas PG and Brampton, ON native Cory Joseph returned to the Greater Toronto Area on Wednesday for a pre-draft workout with the Raptors. Speaking to media afterwards, Joseph talked about being a traditional point guard and his life-long friendship with fellow draftee and Texas alum Tristan Thompson.

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In The Scrum With Marcus Morris

Kansas PF Marcus Morris was in Toronto on Wednesday for a pre-draft workout that also included Kawhi Leonard, Tristan Thompson and Tobias Harris . Speaking to the media after his workout, Morris discussed his game and talked about his twin brother, Markieff.

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In The Scrum With Tobias Harris

Former Tennessee PF Tobias Harris was in Toronto on Wednesday as part of a loaded workout that also included Kawhi Leonhard, Tristan Thompson and Marcus Morris. The projected mid-to-late first rounder talked about his all-around game, as well as being one of the draft’s high risers.

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Mavs Complete The Journey

The Dallas Mavericks are one of those fun anomaly teams that work despite failing to fit any of the popular trends or assumed truths of the NBA as it currently exists. Today, they also happen to be champions.

In a point guard-driven league, Dallas trots out 38-year old Jason Kidd, whose 1994 NBA debut coincided with Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook entering grade school.

The team’s regular starting swingman duo in the Finals – J.J. Barea and Shawn Marion – combined for 22 points per game in the regular season and 20.8 per game during the playoffs, compared to 52.2 and 48.2, respectively, from their Finals counterparts, the Heat’s LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

Up front, the Mavs spent the championship series leaning on Dirk Nowitzki and hoping that an injury or foul trouble for Tyson Chandler didn’t give way to extended minutes for Ian Mahinmi or Brian Cardinal.

But it all somehow worked.

An aging, un-explosive unit with key contributors (Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood) lost to injury grinded out a playoff run for the ages in the face of superstar talent (James, Wade, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant) and impossible deficits (15 points down with 5:00 to go in Game 4 of the Thunder series) while being overshadowed at every turn.

The Mavs’ postseason journey saw them targeted by many prognosticators (myself included) as potential round one upset victims against Portland.

Then, they hardly played their expected role as supporting players as they swept a stunned Lakers’ fan base that was in ‘title or bust’ mode after two consecutive championships.

In the Conference Finals, they interrupted a coronation of Durant, Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder as a new Western power.

Finally, it was James, Wade and the Heat that took center stage as Dallas simply did what they had been doing all playoffs long: win.

Yes, the Mavericks are about as surprising a champion as any 57-win team could be. And you have to wonder if they even surprised themselves a bit, given the emotional response of the MVP Nowitzki on Sunday night, as he quickly retreated to the locker room with his face covered after the final buzzer sounded for what was clearly a much-needed moment to privately absorb what he had just achieved.

Emotions were on a high for just about every member of the Mavs – and with good reason. Despite featuring nine players with 10 or more seasons of NBA experience, not a single member of the organization – right up to head coach Rick Carlisle and outspoken owner Mark Cuban – boasted a championship ring prior to Sunday’s win. Now, a title solidifies Kidd’s Hall of Fame career, places Nowitzki firmly in the discussion of the all-time greats, establishes Carlisle among the active coaching elite and adds a new franchise to the ever-so-short list of clubs with NBA championships. While this may not have marked the most exciting, well-played Finals in recent memory, the coronation of Dallas puts it among the most important.

How about those other guys? While Nowitzki was presumably getting choked up back in the Mavericks’ locker room, Miami’s Chris Bosh was shedding tears of a decidedly different nature out on the court.

However, even in light of the Heat’s crushing loss and another high-profile disappointment for (or, more accurately, from) James, there is reason for optimism in South Beach.

Given their regular season slumps and continued struggle with how to play together, Miami’s Finals appearance was an accomplishment in itself. Now, they have a full season (and then some) of experience playing with one another and, thanks to the back-ended nature of the contracts for the Big Three, some salary cap flexibility to add some complementary pieces. Assuming there is a 2011-12 NBA season, the Heat could be in prime position for not just a title run, but also a shot at the Bulls’ 72-win mark.

But that all can wait. For now, the spotlight finally belongs to Dallas.

Fisher’s Game Notes: NBA Finals – Game 5

Sorry for my LeBron-esque Game 4 no-show. I had to cover Rihanna’s ACC concert, complete with all those chains and whips that apparently excite her.

* With an entire season having been spent psychoanalyzing the Miami Heat, it now comes down to this: do-or-die games on home court to truly test the mettle of the team. I can safely claim to have no clue as to how this will play out – and I’m not alone.

* No question that Dirk Nowitzki is the Finals MVP if Dallas wins the title (and possibly even if they don’t), but it was Jason Terry’s performance that might have shifted the ever-changing series for good. Terry’s game-tying and game-clinching three’s had to be disheartening for a Miami team that defended both plays as well as anyone could have hoped.

* That might have been the most underappreciated triple-double in NBA history. I know the Heat lost and that James managed a measly two fourth quarter points (and believe me, I love the fourth quarter scoring stats on Nowitzki and James’ respective outputs in the final frame), but … it was a Finals triple-double! It was the NBA’s transcendent star showing off all the facets of his game on the league’s biggest stage, the first such Finals feat since Jason Kidd turned the trick in 2002. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?

* Speaking of transcendent stars, a quick word about ranking Nowitzki among the game’s greats. I’m not here to engage in the same “where does he fit on the all-time list” discussion that has permeated these Finals, but rather to look at where he ranks within the game currently. After all, the big German is on the verge of outplaying Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and James and Dwyane Wade in consecutive postseason series. Doesn’t that at least put him in top three discussion?

* If Wade had done further damage to his body beyond a left hip contusion in the first quarter and hadn’t been able to return, then Brian Cardinal, the Mav who collided with Wade – would have had far too significant a role in determining the NBA champ.

* What do Peja Stojakovic and Boston Bruins defenseman Tomas Kaberle have in common? They were both acquired by their team from Toronto during the season, find themselves closing in on a championship and will have done nothing to help their team attain said championship. Stojakovic was a healthy scratch on Thursday and played a whopping two seconds in Game 4, down dramatically from his 14+ minutes in Game 1.

Raptors Get A Closer Look at Walker, Knight

Toronto has seen its share of point guard battles in recent years, most notably Jose Calderon against T.J. Ford and, later, Calderon against Jarrett Jack. But it was the battle being waged between top draft prospects Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight in the Raptors’ practice court on Tuesday that could hold the greatest significance on the future of the team.

Okay, so maybe “battle” is too strong of a word when the involved parties weren’t even in the gym together for more than a quick bro hug as Walker was leaving and Knight was arriving. Such is the nature of the lead-up to the NBA Draft, where competition falls at the mercy of calculating, risk-averse agents who fear exposing the weaknesses of their meal ticket.

So it was up to the Raptors’ brass to distinguish differences between the skill sets of two players working out independently of one another. But Senior Director of Scouting Jim Kelly still had a few thoughts on two men who could be on the team’s radar screen when they use their No. 5 pick on June 23.

“[Knight] is bigger and probably a little bit quicker than Kemba straight ahead,” says Kelly. “I think Kemba has a little more on-the-ball move-ability and, obviously, a bit more experience.”

Those distinctions could be significant for a team placing a great deal of stock in the 2011 Draft. Picking in their highest slot since they chose Andrea Bargnani first over-all in 2006, the Raptors’ pick could seal the fate of GM Bryan Colangelo, whose new contract only lasts through the 2012-13 season and will clearly be looked upon to demonstrate tangible progress before his deal expires.

Knight is currently the higher regarded among the two point guards, with many observers feeling that he is likely to be off the board by the time Toronto steps up to the podium.

However, Knight acknowledged the “you never know what’ll happen” aspect of the draft and said that he’d be happy coming to Toronto.

“With those projections, you never know what’s going to happen,” says Knight. “[...] Toronto’s a great place and I wouldn’t mind being here. A lovely city, lovely fans…”

Walker, meanwhile, has seen his draft stock soar ever since leading his UConn Huskies to the national championship in March, a run that saw them knock out Knight’s Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four. Previously thought to be on the fringe of the lottery, he is now not expected to fall much lower than the Raptors at No. 5.

The 21-year old certainly has a big game pedigree, but admits that going from floor leader to a rookie who will need to learn on the go could be a significant adjustment.

“It’s tough coming in as a rookie around guys who have been there already,” admits Walker, “but I’m going to do everything I can to get those guys’ respect.”

Of course, it may not be so simple as to suggest that the Raptors’ draft comes down to Knight vs. Walker. There is no guarantee that either player – let alone both players – will remain on the board through four picks and the team is doing their due diligence on scouting out other prospects.

One day prior to working out Walker and Knight, Kelly and other front office brass were in Chicago to catch mysterious Turkish big man Enes Kanter and they will continue to host workouts (next on the schedule are a pair slated for June 15 and 16) leading up to June 23.