Bonga rounds out roster, praises Canadian influences
The effect of excellent Canadian basketball coaching goes far beyond the country’s borders and a perfect example is Isaac Bonga, the German-born swingman who has landed a spot on the Raptors’ openingnight roster.
The 21-year-old has been tutored by two of the Canada’s most accomplished coaches in his young career, each of whom played a tremendous role in getting him to the NBA and now allowing him to remain in the league.
As a teenager in Germany, one of Bonga’s first professional coaches was Gordie Herbert, a former Canadian national team member and associate head coach with Nick Nurse in Olympic qualifying, and now head coach of the German national team.
“When I got to Frankfurt, he was the first person — him and Klaus Paris, our assistant coach. They got this defensive mindset in my head without me really knowing it,” Bonga said of the three seasons he spent in the highly regarded Skyliners Frankfurt program in Germany. “Once I got to the league I was always (thinking defence). Now thinking back on it, it really started out with Gordie, so he really helped me out.”
Herbert, born in Penticton, B.C., is one of Canada’s great coaching experts and it’s not surprising he was instrumental in the development of the sixfoot-eight Bonga, who the Raptors have decided to keep after waiving Ish Wainright, a move they officially announced Sunday morning.
Herbert coached in Germany, Finland, Georgia and France, as well as one season as a development coach with the Raptors in 2008. He was Nurse’s associate through the 2019 FIBA World Cup and last summer’s Olympic qualification tournament in Victoria. He landed the German national team job just after the team’s run through the Tokyo Olympics.
“He actually called me right away after he got the new job,” Bonga said. “It was a positive surprise. I’m definitely looking forward to that; he is, too. Can’t wait.”
But even before Herbert got the Germany job, another accomplished Canadian coach helped refine Bonga’s game to the point where the Raptors signed him as a free agent in the summer.
Roy Rana of Toronto was an assistant coach with the German team in Tokyo and Bonga thrived there — averaging eight points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists in four starts at the Games.
“It helped a lot,” Bonga said of the Olympics.
“Just like a confidence boost for myself and the team. Just making the Olympics was a pretty big thing for Germany. Playing against Precious (Achiuwa of Nigeria, now a Raptors teammate) out there was nice. Just the whole experience was special. Definitely, I will remember that for years, so it was really, really good.”
Rana was one of the first to reach out to Bonga when he signed with the Raptors, offering diverse advice and reinforcing what he’d taught the young swingman with the Olympic team.
“He told me about the city, told me it was beautiful and that I was really going to like it,” Bonga said of Rana, who coached last season with the Sacramento Kings. “Just a really, really good guy. He showed me where I could get better. Definitely one of the biggest (influences) this summer who kind of had me improve my game and give me that confidence boost.”
Bonga joins the Raptors after a somewhat uninspired two-year stint with the Washington Wizards. Still, there’s enough intriguing about him that Toronto thinks he can develop.
And it’s the Raptors’ history of player development that attracted Bonga to Toronto. There may not have been a bidding war for his services — he got a non-guaranteed contract from Toronto — but the chance to work in the system intrigued him.
“A hundred per cent,” he said. “Obviously in the past, people can see what they did with people like Pascal (Siakam), Chris (Boucher), OG (Anunoby).
“Their development and what they do up here, we all know. They’re kind of special for that.”