TORONTO - In 2009, the Detroit Pistons selected Gonzaga product Austin Daye with the 15th overall pick, just ahead of a trio of gifted point guards in Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson and Jeff Teague.
The Pistons had been an Eastern Conference powerhouse, a playoff team for eight consecutive years but they found themselves on the downswing as Joe Dumars and company hoped to tread water, putting off an inevitable rebuild (they haven't qualified for the postseason since 2009).
Chauncey Billups was traded to Denver the year prior, the Allen Iverson experiment was unsuccessful and short-lived and the team decided to part ways with an aging Rasheed Wallace. A new era was about to begin in Detroit and two of the players that remained from those great Piston teams served as justification for the Daye pick. Like Daye, a 6-foot-11 wing player who weighed in at 192 pounds when he was drafted as a 21-year-old, Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince both came into the league with a similarly thin frame.
It was always understood that Daye would need to get stronger, put on some weight and add muscle, but the sustained success of Hamilton and Prince in Detroit proved that the body-type was not an NBA death sentence.
"I was always a slender guy," Daye said Saturday, in training camp with the Raptors, his third team in eight months. "A lot of other guys in the league are slender but they're able to deal with it."
Daye has yet to tap into the great potential that many believed he had back in 2009 and the knock on him has always centred on his strength. Signed to a two-year deal at the league minimum (the second year is only partially guaranteed), Daye has an opportunity to revive his career in Toronto; an opportunity he spent the offseason preparing for by addressing the very thing that continues to hold him back.
After signing Daye in early August, Masai Ujiri and the Raptors hired Alonzo Freeman - facility director at PSI in Las Vegas - to implement and oversee a strict dietary program and train the 25-year-old forward.
Daye credits Freeman and the work they put in for his transformation coming into camp this fall. "All thanks goes to him," Daye said, "for putting the weight on me and just keeping my mind focused and my nutrition very tight and looked upon."
It all started with a blood test.
"I actually took a blood test and found out some foods that don't really help me gain weight," he said. "Surprisingly they were foods that I eat a lot so I had to make some changes with my diet."
The Raptors' forward was surprised by how much the test revealed and how much of a difference the subsequent adjustments improved his overall conditioning. Drinking protein shakes after workouts and staying hydrated - something he wasn't conscious enough of before - helped him in this process.
"I feel a lot better," Daye proclaimed. "It's been a long summer and I worked really hard. I can definitely see the results out there, just getting to the basket and taking contact a little better but as far as everything else, I think I did a good job just staying focused on the task at hand and being ready for camp."
"He committed to it," Raptors' coach Dwane Casey said of Daye's offseason work. "He did a great job with it."
The added strength should come in handy as Daye transitions from playing primarily at the three over his first four seasons to coming off the bench as a stretch power forward, where Coach Casey plans to platoon him with sharpshooter Steve Novak.
"Austin has every NBA skill," Casey said after practice Saturday. "The only thing he's ever had to work on is his strength and his body to not get knocked off the mark, not to give up offensive rebounds and to be stronger. That's his biggest challenge as an NBA player because he's one of the best three-point shooters that we have [and] he has a great basketball IQ."
While Novak's strengths and weaknesses are well known to Casey and the coaching staff, Daye remains somewhat of an unknown. As a result, and with Novak nursing a sore right thumb, Daye should get an opportunity to prove himself in the preseason.
Come the Oct. 30 season opener consistent playing time is far from a guarantee for Daye, as Casey has stated he'd like to trim the rotation down to eight or nine players (though it may be a fluid rotation early in the year). To factor into the regular season rotation, he'll have to stand out in the final three exhibition games with Casey monitoring his defence, rebounding and ability to stay on the floor (he's committed 13 fouls in 48 preseason minutes). The chance he'll be given to play is one of the things that drew him to Toronto in the offseason. He had at least one other notable suitor.
"I know Miami was looking at me and that's a team I always played well against," Daye said. "It [would have been] a chance to get a ring but I don't know how much I would have played."
"I'm sure I could have tried to work my way in and got some quality minutes down there but I'm happy with my decision to come here. I think that the decision to come here will help me along with my future. That's why I made this decision, not for right now but for the future."