Raptors’ rookie Champagnie getting his time at the edge of the spotlight

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

Noticeably, rookie forward Justin Champagnie has been getting more time, playing 53 minutes total over the six games he played, averaging more than he did in his 15 previous games.

As a player on a two-way contract, it makes sense that Champagnie wouldn’t be seeing the floor very much. But it’s worth noting that this uptick in playing time has come as the Raptors have been at their healthiest all season.

He’s been getting run more lately not because the Raptors are shorthanded, but because he’s earned it and is impressing the coaching staff so much that a more regular spot in the rotation may not be far off.

“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,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse after his team practiced Thursday. “You know me, I don’t expect that guys are going to have it every night, and four out of five is pretty good.”

That’s about as high praise as 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 attitude and a work ethic that caught the attention of another Raptor who came from humble beginnings but is starring brightly.

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

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

Using Siakam as a role model is certainly not a bad idea for a young player such as Champagnie, but while emulating the work ethic is something he can do, they are different players. Most notably, while Siakam is becoming a very adept rebounder, Champagnie already looks like one of the NBA’s best.

Siakam, in fact, described Champagnie as a “rebounding machine.” In just 7.7 minutes per game, Champagnie averages two rebounds per game, a number that blows up to 9.1 per 36 minutes. Even more impressive, of those 9.1 per-36 minutes boards he’s grabbing, six of them are coming on the offensive glass.

It sounds like cleaning up the glass, regardless of the level, is as easy as breathing for him.

“It’s more of a natural thing, but I have watched Dennis Rodman, though,” said Champagnie. “I had a college coach who called me Baby Rodman because I just wanted to get rebounds. The ball just always fell in my lap. It’s more of a natural thing, just going out there and just knowing when to jump, and doing it.”

Put another way, rebounding is Champagnie’s special talent, and will likely be the key to what he hopes will be a long and very profitable NBA career for the young man from Staten Island, N.Y.

“I think he’s got a skill and a knack and he’s playing to his strengths,” said Nurse. “I think most guys are always trying to figure out where their shots are coming and, ‘How I’m gonna get used and where I can get shots up here and there and where do I fit into the offence, etc.’ And all he does is go out there and play really hard and chase the ball, which is, for us right now, that’s a great role for him.”

There are plenty of players in the NBA who, when their number is called, will go out there and play their butts off. But what differentiates Champagnie is a willingness and desire to constantly improve and make the absolute most of his opportunities, a mentality that appears to stem from when he and twin brother, Julian – who is a star playing for St. John’s in the NCAA – were cut from their Grade 6 team.

“I’ll never forget that day,” Champagnie said. “That day was like the first time I actually took exception … you know, like just not being considered one of the best. I never listened to people when they say something like that, but that day when I got cut, I took it very personally. I kept that (chip) on my shoulder throughout the whole day. So I kind of always look back on it like, ‘See how far I came,’ but I want to go higher and higher as time goes on. I’m going to keep that in the back of my head and use it as motivation.”

And while it’s not a one-for-one comparison, given the way Siakam has been consistently doubted throughout his NBA career and has used that as motivation, it makes sense that he was able to connect with Champagnie to the point where the two look to share a special bond with one another – although, who the mentor and student is in their relationship differs, depending on who you speak to.

The relationship that’s developed over the season has provided obvious benefits for Champagnie’s development, to the point where he might crack the regular rotation. But, even more importantly, the mentorship Siakam has been giving Champagnie has helped the Raptors star grow as a leader as well.

“I talked about this the other day with Pascal,” said Nurse. “Everybody tends to focus on the scoring and rebounding, but he’s kind of hitting a lot of other points that are really, really critical. From passing to defending to rebounding to leading.

“Listen, you’re not going to get with Fred (VanVleet) and Pascal, guys that are their true pros, they play 43 and 39 minutes the other night and are the first two guys back in the gym the next morning. They just really can show these guys a lot and they’ve done a lot, and it’s good to see.”

Added Siakam: “I like to think that I’m pretty weird. I’m kind of to myself most of the time. Having so many guys that are young and energetic, it gets you out of your shell a little bit. We have that connection. We have that same agent. I think it’s even easier. Being able to see someone who wants to work. I think it’s the same thing with everyone. He’s someone that encourages you to share what little you know.

“Obviously, I’m still learning. I’m nowhere near being at the level I’m supposed to be. I think I’ve got some experience I can share. And when you have guys that are willing to listen, it’s great.”

Champagnie has proved to be fairly impactful player in the limited time he’s been on the floor, and there could be more playing time to come. That could be very good news for the Raptors, as a whole, considering the positive influence he seems to have on the team and Siakam, in particular.

Quick dribbles

• The Raptors will kick off a five-game road trip on Friday when they take on the Detroit Pistons.

As part of this trip, the team will play three games in four days, right at the start, beginning Friday versus the Pistons, then Saturday against the Milwaukee Bucks and then on Monday when they will take on franchise-icon Kyle Lowry for the first time since he departed for South Beach in the off-season.

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

Barnes participated in practice Thursday but Trent didn’t.

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