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Wildcats to Raptors: Gleeson on stunning the critics and which NBL players can make the leap

Trevor Gleeson with his NBL Championship trophies from his time with the Perth Wildcats. Paul Kane/Getty Images

Five-time NBL championship coach Trevor Gleeson is enjoying a successful first season in the NBA coaching ranks, with the Toronto Raptors exceeding many preseason expectations to book a first-round matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers.

An assistant coach alongside 2019 championship-winning head coach Nick Nurse, Gleeson is confident the Raptors are coming together at the right time of the season.

"The so-called experts had us for 37 wins and missing the playoffs and missing the play-in," Gleeson told ESPN's The Jump.

"We've had a lot of adversity this year with most of the players being struck with COVID, injuries, a lot of mixed line-ups. We also have a lot of good players with Freddy [VanVleet] the All-Star, Scottie Barnes, Pascal [Siakam] who has been on another level these last three weeks, then we have OG [Anunoby] coming back.

"We're pretty talented when we have them all back on the floor playing. We're just getting in a rhythm with each other, it's really exciting, we know we can do some damage and hopefully we can do that in the first round."

Philadelphia superstar Joel Embiid looms as the major cause for concern for Toronto in the series, with the MVP candidate putting together a dominant regular season. While the Raptors took the season series 3-1, Embiid averaged 29 points and 11.3 rebounds in the three outings he suited up against the Raptors.

"I've been very fortunate this year coming across some great players [in the NBA]. He is unbelievable, he's the MVP in my eyes," Gleeson said of Embiid.

"He can just destroy teams with his height, with his perimeter game, with his passing. We're going to have to give him multiple looks, he's too good of a player to play him one way. We've done a good job in the past so hopefully we can use that experience and make sure we give him different looks."

Gleeson's focus for the 2021-22 season has been on the offensive end, in a role that he has enjoyed alongside one the game's great innovators in Nurse.

"He's very inventive, we come up with new plays," Gleeson said. "Some of our structure, it's a motion offence, we have a number of different calls. Nick has given me the freedom being the offensive coach with is bizarre, when I was a defensive coach in Perth and the NBL.

"It's been great for me to learn a new system but again, you have the best players in the world, you just put the ball in their hands and let them go to work."

A far cry from the familiar 28-game schedule of the NBL, the veteran coach admits the NBA grind of 82 regular season games has taken some getting used to.

"It's unbelievable to me, the schedule. That's been the hardest thing. We play a game, we finish at 10.30, we jump on a plane and get home at two in the morning and then you've got to wake up and do it again.

"Everyone has highs and lows, it's about the consistent balance. Nick doesn't lose focus; he focuses on the big things and gets that calmness with the players who can just do their job."

Having had a first-hand look at the best players in the world, Gleeson has doubled down on the belief that Wildcats' superstar Bryce Cotton would be right at home back on the NBA hardwood.

"One hundred percent, without question, no hesitation whatsoever," he said. "It's the timing aspect of being at the right place at the right time with the right fit on a team.

"I think Nick Kay can play in the NBA without question, his toughness, the way he plays against bigger players and his versatility. There's a number of players you've seen, LaMelo [Ball], [RJ] Hampton, [Jae'Sean] Tate has been great for Houston, it's not that far of a step to play at the ultimate level."

Cotton and his former club continued are sputtering towards the NBL postseason, though Gleeson believes they can turn it around to launch another assault on a title.

"I have the faith in the players, they'll come good. They've been stuck on the road for a long time, they've just come home after a long period. The crème usually rises to the top and there's a lot of crème there so I expect they'll do come things down the back end of the season."

After a glittering NBL career on the sidelines Gleeson is ready for his first NBA playoff action, thankful for the opportunity to work at the highest level.

"You're coaching the most confident players in the world. They're going to question everything, they're going to ask why, and you have to have a plan to explain it to them. Coach Nurse does a great job with the communication and the guys play their hearts out for him, it's a great organisation to be under."