Despite small sample size, Dowtin Jr.’s contribution to Raptors cannot be overlooked

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TORONTO — It would be great to be able to more fully appreciate the contributions of Jr. to the this season.

It would be interesting to pore through large swaths of data and conclude with some confidence that the Maryland native, who started the season as the fourth point guard on the roster, has impacted team success or failure in a meaningful way.

But the challenge is the problem: The sample size is small.

Dowtin Jr. has appeared in just 21 games this season playing five minutes or less in 10 of them and three minutes or less in six of those.

Still, why does it feel like the soon-to-be 26-year-old with nearly twice as many G-League appearances (56 over three seasons) than NBA appearances (30 over two) is somehow important to the Raptors’ fortunes as they wind up their regular season, pushing to improve their standing in the play-in tournament and hoping to make the playoffs?

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It could be because the more Dowtin Jr. plays, the better the Raptors seem to do. Sunday night’s win over the Washington Wizards was the latest example, just as Toronto’s win over the Detroit Pistons was in the game before that.

Dowtin Jr. played 49 minutes combined in the two games — the most he’s played in consecutive games this season and Toronto was plus-24 during his time on the floor.

It’s an ongoing theme. In the 10 games the slender point guard has played 10 minutes or more (it’s actually been just nine, but we’re rounding up the 9:39 he played against the Orlando Magic back on Feb. 14) Toronto is 7-3. He is plus-19 in those games, which is more impressive considering Dowtin Jr. averages just four points a game in those stretches of extended playing time and is most notable for barely touching the ball — his usage rate typically hovers around low double-figures, which is rare for a point guard. Against the Wizards on Sunday, it was just 4.3 per cent. The game before against the Pistons, it was just 11.9 per cent.

He’s shown the ability to not only do the right thing more often than not but almost never do the wrong thing, which is sometimes more important and all the while letting the team’s big guns do their thing almost uninterrupted. Proving he can impact games without the ball is not something players on two-way contracts like Dowtin Jr. can often manage.

“He’s just another guy who was a connector and organizer and he’s just a leader and he’s one of those traditional floor general-type of guys who can get you into sets and get guys in the right spots and he can defend so we need that, we need more of that,” said Fred VanVleet, who sees some of himself in Dowtin Jr., another undrafted, undersized point guard whose appeal grows over time. “Anytime his number is called, he’s ready to go. So, he’s in there working his butt off every day. And whenever he gets his opportunities he’s out there and he’s producing at a pretty high level. Give him the ball and he’ll make some shots too. So, Jeff has been great for us whenever his number has been called.”

Why Dowtin Jr.’s number hasn’t been called more often is a fair question.

The way two-way contracts work is that a player in Dowtin Jr.’s situation is paid a pro-rated amount of the NBA rookie minimum — about $509,000 — and can dress for a maximum of 50 games. Any more than that and he would need to have his deal converted to a regular contract, taking up one of the 15 roster spots with the big club, and the salary he earns counts against the cap for luxury tax purposes.

As well, players on two-way deals can’t appear in the play-in tournament or playoff games.

With 46 games on the Raptors’ active roster, Dowtin Jr. has four games remaining to play on his two-way deal. Given Toronto has seven games left, beginning with Tuesday night’s game with the visiting Miami Heat, something is going to have to give if the Raptors want to have their best lineup available for the rest of the regular season and beyond.

It can be confusing, and Dowtin Jr. claims he’s not completely up to speed on the nuances either other than he knows something will likely have to change sooner than later.

“It’s just basketball at the end of the day,” he said Monday as the Raptors practised in advance of their meeting with the seventh-place Heat. “Whenever my name is called I’m ready to play and ready to compete. I’m not really thinking much about any of the other stuff except winning ball games and helping the team win and just playing when my name is called.”

The Raptors are perilously close to the luxury tax threshold with about $623,000 to spare, per, but signing Dowtin Jr. for the rest of the season won’t trigger that given three games at the pro-rated, second-year minimum is about $56,000.

The bigger issue is probably deciding which player they would prefer to waive to create the roster spot. The most likely candidates: , who hasn’t been part of the rotation since he was signed Feb. 11 for the rest of the season with a team option for next year, and veteran , who has fallen out of the rotation lately.

Whichever direction the Raptors go and whenever they do, Dowtin Jr. will be welcomed by teammates and Raptors head coach Nick Nurse alike.

Nurse was slow to embrace Dowtin Jr. early on this season — at least based on playing time — although that’s likely because and were higher on the depth and development chart. Dowtin Jr. dressed but didn’t play 25 times this season and played six minutes or less in 11 other games.

Now it sounds like Nurse can’t live without him. He moved Dowtin Jr. ahead of Flynn after the all-star break (Banton has been struggling with injuries most of the season) only to throttle back slightly as Dowtin Jr.’s 50-game limit got closer. Those concerns seem to have been cast aside now.

“I think he’s played for us well just about every time he’s gone out there,” said Nurse. “We’re always talking about solid play, which is guarding your position as well as you can and executing at both ends of the floor. He’s got us running stuff and is capable of scoring a little bit as well on his own but doesn’t overdo it. He just fits in nicely there on both ends.”

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Against the Wizards, he played minutes in all four quarters and was plus-6 in the first quarter, which was no surprise given Toronto won the period by 16, but he was also plus-4 in the second quarter when the margin was one and only minus-1 in the third quarter when Toronto almost gave the game away as the Wizards cut a 17-point deficit to three.

The most pivotal stretch of the game came when in the last 3:39 of the third quarter through the first 6:27 of the fourth. Dowtin Jr. checked with Toronto up four and on the wrong end of a 28-15 spurt by Washington, and eight minutes and change later Toronto was back up by 11 and cruising. Crucially the Raptors were plus-7 in the 4:50 Dowtin Jr. played and VanVleet sat.

Dowtin Jr. took only one shot during that stint but it was a big one: a triple late in the shot clock after Washington had cut Toronto’s lead to three. He added two assists. He was hardly spectacular, but he was unquestionably solid.

Just being himself, says Dowtin Jr., who was outstanding in the G-League last season, averaging 21 points, six assists and 1.4 steals while shooting 56.2 per cent from the floor and 43.2 per cent from three in 21 games. He’s continued that with Raptors 905 this year averaging 16.9 points, 6.1 assists while shooting 50.2 per cent from the floor and 41.3 per cent from deep, all on the heels of an impressive four-year college career at Rhode Island.

His ability to slide laterally and contain the ball-handler at the point of attack is another quality that has made him stand out.

“I think my main focus is to just play with a lot of pace,” said Dowtin Jr., “… to get to the next action and move the ball from side to side. Don’t just stand with the ball. Like I said, play with pace and keep it moving, keep finding guys, get to the paint and create shots.

“That is pretty much how I have played my whole life. Just being able to create for others, being able to move quickly with the ball and make quick decisions and just think quickly on my feet.”

His next decision might be deciding where he wants to live in Toronto next year. The Raptors need point guard depth behind VanVleet — the sooner the better — and Dowtin Jr. may have earned himself a home.

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