When Toronto didn’t pick up the team option on backup point guard John Lucas, the position immediately became the Raptors biggest off season need. With only one point guard on the roster and a long history of struggling through injuries to point guards, a solid backup that could start if necessary had to be found. Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri didn’t waste any time creating a list of prospects and the Pacers free agent point guard D.J. Augustin was on it.
“We do have a list and you go by a list and you see who is available and who is not,” Ujiri said. “(Augustin) was one of the young experienced point guards we thought could come and bring something to our program.”
Originally Ujiri had tried to acquire the Nuggets third string free agent point guard Julyan Stone, but he failed his physical and the Raptors had to look elsewhere. Next Ujiri tapped Dwight Buycks, who was the French Pro A League MVP last season, after they saw him play for the Thunder at the Orlando Summer League. Buycks was signed without incident, but Ujiri still didn’t have a backup with any NBA experience. The Raptors needed someone they knew could handle the starting duties just in case.
“I like the experience,” Ujiri said. “He has been a starting point guard in the NBA. A good outside shooter for the most part, he can run a team and we like that about him. I think he’ll be a good fit for (a replacement starter) if it came about.”
Augustin started his last two seasons in Charlotte and averaged 13.2 points and 6.2 assists, but that was when Head Coach Larry Brown left and was replaced by Paul Silas and the Bobcats were sent into full-blown tank mode. Even with apparently acceptable numbers, it is a hard period of time to evaluate a player in.
“It can be frustrating,” Augustin said. “It can take away from your mental aspect of the game and in practices. If you don’t practice hard, you don’t play hard. If you don’t practice good, you don’t play good. In Charlotte it was different with losing. You get down and you don’t have the same attitude.”
Everything changed for Augustin when he signed as a free agent with the Pacers last season. He went from a seven-win team to a legitimate Eastern Conference Finals contender. However, that doesn’t mean the change was easy or went smoothly. Augustin struggled at times, but by his own admission, it was still better than being in Charlotte.
“Winning solves a lot of problems,” Augustin said. “With the Pacers, we won a lot of games, so the atmosphere was a lot better, guys worked hard and took it serious.”
“(I had to) just accept a role. Going to Indiana, I didn’t play the same role I did in Charlotte and I didn’t get the same minutes, so I just had to accept that and be a professional and just go in every day and be ready to work hard and whenever my number was called, be ready.”
“(Augustin struggled with) being consistent,” Ujiri said. “He went from being a starting point (guard) to playing some kind of a role in Indiana and sometimes guys just struggle to find their feet that way and that would be mainly it. The numbers and all that stuff – production – sometimes they are consistent for a period of time and sometimes inconsistent, but that’s the past and we are trying to create a new beginning for him here.”
While the situation in Indiana wasn’t perfect for Augustin, it was probably necessary for his career. Augustin had to deal with adversity in a situation where things mattered and hopefully he will bring those lessons with him to Toronto.
“It is good to get players from a winning environment,” Ujiri said. “Sometimes it is the right environment and sometimes it is the wrong environment, but still, it’s a winning program, so he’ll bring that. (If) things don’t go so well here now, he’ll have experience dealing with that stuff. He is still young. Still trying to find his feet in the NBA and find stability. We are sure he will find a way to figure it out.”
One of the reasons Ujiri signed Augustin was his experience in Indiana and the guard’s much improved defense in that system. Augustin had the best defensive rating of his career with the Pacers and it is hoped that experience will put him in good stead with Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey.
“(Augustin will be playing for) a defensive coach (and is ) coming from a defensive program, maybe it fits?” Ujiri said. “We will throw all that stuff against the wall and see what sticks.”
“Defense starts with talking,” Augustin said. “We have a lot of veterans here with Rudy (Gay) and those guys and I’m sure they know that talking on defense is what gets it done. That’s where it starts and then it’s just working hard and leaving it out there.”
The other reason Ujiri liked Augustin’s game was his pass-first mentality. Ujiri believes he needs facilitators on the floor to build a team and change a culture.
“When you are trying to build a program and sustain a change of culture, you want that kind of attitude from the point guards,” Ujiri said. “Sharing the ball, playing with the team and we think DJ (Augustin) brings that.”
“I try to just be a floor general,” Augustin said. “I have always been a pass-first point guard.”
Augustin was not re-signed by Charlotte after his rookie contract expired. He accepted a $3.5 million one-year deal with the Pacers last season and this summer he is getting a little better than $1.2 million on a one-year deal with the Raptors. However, he is taking the business side of the NBA in stride and sees the opportunity in Toronto.
“(Free agency is) hard, but we are all playing basketball and making money, no matter what amount it is, we are doing what we love to do,” Augustin said. “We are very blessed to be doing this for a job. The NBA is a business. You have to represent yourself well. It is a job and you have to take every day seriously, practice hard, play hard and things will work out.”
“(In Toronto) is a group of young guys that are pretty good and have a chance to be very good. Hard workers and that is the type of person I am and I want to come in and work hard with those guys and try to change things here in Toronto and make it to the playoffs. Toronto has everything they need to be that type of team (like Indiana).”
Ujiri genuinely likes to bring in young players that have talent and give them an opportunity. Augustin seems to hit the checkmarks Ujiri had set before the summer started. Experienced, young, a good shooter, potential defender, team oriented, cheap and without a long term commitment, Augustin is no risk and all upside.
“I am taking a chance, one year and we see how it goes,” Ujiri said.
If Augustin works hard and accepts the role he wins in training camp and throughout the season, he could be the Raptors sometimes starter, sometimes backup, all-the-time competitor to Buycks and Ujiri isn’t taking any chances at all.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.
You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors