Malachi Flynn believes this opportunity with Raptors could be the one that lasts

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — At the end of every Toronto Raptors practice, Garrett Temple, Dennis Schröder and Malachi Flynn engage in a shooting contest. It is simple: They have to hit five 3-pointers in a row: one from each corner, one above the break on each side and one at the top of the arc.

That is not very difficult for NBA guards. The twist: The players are free to mess with each other, so long as they do not make contact during the actual shooting. Friday, Schröder smacked Flynn on the backside after making his first shot, earning a devastating side-eye from the longer-tenured Raptor. Schröder also: threw a basketball past the left ear of Flynn, nearly hitting OG Anunoby in the process, and threw a ball high up in front of the rim, a 6-footer’s version of the Luke Kornet/Victor Wembanyama 3-point “contest.” When assistant coach Pat Delany waited an extra beat to pump in a pass to Schröder at his fourth spot, Temple was pleased.

“Way to ice him, Pat,” Temple yelled across the gym at Harvard University.

Though Schröder walks around like a pot-stirring youngest child and Temple seems more bemused than anything, Flynn appears to take this all very seriously. Tuesday in Dallas at the Mavericks’ practice facility, Flynn launched a ball off the back brick wall surrounding the practice court, hoping it would come back from behind and into Temple’s line of vision.

Flynn said he is as good as Schröder is at causing havoc. He acknowledged Friday was an off day on that front for him.

“Today we were a little more chill,” Flynn said. “We let (Temple) finish.”

Yes, Malachi Flynn can have fun. As you might expect of the youngest of seven siblings, as well as a point guard who learned at the feet of the, let’s say, very serious Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, Flynn isn’t caught smiling that often.

“I love basketball, even if I don’t show it the way people may want me to show it,” Flynn said. “I wouldn’t do anything else. I love basketball. I watch basketball when I’m not playing. It’s the best job in the world.”

Recently, Flynn has had more reason to smile. The Raptors did not win Flynn’s minutes in any of the first six games, leaking 49 points in 76 minutes. The bench’s struggles weren’t all on Flynn, but when a point guard is getting stripped in the backcourt, as Flynn was by Patrick Beverley last week in Philadelphia, things aren’t going great.

In two games in Texas, the Raptors won Flynn’s nearly 30 minutes by 13 points. He made a trio of 3-pointers and, more importantly, had eight assists to no turnovers. Even if one of the Raptors’ skilled forwards was doing a lot of the playmaking, Flynn contributed as a competent organizer and secondary creator. The players on the bench mobbed Flynn in Dallas at the quarter break after his big shot on the Raptors’ last possession.

“Malachi been grinding — he’s been grinding a lot,” Chris Boucher said Wednesday night. “It’s amazing to see him get the opportunity. It’s not like we didn’t know he was able to, but for him to actually get minutes and actually produce, you can see that for four years he wasn’t just there. He was learning and getting better.”

One need not spend too long on the last two seasons of Flynn’s career. After playing nearly 1,000 minutes in his rookie season, a number inflated by the final gasps of the Tampa Tank, he started his second season behind second-round rookie Dalano Banton in the rotation. On a team that desperately needed a backup to Fred VanVleet, Flynn could not secure Nick Nurse’s trust. When injuries or roster depth forced him into a rotation spot, injuries of his own — hamstring strain in 2022 and a fractured cheekbone to start the next year — limited his own opportunities.

Flynn said he never lost his joy for basketball, but he clearly became preoccupied with not making mistakes. Part of Darko Rajaković’s mandate from the front office is to give the younger Raptors a longer runway to succeed or fail than Nurse did, so nine bad days to start the season were never going to cost him his spot in the rotation. Still, Rajaković noticed early on that Flynn was a player who was putting an inordinate amount of pressure on himself.

After Wednesday’s win, the coach told the media he sent Flynn an article on Tom Brady earlier in the year in which Brady recounted complaining to a coach about a lack of playing time at Michigan. The coach’s message: Take the reps you are getting and make them essential to your growth.

“That was our conversation daily, that he needs to have fun playing basketball,” Rajaković said. “‘You’re a young player in the NBA. You’re getting paid a ton of money to do what you love to do. What’s there to complain about? You’ve got to embrace the moment and live for the moment.’”

“He’s just been telling me, ‘Just don’t worry about what happens,’” Flynn said. “I mean, just go out there and play and then whatever the outcome is, that’s the outcome, you can learn from it, you can go back and watch it. But while you’re out there, you can’t worry about messing up or doing this or doing this and trying to do the right thing.”

What we have is the classic chicken/egg scenario of modern basketball. Does a player succeed because he is given a firm role, or does he earn a firm role because he is succeeding? Two solid games behind Schröder, of course, do not equal the type of success Flynn or the Raptors are hoping for. It’s about maintaining it. He’s played well in small spurts before. Avoided walking under ladders or falling anvils.

While saying nothing negative about Nurse, Flynn clearly appreciates the opportunity he is getting now. He spoke about how in some of the earlier games, he was a bit far too inside his own head, trying to run a play instead of just reacting to ball pressure when it came for him.

“Especially after the first few games, he was like, ‘Look, you’re still going to play the next game. We’re still going to ride with you and see what you got.’ And that alone definitely gave me confidence. And him continuing to lean on me and continue to give me confidence and telling me not to worry about things has helped me for sure.”

Less time spent worrying means more time left over to scheme, trying to plot the shooting demise of his veteran teammates.

(Photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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