TORONTO — Justin Champagne has an unwavering belief in himself, and once he sets a goal, he says, he usually hits it.
“I’ve always had a dream to make it to the NBA and play here,” the 20-year-old Raptors rookie said after Wednesday’s practice. “One thing everyone knows about me, when I set my mind to something, I’m going to do it, no matter what anyone says.
“I keep it in my head since I was a kid, I’m going to do two years of school, and (then) make my dreams come true, so that’s what I did.”
The Brooklyn, NY, native was a revelation in the Raptors’ pre-season opener against Philadelphia on Monday, scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds as part of a youthful, high-octane bench.
The six-foot-six, 200-pound forward was not drafted after two seasons at the University of Pittsburgh, but was signed to a two-way deal by the Raptors the next day.
Not surprisingly, out of the 16 or 17 teams Champagne visited for a pre-draft workout, he set his sights on Toronto.
“I didn’t want to play anywhere else,” he said. “I immediately told my agent that I wanted to play in Toronto, like right after a workout.”
Champagnie did her pre-draft workouts in Tampa, Fla., and said there was “just a vibe” with the organization, including the coaching staff. He practiced for Raptors 905 head coach Patrick Mutombo and Raptors assistant Fabulous (Fab) Florenoy. Head coach Nick Nurse watched from the side.
“It was just the energy I think, I really don’t know. They were just excited and knew what they were doing and it was straight to the point. It was really cool,” Champagne said. Went out to dinner and it had a really nice vibe.
“And of course I had heard about the reputation of bringing players up and developing them – but that’s just the vibe that caught me.”
Toronto has built up an excellent reputation of developing players through its G League affiliate Raptors 905, which includes current Raptors starters Fred VanValet and Pascal Siakam. So Champagne doesn’t mind being on a two-way deal, and likely spends most of the season playing in Mississauga, Ont.
“I just wanted my foot in the door, I’ll figure it out from there,” he said. “I’m always hungry for more, ready to work.”
Asked how his ability to nail down rebounds to his relatively small size, Champagne said, “Just do it.”
“I try to watch the teams and see what they do, but no one wants to work hard, everyone wants to be vulnerable and just get up and down a little bit. If you take that energy out If you give, no one is going to stop you,” he said.
It’s much more than just effort, it’s about reading angles.
He said, “It’s like when someone shoots the ball, I’ve already imagined where it’s going, so I go to that spot and it’s like that most of the time, so there I “
Champagne said he was lucky to have grown up as a twin; There was no dearth of opponents to play against him.
“Just growing up, she pushed me, she was my inspiration, to go up against someone every day and inspire you to be a better version of yourself,” he said.
Champagne and twin brother Julian were almost inseparable, and people referred to each of them simply as “twins”, because it was hard to tell them apart. They played on the same AAU team, and intended to attend the same university, but Julian chose to stay closer to home, while Justin wanted to move away and have his own place to grow and mature. He averaged 18 points and 11.1 rebounds, the team’s high level last season.
Julian, who did not enter the draft, is a third-year guard for the Red Storm.
His father, Ranford, played football at St. John’s, which earned him the NCAA title in 1996.
Champagne – known as “Sham-Penny” – shot at 7-for-12 on Monday, knocking out a pair of three-pointers. He said he is working on his shoot as part of the Raptors’ nightly “shooting lab”. He should see plenty of play time again on Thursday when the Raptors tour Philadelphia to continue the pre-season.
The Raptors regular season opens on October 20 at home versus Washington, and will be fully vaccinated, as predicted. The team announced on Wednesday that the only member of the organization awaiting the second dose had received it.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on October 6, 2021.