Champagnie says his preference was always Toronto

TORONTO – Justin Champagnie has an unwavering belief in himself, and once he sets a target, he says, he usually hits it.

“I always had a dream in mind of making it to the NBA and playing here,” the 20-year-old Raptors rookie said after Wednesday’s practice. “One thing everyone knows about me, when I put my mind to something, I’m going to go do it, no matter what anybody says.

“I just kind of put it in my head ever 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, N.Y., 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 young, high-octane bench.

The six-foot-six, 200-pound forward went undrafted after two seasons at the University of Pittsburgh, but was signed by the Raptors to a two-way deal the next day.

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Not surprising, of the 16 or 17 teams Champagnie visited for pre-draft workouts, he had his sights set on Toronto.

“I didn’t want to play anywhere else,” he said. “I told my agent right away I wanted to play in Toronto, like right after the workout.”

Champagnie did his pre-draft workout in Tampa, Fla., and said there was “just a vibe” with the organization, including the coaching staff. He practised for Raptors 905 head coach Patrick Mutombo and Raptors assistant Fabulous (Fab) Flournoy. Head coach Nick Nurse watched from the sidelines.

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“It was just the energy I guess, I don’t really know. They were just upbeat and knew what they were doing and it was straight to the point. It was just really cool,” Champagnie said. “We went out for dinner and it was just a really good vibe.

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“And of course I had heard about the reputation with bringing players up and developing them — but just the vibe alone kind of caught me.”

Toronto has built an excellent reputation of developing players through its G League affiliate Raptors 905, including current Raptors starters Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. So Champagnie has no qualms of being on a two-way deal, and potentially spending much of the season playing in Mississauga, Ont.

“I just needed 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 haul down rebounds at his relatively small size, Champagnie said “Just go do it.”

“I try to watch teams and see what they do, but nobody wants to play hard, everyone wants to be lackadaisical and just get up and down the floor a little bit. If you put that energy out, no one is going to stop you,” he said.

It’s about more than just effort though, it’s about reading angles.

“It’s kind of like when someone shoots the ball, I have already imagined where it’s going to go, so I go to that spot and most of the time it goes that way, so I’m there,” he said.

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Champagnie said he’s lucky to have grown up as a twin; he was never short of an opponent to play against.

“Just growing up, he kind of pushed me, he was my motivation, having someone to go against each day and push you to be a better version of yourself,” he said.

Champagnie and twin brother Julian were nearly inseparable growing up, and people referred to each of them simply as “twin,” because it was tough to tell them apart. They played on the same AAU team, and had intended to attend the same university, but Julian chose to stay close to home while Justin wanted to move away and have his own space to grow and mature. He averaged team highs of 18 points and 11.1 rebounds last season.

Julian, who didn’t enter the draft, is a third-year guard for the Red Storm.

Their dad Ranford played soccer at St. John’s, leading them to an NCAA title in 1996.

Champagnie — which is pronounced “sham-penny” — shot 7-for-12 on Monday, knocking down a pair of three-pointers. He said he’s been working on his shooting as part of the Raptors’ nightly “shooting lab.” He should see plenty of playing time again Thursday when the Raptors visit Philadelphia to continue the pre-season.

The Raptors open the regular season at home on Oct. 20 versus Washington, and as predicted will be fully vaccinated. The team announced Wednesday that the lone member of the organization who was awaiting a second dose has received it.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2021.

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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