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The first thing Dalano Banton lights up about when he sits down after one of the Summer League Raptors’ team practices in Las Vegas, is Rexdale. Banton has opened up before about growing up in the Etobicoke neighbourhood west of downtown Toronto, crediting it for giving him "extra grit" and wearing the number 45 in his sophomore season at the University of Nebraska in honour of the 45 Kipling bus, but here in Vegas, at a community centre gym way off the strip with his first Summer League underway, maybe the reality hits him a little harder.
"It's like both my dreams unfolding at the same time," Banton says, lighting up for the second time, "being able to get drafted is a blessing, but always growing up wanting to be a Raptor and ‘cause I'm from Toronto, I’m pretty sure everyone wants to be part of the team of the city they're from. It was just both my dreams unfolding, it still feels surreal."
There’s an easy fluidity to Banton, as evident as it is when he moves, long and rangy, on court, as when he settles his 6’7” frame easily into a relatively small folding chair. His focus is the same, quick to zero-in on a loose ball or snaring a rebound (by the end of the team’s ten days in Vegas, he led his teammates with a total 32 rebounds and ten steals) the same way he leans forward with interest and intent to questions asked through a mask, voices raised over the clamour of shooting drills and the rapid-fire list of yoga poses being called out to players stretching off to the side as practice winds down.
His being at ease in a flurry of activity, even as he stepped foot on his first official NBA stage, became obvious as the Raptors ripped through their Summer League schedule. From a sluggish start against the Knicks that had Toronto way too tight — oftentimes the entire lineup crowded under the basket at either end with no plan and too many bodies — the spacing, and timing, quickly improved.
"We're at practice, and we talk about all these things — bring the intensity and the pace. I don't think they understand why we're doing that until you throw them in a game," Patrick Mutombo, Toronto’s Summer League head coach says when asked about the real-time learning curve on display, "And you saw first game how slow we started. It's almost like..." he rests his hand on his chest and mimics taking a deep breath, "...and then we take a deep breath, sit down and remember what we talked about at practice, and start transferring what we worked on for three days, put it into gear."
In the team’s second matchup against the Warriors, where Toronto took its first and only loss of the tournament, Banton hung around his defensive assignments and took some quick and creative drives, using his spring-loaded legs and length to get vertical without much runway. He echoed the same propulsion against Houston, slinking through screens for downhill, acrobatic layups and burning the floor in transition, trying out playmaking and trusting his intuitive knack for passing, a skill that would carry him and the Raptors through their next two wins against Charlotte and Brooklyn. Banton hadn’t just put it into gear, he was leaning joyfully and with urgency into whatever curves the game came up with.
Passing has been the not-so-secret weapon of Toronto since Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan led the team, with the Raptors playing their best when everyone on the floor gets a touch, either in taunting keep-aways or whip quick offensive sequences that see opponents spinning in place. Sharing the ball feeds momentum on the floor and keeps communication clear, which in turn flows back into the Raptors' propensity for pestering, relentless defence. Banton, to that end, fits the team ethos to a T.
"I kind of always had that feel for the game. Just wanting to get other guys involved, just being unselfish on the floor," Banton says, when asked whether he’s always had the knack for passing, "I wasn't always this tall, I hit a crazy growth spurt so I was actually a shorter point guard, and my coaches at the time kept me at the point guard position. So I was able to keep my feel for the game, and my ability to use my vision and my size with my versatility. Just put it all together and try to package it up."
"He's a guy that naturally likes to pass," Mutombo says, when asked where Banton fits in getting the team honed-in on the Raptors' unselfish culture, "He's got good size. He can see above the crowd. As we like to say, above the defences. He's a willing passer. I got to get him to be even more aggressive, even when driving the ball," he adds in a coach’s knack to correct, "but he's got such a good feel for the game. He's quicker than you think."
Banton is a quick learner, too, and he’s in compatible company. The one word that kept coming up in player post-games or 1-on-1s was versatility, and Banton, Barnes, plus late addition Precious Achiuwa’s appetite and eagerness for it.
"I'm from Toronto," Banton stresses, "so I see the development that they make with all the guys like Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet, a countless list, and I could go on and continue to name guys, but just being able to see it firsthand as a fan before I ever even thought I was going to play for the team. I knew this for a long time, Raptors like to develop players. They get guys going and they get guys to their second contracts."
Aside from Mutombo stressing to him that his length is "a gift" that he should use whenever he has the chance, Banton has clear goals for his rookie season — get stronger and work on his jump shot — as well as a firm handle on the reality of the new world he’s stepping into.
"[In the] NBA, everyone's a step ahead. It's not college anymore. Guys are all faster, stronger. You just gotta be able to keep shorter, faster guys out of the lane and being able to work on your defensive side of the ball," he says, adding good-naturedly, "Because in the NBA, you're going to get beat, but you have to be able to recover as well."
While there were no doubt rosters spots up for grabs, Toronto’s time at Summer League felt more like the first step in what will be, Mutombo and the Raptors front office hopes, a long and meaningful road of development, especially for its incoming rookies. Mutombo stressed that Banton’s time in Vegas was important because it would allow him and his teammates to "fail a little."
Mutombo recalled a conversation the two had early on where Banton said, "My mom said she gave you permission to smack me upside the head," to which Mutombo added: "I say, 'I know. And I will keep that card because I'm sure there will be times,'" Mutombo laughs, quickly stressing, "I would never do that. But he understands that there will be teachable moments. How do we teach them patience? It's also by us being patient with them."
"We've got film, conversations, to take their bodies through it. So it's a long process and we have to talk about it," Mutombo said, "You have to tell them, but we also have to model the behavior we're expecting them to have."
Banton, in his Summer League tenure and beyond, is already something of a natural conduit for the team. Being only the third Raptor in history to be from Toronto, behind Jamaal Magloire and Cory Joseph (but the first ever to be from the city and drafted by its home team) Banton has already had teammates look to him when wondering what to expect. He ran Scottie Barnes through some Toronto slang, and tour-guided him around town, and when asked if he feels he’s taken on early chemistry-building responsibilities because of his innate familiarity with the city, he agreed, but demurred that he looks at it more like establishing "relationships you're going to have for a long time," and going through the bonding process of being rookies together.
"Being able to gel with Scottie, and just him being my fellow rookie, him and David [Johnson] and Justin [Champagnie] as well, just us going through this process together for the first time, you know, everyone's going to remember their rookie year," he says, adding, "we’ll be able to talk about this for life. We talk about that all the time, 10 years down the line, we're going to talk about the time we went to the CN Tower."
"They understand they're coming into a culture where working hard is the expectation, it is the standard. And when you work hard together and you almost, I'll use this term a little bit loosely, when you suffer together, it builds a bond," Mutombo says of Banton, Barnes and the rest of the Vegas team’s quick chemistry, "And I just love seeing how they encourage each other, how they hold each other accountable and that sort of thing… It’s early in the piece, but I think that this is who they are. They are good kids, good people."
That Banton’s going to be a fan favourite was cemented as soon as he was drafted, showing appreciation for the city was just icing on the cake. But after a Tampa season that was so tumultuous, and having lost what was for so long the central identity of the team with Kyle Lowry moving onto Miami, Banton could not be setting foot on home court at a better time, or for a fanbase more grateful, and relieved, to see him and the rest of the team.
"I'm going to have, probably, some trouble with tickets," he grins when asked how many of his friends and family are going to come out to see his first game. Picturing this, he lights up for the last time, but the reality of it — once he gets there and takes his first perceptive and rangy steps on the court — is going to be so much brighter, and louder, than he can even imagine.
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