The 12 minutes of basketball the Raptors put on display in the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night was arguably the worst stretch of basketball the team had played all season.
As a team, Toronto was outscored by 21 in the frame and shot 5-of-27 (18.5%) from the field while surrendering 33 points, 10 of which came via the free-throw line. Searching for a spark after a bench effort Nick Nurse described as soft, unenergetic, and a collective failure in role execution, he turned to Justin Champagnie who hadn’t yet played a minute.
Defensively, he was handed the primary assignment on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander but also saw time on Luguentz Dort and Josh Giddey. On the other end of the floor, Champagnie could be seen doing all the dirty work with screen setting to get teammates open, hard cuts to the basket, and plenty of activity around the rim to try and keep rebounds alive. On both ends, he showed he understood his role and brought an energy and toughness that was sorely lacking. Fred VanVleet and Scottie Barnes may have been the chief architects of the comeback that ultimately wasn’t, but after hardly a whisper could be made of the bench’s contributions over the first three quarters, Champagnie’s energy and activity played a vital role in winning that fourth quarter by 10 points… and so very nearly a result-swinging 12.
“I've been waiting for this moment for a while now,” Champagnie said of the opportunity to play real minutes of consequence in front of the home crowd. “I always have the most confidence in myself in going in there and making an impact and everything, and I felt like today I did that at a pretty good level. There's always room for improvement, but it was great. Getting an experience like that. I didn't really think it was going to get that loud, but it got there. It was fun. It was definitely fun.”
For those several seconds that the crowd erupted after the referees initially ruled Champagnie’s last-second tip-in good, it was the moment he deserved: a packed arena going berserk, teammates draped all over him, unbridled joy across his face as they all jumped in elation. Undrafted out of the University of Pittsburgh, the 20-year-old signed a two-way contract with the Raptors and at 6-foot-6, has shown an uncanny knack for rebounding and — much like his teammate Yuta Watanabe — seems to consistently put himself in the right spot on the floor at the right time, doing all the little things he can to help his team win.
Attention to detail for extended stretches has been a struggle for this Raptors team that has failed to find consistency, but it’s something VanVleet has noticed Champagnie has in abundance right from Summer League. With OG Anunoby and Khem Birch still without a timetable to return and Precious Achiuwa now observing health and safety protocols, the time is now for Champagnie.
At the beginning of the 2019-20 season, the Raptors incurred a handful of injuries and Nurse was left with no choice but to search for productivity from bench options who couldn’t buy a look in before. The result was crucial contributions from the likes of Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and the latter in particular never looked back, carving out over 18 minutes per game for the remainder of the season.
Nurse has highlighted Champagnie’s “nose-for-the-ball” mentality, has been impressed by the way he finishes around the basket, and noted that there’s a reliable enough 3-point shot that hasn’t been brought out the bag yet. Nurse used him for another eight minutes against the New York Knicks, and for it to come in the closing moments was a compliment to the rookie that he was once again trusted for crucial defensive possessions down the stretch of a tight game.
Champagnie isn’t the nervous type and it showed in front of a deafening Scotiabank Arena crowd. Some of that mental preparation and readiness has to be attributed to the reps he’s got with the Raptors 905. He’s seen 108 minutes over four games with the G League affiliate as well as several additional practices, invaluable floor time that would not have been possible with the parent club and serves the entire purpose of the two-way contract.
“I know what I signed up for, I am a two-way player so I know this is what the days are gonna be like, I knew that coming in,” Champagnie said of the recent hectic schedule that has seen him go back-and-forth. “For me, it’s just about embracing it. If you go into it with a bad attitude or ‘Why do I have to do this?’ then it’s gonna be bad. I go in there everyday with a great attitude, a great mindset and it always ends up great for me.
“I think those reps down there are very important, getting yourself [ready], staying in game shape even when you’re not playing up here with the big club. I think it’s great. I love it.”
Taking an inch and making it a foot in terms of playing time is among the hardest challenges in the NBA for a player on the fringes of the roster let alone the rotation, but that’s what Champagnie faces going forward. After emerging as an “in case of emergency, break glass” option against the Thunder, he saw first quarter minutes against the Kings and finished with a season-high 25 minutes and his first double-digit scoring night in the NBA. His attitude is refreshing, there is an appreciation for the moment whether it be displayed through his effort level during the game or his joyful smile during press conferences.
Aiding his battle for a full-time spot on the team is the self-awareness to recognize the difference between doing what may showcase his game a bit more and what the team needs. That’s not an everyday occurrence with a 20-year-old coming off a college career where he started 46 of 53 games and averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds in his final year while being named to the All-ACC First Team. Even the Miami Heat’s PJ Tucker, who has made a career now of being the ultimate role player, admitted recently on The Old Man and the Three podcast that he struggled to accept what his role as a rookie with the Raptors was coming out of college and it eventually led to him being cut and heading to Europe.
The same shots the 905 may need Champagnie to take can be the same ones he needs to turn down with the Raptors. There will be times where he’s thrown into the deep end game after game like right now and others where he won’t see the floor at all for an entire week or longer. He understands the pecking order and where he fits in with the Raptors. The key to more later is less right now.
“I'm not the fastest guy, I'm not the most athletic guy, but I have the best mindset, in my opinion,” Champagnie said. “I told myself, just go out there and do what coach says.”