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Tristan Thompson homecoming with Raptors seeming unlikely

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The Toronto Raptors’ post-championship season has emerged as one of the best stories in basketball — for those paying attention at least.

After overcoming expectations and winning the NBA title in 2019, the Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard in free agency, the player most assumed was responsible for their great leap forward. That Danny Green – one of the NBA’s best “3-and-D” specialists and a respected locker-room presence – also left in free agency was another blow.

They’d be lucky to make the playoffs, was a common prediction.

But with one game left before the All-Star break – Wednesday night in Brooklyn – the Raptors are sitting on a 15-game winning streak, have the second-best record in the East and third in the NBA (better than Leonard’s Clippers) and are on pace for a franchise-record 61 wins.

Between now and the playoffs there isn’t much that could make the season more fun. There have to be limits.

 

But I bet people could get excited about an old-fashioned homecoming.

No. Not Vince Carter. No room at the inn for him.

But how about the Cleveland Cavaliers and Brampton’s own Tristan Thompson?

The veteran big man and pending free agent was expected to be dealt at the trade deadline but wasn’t.

He’s one of 12 players in the league averaging a double-double (11.8 points and 10.3 rebounds) and given Thompson’s championship experience, versatility on defence and the Raptors’ poor defensive rebounding, he’s a perfect fit.

Come home, win a title? What’s not to like?

Another feel-good story just when it appeared the Raptors had the market cornered.

Toronto has reached out and expressed interest in adding Thompson if he gets bought out from the final months remaining on the five-year, $82-million contract he signed in the summer of 2015.

Hmmm, let’s not get our hopes up.

The primary complication — according to sources on either side of the non-deal — is that neither Cleveland or Thompson see it as wise to terminate his deal early.

He would have to be bought out by March 1 to be eligible for the playoffs, but as one person who would be in a position to know texted me:

“No buyout.”

The basic explanation is that by Thompson playing out his deal, the Cavaliers maintain his “bird rights” meaning they can sign him to a deal that takes them over the salary cap in the summer and trade him to a team in the market for Thompson’s consistent, high-effort basketball and ideally take back some assets to help them in their otherwise floundering rebuilding effort.

From Thompson’s perspective, taking a buyout – even if he landed in Toronto or maybe with his old pal LeBron James with the Los Angeles Lakers — would mean he’d be entering a tight free-agent market where only a few teams are projected to have cap space during an era when the market for bigs that don’t space the floor is increasingly limited.

The best chance Thompson has of getting a deal for above the mid-level exception is to play things out with the Cavs.

Could the Raptors move the needle by being willing to sign Thompson to a long-term deal this summer? Probably, but with incumbent bigs Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka also heading into free agency and the Raptors desire to maintain flexibility for the summer of 2021, there might not be a fit.

Whether staying in Cleveland pays off for Thompson and the Cavs is to be determined, but in the short term it appears any hope of another narrative log on the Raptors’ cozy hearth of a season ain’t happening.

He’s missing out on something special.

That the Raptors have stayed among the league’s elite while having six of their top-seven rotation players — all returnees from their title team — miss an average of 13 games due to injury – feels like a minor basketball miracle.

Role-playing specialists Matt Thomas and Patrick McCaw have missed big chunks of time too.

But nothing is perfect. A quick scan of the Raptors statistical profile reveals one significant shortcoming: Toronto ranks 26th in defensive rebounding percentage on the season.

They rank 28th during their winning streak, so it’s not like they can’t win as they are, but eight of the league’s 10 best defensive rebounding teams project as playoff-bound while only three of the bottom 10 teams do.

It makes sense. Limiting an opponent’s offensive possessions by rebounding their misses at a high rate can’t hurt.

“There’s been a couple of games where the defensive rebounding hasn’t been as good as we would like it,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said Monday. “And that’s just a combination of making sure we’re blocking out a little better, but then chasing them down and trying to sense where the long ones will fly to, with all the threes there’s a lot more long rebounds and we struggled with that early in the year, and it (has) kind of reared its head a bit again.”

Getting Marc Gasol back from his hamstring injury — likely after the All-Star break — will help. Getting more rebounding contributions from the likes of Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby at the wing positions will help. Making sure the guards are locked into chasing down long rebounds will also help.

But any hopes the Raptors might have of getting Thompson to come home and help solve their problem seems unlikely.

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Penny Oleksiak back to lead Canada in Tokyo pool

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Penny Oleksiak, the first Canadian to win four medals at a Summer Olympics, will lead a Canadian swimming team eager to build on their efforts in Rio de Janeiro at next month’s Tokyo Games.

Swimming Canada unveiled a 26-member squad (16 women, 10 men) on Thursday that is a mix of experience and youth that officials hope is capable of improving on the six medals won in Rio, the country’s best haul in the pool since the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

“I think the mix of veteran leaders and new faces is awesome,” said Kylie Masse, a bronze medallist in the 100 metres backstroke in Rio and one of 10 returning Olympians. “That’s kind of how sport works, there are always older and younger athletes, and it’s a great dynamic to have.”

Leading the charge at the 2016 Rio Games was Oleksiak, who became Canada’s youngest Olympic champion winning gold in the 100m freestyle as a 16-year-old, while also grabbing silver in the 100m butterfly and two relay bronze.

The stage is set for a new star to emerge in Tokyo in 14-year-old Summer McIntosh, who edged Oleksiak in the 200m freestyle at the trials and breezed to victory in the 800m free.

At the other end of the experience and age spectrum is 37-year-old Brent Hayden, who came out of retirement to earn a spot on his fourth Olympic team, becoming the oldest Canadian Olympic swimmer in history.

Bronze medallist in the 100m freestyle at the 2012 London Olympics, Hayden clinched his spot with a win in the 50m freestyle at the Canadian trials that wrapped up on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)

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Sinclair to lead Canadian women’s team in her fourth Olympics

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Christine Sinclair, the all-time international goal-scoring record holder, was named to her fourth Olympic squad on Wednesday and will headline a Canadian roster at the Tokyo Games that features a mix of veterans and youth.

Led by Sinclair, whose 186 goals for her country are the most by a female or male soccer player worldwide, Canada won medals at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and was the only nation to make the podium in both competitions.

“I am looking forward to doing whatever I can to help take this team back to the podium and make history again,” said Canadian captain Sinclair. “Our team is in a good spot, we are excited, we are hungry and we are ready to go.”

The 18-player roster features 12 members of the squad that competed at the 2016 Rio Games while a quintet including Vanessa Gilles, Jayde Riviere, Julia Grosso, Adriana Leon, and Evelyne Viens will be making their Olympic debuts.

Goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan travelled to Rio in 2016 as an alternate.

Canada will kick off their Tokyo 2020 journey when they face Japan on July 21 and continue Group E play against Chile on July 24 and Britain on July 27.

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)

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Which of the Canadians Picked in the 2021 NFL Draft Will Thrive This Season?

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It was a good NFL Draft for Canadian players in 2021.

Some four stars from north of the border were selected by NFL franchises in the free agency pick ‘em, and that is tied as the highest number of Canadians drafted in the 85-year history of the event.

Of course, the hope is that these young talents are more than just filler and roster depth, but can any of the quartet make the breakthrough into the big time?

Here’s a look at which of the NFL’s newest Canadian additions can shine in 2021/22.

Jevon Holland

The defensive back was the number 36 pick in the Draft by the Miami Dolphins, who beat off a number of rivals in the hunt for the Coquitlam native.

A versatile defender, Holland is a former Jim Thorpe Award semi-finalist thanks to his exploits in the NCAA back in 2019 with the University of Oregon.

He sat out the 2020 campaign, but representatives from dozens of NFL teams were in town to watch Holland go through his paces at the Oregon Pro Day.

The 21-year-old is following in the footsteps of his father Robert, who turned out for the Detroit Lions, and he is expected to force his way into the starting line-up at the Dolphins. And, who knows, maybe Holland could go all the way in his first season, with Miami priced at +2500 in the Super Bowl 2022 American football odds.

Benjamin St-Juste

When you’re six foot three, 205 pounds and still able to run 40 yards in 4.51 seconds, it goes without saying that you have the physical credentials to succeed in the NFL.

Benjamin St-Juste is the man that can, and he will bolster the roster at a Washington Football Team that will be looking to improve upon their playoff showing in 2020.

The 23-year-old may only have been a third-round pick, but he comes with a burgeoning reputation thanks to a successful time at the University of Minnesota. An All-Big Ten special mention in 2019, more than 50 NFL recruitment personnel attended the college’s pro day – largely to catch a glimpse of St-Juste going through his paces.

Both Brian Gutekunst and Jon Robinson made the trip but, in the end, it was Washington who snapped up the powerhouse from the Draft.

Chuba Hubbard

The third Canadian to be drafted in 2021 was Chuba Hubbard, who became the first Canadian running back to be selected from the Draft in 25 years.

It’s the Carolina Panthers who have taken a chance on the 22-year-old and with his credentials, you can see why. Hubbard finished eighth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy in 2019 after a stellar campaign – he served up 2,094 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, an NCAA best. He was named the Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year.

While running backs are not the hottest of properties in the Draft, Hubbard provably has the talent to cross into the end zone with regularity – the Panthers might just have got their hands on an unheralded gem here.

With these three Canadians taking the step up to the NFL, the future of the sport north of the border looks in safe hands.

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