The Cleveland Cavaliers have just clocked the Toronto Raptors in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals. The day after the second beatdown, Jama Mahlalela is smiling broadly, radiating positive energy.
That enthusiasm is a big part of his job, and sometimes that job is not easy. Mahlalela, a Toronto-raised, University of British Columbia-schooled 35-year-old, is one of Dwane Casey's assistant coaches, with a focus on player development. His rise in the organization, while mostly behind the scenes, has been almost cinematic—he started by mixing the Gatorade at team community events as a teenager.
During the regular season, Mahlalela is responsible for some of the Raptors' game planning and scouting. His biggest mission is to work with players, particularly the young guys who fill out the end of the team's roster, on their individual skills. As the playoffs dragged on, Mahlalela found that he was spending his time a bit differently.
"Our coaches meetings have gone longer in the lead up to every day," Mahlalela said. "And they're much more dynamic. They're much more engaged. There's a lot more, 'What about this?' It's ideas flying everywhere. It's a much more involved process than a regular season scout is. There's value in that. You find a lot of things in that space that you maybe wouldn't if you were just going through a regular, everyday preparation.
"The chess match has been very interesting over the first couple rounds and over this one. That's about all of us together throwing ideas out: Maybe this can work, let's try this, what about this. Each different perspective helps us get us to a place where the staff as a whole agrees with what we're doing."
Yet, he cannot ignore his other duties. In order to mimic how most young players in the league are training, the Raptors' kids who never would have played in a post-season game unless it was a blowout—think Delon Wright or Bruno Caboclo—have already started their summer regimens. Mahlalela is a big part of those programs, meaning his already-long days got longer and longer as April turned into May.
Since the Raptors' playoff run ended, the Raptors' coaching staff has undergone some changes. Jesse Mermuys, the Raptors' D-League head coach with Raptors 905, is reportedly heading to Los Angeles to work on Luke Walton's staff. Mahlalela will take over Mermuys' role as the team's coach at the Las Vegas Summer League, and he could replace Mermuys in Mississauga, as well. For now, he is still in his old title. In order to get a better sense of what a player development coach does during the course of the week, VICE Sports spent seven days in early March talking with Mahlalela.
All you need to know about how good NBA players really are was on display today. The Raptors had recently signed journeyman forward Jason Thompson to a contract for the rest of the season. Prior to his arrival in Toronto, Thompson had exactly one triple during his eight-year career. As Mahlalela pumped passes to the forward, Thompson knocked in 13 consecutive 3-pointers.
It was Mahlalela's job to make sure Thompson, even though he was only slated to play spot minutes in Toronto, acclimated well with the Raptors.
While the players were in the midst of their routines and the coaches higher up on staff spent more time game-planning, Mahlalela was tasked with playing a combination of good cop and franchise ambassador (sorry, Drake).
Jason Thompson, seen guarding the Nets' Thaddeus Young. Photo by Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
"The biggest thing is making them feel comfortable so that they can ask questions," Mahlalela said. "The NBA is an ego-dominated place, that if you make them feel comfortable and get them one-on-one, they will ask questions. Even today, it was our first video session (at the BioSteel Centre, the Raptors' new practice facility) for Jason. I can tell he's not sure where to sit. Other players have established where they sit. And I say, 'Hey man, take my seat right there.' Just make him feel comfortable."
"As a vet, I'm not trying to come in here and show off or mess up a great thing that they have going on," Thompson added. "He was the guy that was explaining the things that I could provide. He was the one who was kind of easing myself through this process."
Working with Thompson was only a small part of Mahlalela's day. After Toronto's win over Utah the night before, Casey had Mahlalela track the Raptors' screening numbers, which took him until 2 AM. After 30 more minutes of video in the morning, Mahlalela got to the Biosteel Centre for 9 AM to conduct early shooting sessions for DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell and Wright. His post-practice sessions are always led by working with Patrick Patterson. He drove home after practice at about 2:30 PM to be in the north end of the city in time for the dishwasher repairman. He had a speaking engagement in the evening. In the middle of all of that, he had to find time to work on his preparation for a Sunday contest against Houston, one of 14 games he was responsible for scouting this year.
And he did all of this on just five hours sleep. He and his wife, Michelle, recently had their first child, Mia, who was four months old at the time.
"It's an amazing thing, honestly. I'm really tired. I'm dead tired," Mahlalela said. "I don't know how or why, but when you're on the court and with these guys, it's part of what you do. I've always been energetic. I'll crash later."
Today was all about the player who was supposed to turn the Raptors from first-round fodder into a conference final contender, and a player who had to replace him at times over the past few months.
DeMarre Carroll hadn't played since early January, having undergone arthroscopic knee surgery. Even in the 23 games he did play, he was dealing with the knee ailment and plantar fasciitis. Lots of re-integration and work would be required in order for the Raptors to get Carroll back on the court before the end of March. (Thanks to a setback shortly after this time, he ended up not making it back until April.)
After Mahlalela organized a team shootaround in the morning for that night's game against Portland, he went upstairs with Carroll and the team's medical staff, led by director of sport science, Alex McKechnie. At this point, the medical staff had slowly began permitting Carroll to do more and more, and it was up to Mahlalela to put that into basketball terms.
"Now he's looking more like a basketball player," Mahlalela said. "He's into movement. He's into cutting and shooting. We're actually getting some game concepts into his workouts now."
Replacing Carroll in the starting lineup had been a chore. Not wanting to break up his strong bench rotation, Casey had toggled between James Johnson and Powell, who was a second-round pick back in June. Powell had dominated in the D-League, averaging 24.8 points per game. With the Raptors, his role was different. He got the call this night because he is nimbler than Johnson, an important attribute for anybody who is going to chase around CJ McCollum.
Injuries limited DeMarre Carroll to 26 regular-season games with the Raptors in his first season in Toronto. Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Powell ended up with 10 points, all in the third quarter, and the Raptors survived an onslaught from Damian Lillard to win by two points. Almost by definition, a player development coach spends more time with younger players than the rest of the roster.
"I text him everyday. On game days it's getting in the gym earlier than my shooting time just to tighten up my shot to get warmed up and ready for the game," Powell said of Mahlalela. "He's texting me sometimes when we have time when we're travelling in between games, or if we get in early, getting in the gym, getting extra shots up, working on my ball handling, things like that. He's always available when I need to get in the gym."
"We spent a lot of time together, mornings, nights, everything in between," Mahlalela said. "To see him perform the way he did, and guard the way he did, most importantly, there's no choice but to be proud of that and to have a vested interest in his success, just because you spend so much time with him."
Overall, Mahlalela considers aiding with the skill development of the Raptors' young players the most important thing he does, which makes sense since it is right there in his job title. For a day or two, however, that is superseded. The 82 regular-season games are split between the Raptors' five assistant coaches, and Sunday's game against Houston was one of Mahlalela's 14 to scout.
This was the first year Mahlalela did scout work for games. It involves going through the opponent's last six games, and finding key plays and tendencies to highlight in the Raptors' video sessions and shootarounds. Since Mahlalela spends more time on the court than the other assistants, finding time to watch the requisite video can be difficult. Mahlalela was up until 3 AM on Friday night to finish up. The Rockets had a game Saturday, which meant Mahlalela had to add a few last-minute items for the Raptors' walk-through on Sunday.
"Usually the night before a scout, it's not an all-nighter, but it's pretty darn close to it," Mahlalela said.
Part of Mahlalela's job entails figuring out how to contain these guys. Photo by Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Mahlalela's first scout was a preseason game against Cleveland. He joked that his first assignment was to try to figure out how to stop LeBron James.
"Literally before the film session, I get the butterflies, check my notes again, what I'm going to say," he said. "I don't want to mess up the names or the stats. It's public speaking to a certain extent. How do you speak to a certain group of people? If you know your content, you can figure it out."
In a way, the Rockets were one of the easier teams to prepare for. They do not have a lot of intricate play calls; instead, they are a read-and-react team.
Still, there is that dude with the beard, lingering over everything.
"Today we talked about, 'OK, if there's an isolation here, what are we gonna do? Isolation there, what are we gonna do? Pick-and-roll here, what are we gonna do?,'" Mahlalela says. "With other teams, it's 'They're going to run this set, and this is what we're gonna do.' This is much more of a concept scout than an individual sets scout."
The Raptors went over the core of Houston's attack on Saturday, before getting into specialty sets and after-timeout plays just before the game on Sunday. That meant that in the morning—the game was scheduled for 6:30 PM—Mahlalela was scouring through more video on the Rockets, searching for anything he might have missed. All the while, he was tending to Mia.
"It's definitely choppy. It's kind of like do 20 minutes here, go fill a bottle, do 30 minutes, go hang out with her," Mahlalela said. "That's my choice, too. I could do it all in one chunk. For me, when I'm home, I want to spend as much time with her and my wife as I can."
As Jama Mahlalela can attest, there's no rest for the weary. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
It sounds like a nice, if hectic, morning, but things took a turn at the arena. James Harden looked like last year's version, scoring 40 points and dishing out 14 assists in a comeback victory for Houston. Corey Brewer, who was shooting worse than 30 percent from 3-point range at the time, went 5-for-9.
Without making reference to Brewer by name, DeMar DeRozan deadpanned, "Sometimes the scouting report lies," after the game. In general, this was a shoulder shrug of a loss for Toronto, a game in which the opposition made some shots the Raptors were willing to live with allowing.
"We knew we would have to guard (Harden) in three or four different ways. He lived up to that. He does so many different things. It was one of those games where you kind of shake his hand. He had a great game," Mahlalela says. "But you still learn from it. You might say, 'Hey, maybe I could have instructed this a little bit better beforehand. Maybe I could have switched this five minutes earlier.' You can always second-guess yourself five minutes after a game.
"During the game, we felt like we were doing the right thing all of the way through. That's a great learning experience for me as a coach."
Casey recalled his days as a player development coach during George Karl's long Seattle tenure. He was quick to point out that he was single back then.
"It's 24/7 on call. In Seattle, I lived one block from the gym," Casey said. "I was in the gym all of the time until 10 o'clock at night, waiting for players to show up. Sometimes they flake on you and don't show up. That's the life of a workout coach."
That is not where Mahlalela is at in his life. He has a young family, and getting from his home to the Air Canada Centre takes a 25-minute drive on the Don Valley Parkway—nicknamed the Don Valley Parking Lot, as Mahlalela points out. The BioSteel Centre, opened in February, adds a few minutes to the commute.
With the exception of the days around the all-star break, there are no days off to just have a simple family day. That became apparent for the Raptors this day, which was officially a day off. They did not have a practice, in order to meet the collective bargaining agreement's requirements for off days on the schedule.
Still, nine players trekked out to the BioSteel Centre. Mahlalela was there to greet them at 10:45 AM. It was a better day for skill development, since there were no parameters of a practice or coaches' meetings to work around. The three hours he would spend on the court were by far the fewest he logged any day that week.
"I got to spend more time with Mia in the morning, which was awesome," Mahlalela said. "She almost rolled over for the first time today, which was incredible. It completely lifted my spirits after last night's game.
"I'm worried that her first step, I might not be there. But I hesitate to say this, but if it's going to be close, I may find a way to be around if we think it's going to happen. Those things are really valuable. Being part of it is is really important."
With no scout game until a contest in New Orleans on March 26, Mahlalela's workload wouldn't be as light at any other point during the season. Without that extra bit of video to worry about, he was able to focus more on moving Carroll along with his injury, integrating Thompson further and working with the team's young players, when they were not with the Raptors' D-League affiliate in Mississauga.
Raptors 905, the terribly named affiliate, was a boon for the work that Mahlalela does. Take, for example, Caboclo, the Raptors' first-round pick in 2014. Mahlalela worked him out two days after he was drafted, when Caboclo was a curiosity from whom only the Raptors seemed to identify as an NBA prospect. In his rookie season, Caboclo played 23 minutes with the Raptors and 62 minutes in the D-League, as the Raptors did not have their own affiliate. By mid-March of this season, Caboclo had already surpassed that total by more than 1,000 minutes, almost all of them with Raptors 905.
Working with the team's young players like Bruno Caboclo (left) and Lucas Nogueira (right) is a big part of Mahlalela's responsibilities. Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
"Last year, if I have Bruno with me, there are only so many drills we can do, so much three-on-three you can do," Mahlalela said. "You need a life lesson to say, 'This is why we're doing it—because in games, you're getting hurt by this or that.' It gives me content. It gives me real-deal ammunition to either inspire them with or show them why a drill is important. For me, it's huge in that regard."
The Raptors played the Nets that night and beat them in a viscerally uninspiring game. Mahlalela's game responsibilities were, well, tedious.
"During the game, I track our offensive sets and our defensive coverages against their sets. Literally as the game is happening, I have a log sheet," he said. "And every set that we've run, I'm tracking it. I'm tracking it all the way through. We have the SportVu cameras that analyze everything imaginable. But the only thing they can't figure out is what play it is. They're not that smart yet."
After the game, Mahlalela formally logged all of that information, which he would then be able to trade to other teams for a sheet for one of Toronto's upcoming opponents. This is an accepted bartering system that fuels the league.
You could hear Mahlalela taunting Carroll across the four gyms at the BioSteel Centre. "You should have shot that one," Mahlalela said.
For Carroll and the team as a whole, motivation was an issue at this point. Carroll had been working on the same drills for a while now, but unable to play with his teammates since early January. The process of returning to game action was becoming a slog. The Raptors were not locked into second place in the Eastern Conference yet, but they were close. For a team that was always going to be defined by what it did in the playoffs, the final six weeks of the season are particularly difficult ones to rouse yourself.
There was a plan in place for both player and team.
"Right now, it's simple. It's looking at our defensive numbers and saying, 'This is not where we need them to be,'" Mahlalela said. "They're not where they were at the beginning of the year and we've got to get them better. Because we know where this story goes."
Raptors coach Dwane Casey understands from experience the importance of a player development coach. Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
The unspoken reference was to the Raptors' fate the season before, a dismal four-game loss to the Wizards in the opening round of the playoffs. As for Carroll, the one-on-one games against Mahlalela, as admittedly inadequate as the opposition was—"If he really tried, I think he could take me"—were useful. The smacktalk kept the chatty Carroll engaged.
"Also, it's saying, 'Hey, you're getting close here,'" Mahlalela said. "As you get closer, the work is going to amp up even more. The details need to improve even more. He knows where his body needs to be to play.
"He's champing at the bit, but we can pull back on the reins until he's ready."
After practice, Mahlalela edited film for his young players, supercuts of the most meaningful success and failures of their minutes. Following that, he made a trip to the grocery store with Michelle. It would be a low-key night.
"What day of the week is it tonight?" Mahlalela asked. When told it was Wednesday, he took a second to think, and then smiled widely. "Nothing planned. I'm excited."