The Raptors may have found something in 'hardship' signee D.J. Wilson

Wilson has made the most of his opportunity, fitting into the Raptors system seamlessly by using his length and speed to muck it up on the defensive end. (Getty)
Wilson has made the most of his opportunity, fitting into the Raptors system seamlessly by using his length and speed to muck it up on both ends of the floor. (Getty)

A year ago, the Toronto Raptors' run-in with COVID-19 completely ruined their season.

Following a slow start to the 2020-21 campaign, the "Tampa Bay Raptors" battled their way back towards .500 with impressive wins against the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers before COVID sent Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Malachi Flynn and Patrick McCaw into isolation. The Raptors went a disastrous 1-13 in the month of March and had no chance at a playoff spot from there.

This season, it could have been even worse. The Raptors had even more players enter the NBA’s health and safety protocols, with all but three of their available players (not counting the absent Goran Dragic or injured David Johnson) going into isolation, including all of their best and most important players.

But this year is different for a number of reasons. First of all, vaccines and the new strain have reduced the symptoms for COVID-positive Raptors, with Nurse confirming that none of them experienced severe symptoms this time around, and Pascal Siakam likining his symptoms to a cold. Secondly, it’s different because the NBA’s new hardship exemption allows teams to sign additional players to 10-day contracts for each rostered player infected with COVID-19, allowing the Raptors to sign Tremont Waters, Juwan Morgan, Daniel Oturu and D.J. Wilson to 10-day contracts.

While it has by no means been smooth sailing for the Raptors — who have had three games delayed and gone 1-2 since members of the team entered protocols, sending them back to 12th place in the crowded Eastern Conference — the Raptors are acting like a team that has been here before, using their past experience to carry them through this difficult time, hopefully coming out better because of it.

“I think it seems to me around the league you are not hearing the same things you were hearing a year ago [when] it was taking people a while (to return from COVID-19),” Nick Nurse said before the Raptors' 114-109 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday. “They are just not feeling as bad when they have it or as winded or whatever when they come out. So I’m confident once this thing passes here this week we should be okay and get up to speed pretty quickly.”

That certainly looked to be the case against Philadelphia on Tuesday night, as Siakam returned for his first game in two weeks for what was arguably his best offensive game of the season, scoring 28 points on smooth 11-21 shooting to go with 6 rebounds and 8 assists, picking apart a 76ers defence anchored by Joel Embiid.

The COVID outbreak also presented an opportunity for some of the struggling bench players to step into larger, starting roles and boost their confidence, with Yuta Watanabe, Svi Mykhailiuk, and Chris Boucher all playing big roles and having significant moments over the past couple of games — including an incredible 26-point, 13-rebound performance from Watanabe against the Cleveland Cavaliers and an even more mind-blowing 28-point and 19-rebound performance from Boucher against the Sixers — that the Raptors will hope those performances can translate to smaller roles once the entire team is back healthy again.

But this team-wide outbreak was not just an opportunity for the Raptors to reset, it also created opportunities for the four new players signed to 10-day contracts to essentially audition not just for the Raptors, but for all 30 teams in the NBA.

After all, January is usually the time when we start to see 10-day contracts offered around the league as teams look for a boost, and it’s also when we see teams shuffle two-way contracts around after having seen what they have for half a season. Plus, with the trade deadline fast approaching, more regular roster spots will open up around the league, with the Raptors a prime example of a team that could possibly fill two roster spots with a Dragic buy-out or a trade (they already have one roster spot open but have shown a hesitancy to fill it until they are confident they will be under luxury tax at season’s end).

“It’s not unlike guys we are trying to fill a role off the bench. I don’t think you are looking for anyone to be — I mean there is probably not a lot of scoring to do, right? But the question is: can you guard, can you guard your position, can you not make a lot of mistakes,” Nurse said of what he looks for from the 10-day contracts. “You are trying to be a guy who kind of comes in there and holds serve a little bit. It always helps if they leave you alone and you can knock a few down here or there, that’s always a plus.

“But usually these guys will have like one thing they do that is their NBA thing and gets them on the floor and lets them have some success or lets them stick on a roster.”

Waters, Morgan, Oturo, and Wilson have all played significant minutes over the last couple of games, which is more than a lot of the hardship signees from around the league can say. To their credit, they have all played extremely hard every minute they have been on the floor, even if the circumstances have been less than ideal, having to learn new teammates and a new system on the fly, meeting for the first time an hour and a half before the game in Cleveland.

“I just told them if you don’t know anything, just play hard,” Siakam said about the new players. “The way we play, it's not really that complicated. So if you don't know what's going on, stay out of the way and play hard… And I think those guys that came on the floor, they played and that's all we could really ask for.”

But it’s the 6-foot-10 ex-Milwaukee Buck, Wilson, who has stood out the most over the past couple of games, fitting into the Raptors system by using his length and speed to muck up the game on the defensive end and his feel to play under control and within his role on offence despite being just 25 years of age.

“I thought D.J. Wilson played really solidly. He was solid, worked hard, took only shots that were kind of there for him. I thought he rebounded the ball well and seemed to be in the right place. Fought out there,” Nurse said.

The 17th overall pick in the 2017 draft spent three and a half seasons in Milwaukee before being traded to Houston as part of the PJ Tucker deal last season. He was signed and subsequently waived by the Oklahoma City Thunder this offseason, but has stood out playing for their G League team the OKC Blue, leading them to the final of the G League Winter Showcase event a week ago with performances of 31 points and 15 rebounds to reach the semifinals and 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks to advance from there.

“I think it’s just a matter of trusting the work that I’ve put in up until this point knowing that I’m an NBA player,” Wilson said of the opportunity. “I can play at this level and showcasing that, not getting too ahead of myself, just going out there with confidence to do stuff, hopefully that translates.”

The Raptors have had a lot of whifs towards the end of the draft and in free agency over the past couple of seasons, which is a big part of why their bench has struggled so much and why they have had to lean so heavily on the starters. In fact, despite having success unearthing hidden gems under Masai Ujiri, the only player that the Raptors have really found out of nowhere over the past two seasons is Watanabe, who’s contract expires at the end of this season. But those types of players are extremely important for non-glamour markets building great teams, both as critical bench pieces and eventually as trade pieces.

In Wilson, the Raptors might have found their next guy. He’s a great fit for the system and one that doesn’t need to constantly be told what to do because of his high feel for the game. He provides additional wing depth and, as the tallest player on their roster, he can even play some backup center, a position of need for the Raptors.

It won’t be easy to retain Wilson considering the Raptors will likely want to wait until the trade deadline before handing out a regular contract, when another team could have already snatched him up, but it’s absolutely something the Raptors should try to do. If they manage to, this COVID outbreak could end up providing something positive for both Wilson and the Raptors.

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