Minutes before tipoff at most Toronto Raptors home games, a group of young Raptors players often circle up and begin setting and bumping a basketball in the air for just a few minutes. It looks like a group of buddies at the beach on a hot summer day, warming up for a friendly game of beach volleyball.
It's a group of Toronto bench players, and they can't really explain why they simulate volleyball (although using a basketball) in the lead-up to an NBA game, or how their playful ritual came to be. It's something fun that grew organically, kind of like the strong chemistry they've developed as a close-knit bench unit – one many now count among the league's best.
The reserves have figured big in many victories for the 37-16 Raptors, a team just one game back of the Eastern Conference lead. The unit has caught the eye of basketball analysts and visiting teams, including the East-leading Boston Celtics, who were manhandled by the young Raps backups this week.
"Their bench has been killing everybody, starters, bench, everybody," Boston coach Brad Stevens said, hours after saying there's not a group he more enjoys watching. "Whoever is on the court against them, they've been great."
It's a group of mostly second- and third-year players with plucky, workmanlike journeys to the NBA. Take Fred VanVleet, the pugnacious undrafted point guard who made the roster from an opportunity in Summer League. He sets the defensive tone for the group. They use another point guard in tandem, Delon Wright, who soldiered through junior college to get to an NCAA Division I program. Add Wright's University of Utah teammate Jakob Poeltl, the first Austrian to make it to the NBA. There's Pascal Siakam, the lanky forward who navigated his way from Cameroon. Add veteran sniper C.J. Miles, and often Norman Powell, too.
"They play like an experienced, veteran group that played together all summer and then came in and tried to make a statement, cementing themselves as the best second unit in the league and they have confidence in themselves," Boston star Kyrie Irving said.
"Delon and VanVleet play extremely well off one another, and then Siakam is just running the rim every single time, rebounding and protecting the rim."
The youngsters bonded while scrapping for minutes, spending time with the G-League affiliate Raptors 905. They played together much of the summer, in Las Vegas Summer League, working out in Los Angeles and Toronto, and learning the Raptors new offence even before it was taught to the team's starters.
"They put their noses to the grind this summer," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. "They're actually ahead of the first unit in their rhythm offensively and their speed of execution because they had a head start on it."
The athletic group is highly organized, they move the ball well among themselves, they increase the game's tempo and regularly find one another for flashy dunks or splashy threes. The unit leads all NBA reserve units this season in some hustle categories: plus-minus (+ 3.3 points a game) and steals (4.1 a game). They're second behind only Golden State's bench in blocks (3.2 a game).
"I think we can be really, really good as a bench unit when we play with that high energy like we've shown these past few games," said Poeltl, who has seven blocks in the past three games. "We also know that when we don't bring that energy we struggle to be productive. When it gets stagnant, we don't have a star one-on-one player like Kyle [Lowry] or DeMar [DeRozan] that can just manufacture a shot out of nowhere. Every action on offence and defence has to be hard and fast for us to be productive, and when we do that, other teams struggle to handle us."
The unit has been highly effective lately, building hefty second-quarter leads that pay off down the stretch. The Raps were able to rest all their starters for the fourth quarter in the past three games. Casey has blasted the young guns for their momentary slumps this season, too, reminding them how crucial they are to winning and preserving the health of heavy-minute stars such as Lowry or DeRozan.
"I think it's good to come in with that speed off the bench, just to change the tempo of the game," said VanVleet, who has averaged 13 points and four assists off the bench in his past 10 games, including a career-best 25-point outing. "Our job is to not have any drop-off when we sub. That's the problem that a lot of teams face in the NBA is that when they take their main guys out, there's a drop-off there. When we're really rolling, there's no drop-off when we sub."