Raptors rookie Champagnie spends his time in the spotlight

TORONTO – If you’ve been paying close attention, you might have noticed something slightly different about the Toronto Raptors in six of their last seven games – and, no, it’s not just because the team has won six of the last seven games.

Notably, rookie forward Justin Champagnie got more time, playing 53 minutes in total in the six games he played, an average more than his previous 15 games.

As a player with a two-way contract, it makes sense that Champagnie doesn’t see the ground much. But it’s worth noting that this increase in playing time came as the Raptors have been healthier all season.

He was executed more recently, not because the Raptors are shorthanded, but because he deserved it and he impresses the coaching staff so much that a more consistent place in the rotation is not. maybe not far.

“He’s getting closer. I think in his last five games he’s probably played really well in four of them, and that’s a pretty good strike rate,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said afterwards. his team’s training Thursday. “You know me, I don’t expect guys to have it every night, and four out of five is pretty good.”

That’s about the praise you’re going to hear from Nurse for an undrafted 20-year-old rookie, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise, given Champagnie’s mature demeanor and a work ethic that has attracted the attention from another Raptor who came from humble beginnings but played brilliantly.

“Because we have the same agent, I talk to him a lot and obviously sometimes I look at his hair and think he’s older for some reason, or maybe because he talks a lot and I feels like he’s older, but he’s super young and I always tell him, ‘I’ve seen this thing happen a lot,’ “said Pascal Siakam.” Where people come just thinking you are supposed to be someone, and maybe if you’re not where you think you are supposed to be you pout all day instead of coming every day, working and just waiting for your opportunity. And I think that’s what he did.

Champagnie met Siakam over the summer in California. “I just thought he was a cool person and then once he got here he kinda took me under his wing, trying to show me the ropes, trying to give me advice here and there on how to become a pro and play professionally, ”said Champagnie. “I appreciate him so much and have a lot of respect for him. I think he’s a great player and I admire him. He’s the person I want to talk to.

Using Siakam as a role model is certainly not a bad idea for a young player like Champagnie, but while he can emulate the work ethic, they are different players. Most notably, as Siakam becomes a very skillful rebounder, Champagnie already looks like one of the best in the NBA.

Siakam, in fact, described Champagnie as a “bouncing machine”. In just 7.7 minutes per game, Champagnie is averaging two rebounds per game, a number that climbs to 9.1 every 36 minutes. Even more impressive, on these 9.1 boards per 36 minutes that he catches, six of them arrive on the offensive glass.

Seems like cleaning glass at any level is as easy as breathing for him.

“It’s more of a natural thing, but I watched Dennis Rodman, however,” Champagnie said. “I had a varsity coach who called me Baby Rodman because I just wanted to get some rebounds. The ball was still falling on my knees. It’s more of a natural thing, just to go out there and just know when to jump, and do it.

In other words, the rebound is Champagnie’s special talent and will likely be the key to what he hopes will be a long and very lucrative NBA career for the youngster from Staten Island, NY.

“I think he’s got a skill and a talent and he’s building on his strengths,” Nurse said. “I think most guys are still trying to figure out where their shots are going and, ‘How I’m going to get used to it and where I can get shots here and there and where am I in the attack etc. . ‘ And all he does is go out there, play real hard and chase the ball, which is, for us right now, a big role for him.

There are a lot of players in the NBA who when their number is called will go out there and play their butt. But what sets Champagnie apart is his willingness and desire to constantly improve and make the most of his opportunities, a mentality that seems to come from when he and his twin brother, Julian – who is a playing star. for St. John’s in the NCAA – were cut from their 6th grade team.

“I will never forget that day,” said Champagnie. “That day was like the first time that I actually got an exception… you know, like I just wasn’t considered one of the best. I never listened. people when they said something like that, but that day when I got cut I took it very personally. I kept this (chip) on my shoulder all day. So I always look back like, “See how far I’ve come” but I want to go higher and higher over time. I’m going to keep that in mind and use that as a motivation.

And while that isn’t a one-to-one comparison, given how Siakam has been constantly questioned throughout his NBA career and used him as motivation, it makes sense that he could have connect with Champagnie to the point where the two seek to share a special bond with each other – although, who the mentor and student is in their relationship differs, depending on who you are talking to.

The relationship that has developed over the season has brought clear benefits to Champagnie’s development, to the point that it could break the regular rotation. But, more importantly, the mentorship Siakam gave Champagnie also helped the Raptors star grow into a leader.

“I talked about this the other day with Pascal,” Nurse said. “Everyone tends to focus on the score and the rebounds, but they kind of hit a lot of other points that are really, really critical. From the pass to the defense through the rebound and the leader.

“Look, you’re not going to end up with Fred (VanVleet) and Pascal, guys who are their real pros, they played 43 and 39 minutes the other night and are the first two guys back in the gym the next morning. . They can really show a lot of stuff to these guys and they’ve done a lot of stuff, and it’s good to see.

Siakam added, “I like to think I’m pretty weird. I am a bit on my own most of the time. Having so many young, energetic guys pulls you out of your shell a bit. We have that connection. We have this same agent. I think it’s even easier. Being able to see someone who wants to work. I think it’s the same with everyone. He’s someone who encourages you to share what little you know.

“Obviously, I’m still learning. I am nowhere near where I am supposed to be. I think I have some experience that I can share. And when you have guys who are willing to listen, that’s great.

Champagnie has proven to be a pretty impactful player in the limited time he has spent on the pitch, and there could be more playing time to come. This could be very good news for the Raptors as a whole given the positive influence he seems to be having on the team and Siakam in particular.

Fast dribbling

• The Raptors begin a five-game road trip Friday against the Detroit Pistons.

As part of that trip, the team will play three games over four days from the start, starting Friday against the Pistons, then Saturday against the Milwaukee Bucks and then Monday when they face franchise icon Kyle Lowry for the first time. time since he left for South Beach during the off-season.

• Starters Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr. both missed Tuesday’s loss to the Phoenix Suns. But, according to Nurse, they are traveling with the team and are “questionable” for Friday’s game in Detroit.

Barnes attended practice Thursday, but Trent did not.

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