When John Salmons came to the Raptors as part of the Rudy Gay trade, it looked like President and General Manager Masai Ujiri was acquiring salary cap space for next season. What Head Coach Dwane Casey received instead was a big helping of instant veteran leadership.
Salmons hasn’t been a major offensive contributor since he signed a 5-year $39 million deal with the Bucks in 2010. A hip injury in January 2011 caused him to miss 8 games that February and the Bucks traded him to the Kings in the summer. Salmons was suddenly the old vet on a young undisciplined Kings team and his production fell off dramatically, plus he missed over 20 more games due to continuing hip problems. By mid-November this season, he was out of the Kings starting rotation and traded to Toronto on December 9. Being the old vet on a young team was a big adjustment.
“It is definitely different,” Salmons said. “It is an adjustment, something that coming up you never really see that coming. (It) just came – I got traded to Sacramento and all of a sudden, I was the oldest guy on the team. I was thrust into that role, it was different. I look at guys and they are coming younger and younger – man, where did all the years go? But, it is cool man. It’s 12 years in and I am still enjoying myself.”
At 34-years-old, Salmons is the oldest player on the Raptors by a big margin. However, it has been obvious since day 1, the fit in Toronto has been much better for Salmons than it was in Sacramento. It is not that his numbers are dramatically better – although his production has improved in Toronto – it was he brought something Toronto needed, instant veteran leadership.
“I call him a nickname, JSal,” said Amir Johnson. “(Salmons brings) more veteran leadership. He has 12 years. He knows the game. He has been in a bunch of situations and played with great teams. He knows how to get a bucket when he wants too. He is just an all-a-round good player.
“He can be hot or he can just let the game come to him and that is what a veteran player brings to you.”
Coach Casey grabbed the veteran presence with both hands and shoved Salmons into key situations from the day he arrived. This season may be all about developing the young guys like Terrence Ross, but young guys can’t learn how to do things right if there isn’t enough veterans around to show them how to do it on the court.
Salmons has since repeated the lessons by covering Kevin Durant and J.R. Smith like a blanket in the fourth quarter. Salmons is willing to help and if the young guys will pay attention, he has a wealth of experience to share.
“Sharing my experience with them, being in the league for 12 years, you see a lot of things on and off the court,” Salmons said. “I just try to help guys out when I feel like I can and be a good example on and off the court. Be professional and try to lead in that manner.”
The best thing that could have happened to a young player like Ross is watching a veteran like Salmons impact the game at both ends of the court and seeing the Raptors winning when they were just recently losing in similar situations. Whether or not winning can be taught might be open to question, but seeing a veteran share the ball, take his open looks with confidence and be tenacious on defense should help.
“I don’t know if (winning) is something that can be taught,” Salmons said. “It is something that the more times you are in it, the more you grow. Just being in those situations and learning from them that will definitely help.”
However, Salmons professional approach to the game is something the Raptors young players can adopt.
“Being a professional is a part of it, talent is definitely a part of it, but (it’s) being a professional and playing hard and understanding the game,” Salmons said.
JSal is proving to be more valuable to the Raptors than anyone could have imagined when the Rudy Gay trade was made. Sure, the Raptors trade of Gay opened up a spot for Ross to start and develop, but the acquisition of Salmons (and Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson) helped change dynamic of this team. Ross and the Raptors other young players now find themselves developing in a winning environment that Salmons has had a big part in creating.
Suddenly, this team has gone from choking to closing out games and the addition of some veteran leadership is a big reason why.