Alex Len didn't do much of interest during his Toronto Raptors tenure. He played in seven games and logged a total of 76 minutes before being waived in late January. It was a short-lived experiment for Toronto, but it did shine some light on how the rest of the NBA sees the Raptors.
"Everybody knows about the player development in Toronto, that’s for sure," Len said during his introductory press conference.
While it may not have worked for Len, what he said about Toronto's developmental system certainly appears to be true. It's what lured Khem Birch to the Raptors last month and now the 6-foot-9 Montrealer is taking advantage of that Raptors developmental magic.
After setting a career-high with 20 points on Thursday, Birch had maybe the best game of his career on Saturday night in a 106-102 loss to the Utah Jazz. This time, it wasn't just his scoring which has almost doubled since his days in Orlando, he's doing it all at both ends of the court and mixing in some new playmaking.
So much of Birch's success these days has just come from more confidence with Toronto, he said Saturday afternoon. The Raptors have given him more leeway to take open shots and do a little bit more with the ball.
"I've always found the way to play transition basketball is to get the rebound moving the other direction quickly," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said pre-game. "We've found that grabbing a rebound and kinda breaking out with it off the dribble, one or two, and then passing ahead is a really fast way to get it up the floor."
Earlier in the day Nurse spoke to Birch about implementing that into his game. Toronto wants to bring the ball up with more speed and Birch appears to have quickly adapted. He brought the ball up the court multiple times against Utah, even dishing it to Yuta Watanabe for an early-possession bucket.
"He's pretty athletic and he's pretty fast," Nurse said. "I thought he did a good job with that tonight. He had a great game tonight against, what, an All-NBA centre."
Even Nurse, who had coached Birch as a member of the Canadian men's national team admitted that Birch has exceeded his expectations recently.
"He’s playing really well. I kind of like how he moves. I like his attitude. I like some things that he does and obviously, he's played almost very well almost every game since we've had him," Nurse said. "He’s probably exceeding. He’s putting up big numbers playing against great centres night in and night out and he's doing very well."
But even with a 17-point, 10-rebound, six-assist night from Birch, the Raptors couldn't seal the deal against the Jazz and take advantage of a Washington Wizards loss to the Dallas Mavericks earlier in the night. Toronto squandered an eight-point third-quarter lead and the Jazz pulled ahead thanks to a 13-2 run early in the fourth quarter against Toronto's bench.
Toronto didn't go away, pulling to within three in the final minute as Fred VanVleet nailed a mid-range jumper for his 30th point of the night. It was a herculean effort from VanVleet who is still recovering from COVID-19 and a lingering hip issue. But the Raptors couldn't find the final stop to pull even and force overtime.
Jalen Harris Sees Playing Time
Midway through the second quarter, the Raptors turned to rookie Jalen Harris for some action. It sounds as though Nurse would like to see a little more playing time from Harris through the final few games of the season.
Up Next: Los Angeles Lakers
The Raptors will be right back at it Sunday night when they take on the Los Angeles Lakers. Anthony Davis is expected to play, but LeBron James is listed as questionable to play.