Tuesday, May 20th was a date many Raptor fans had circled at the beginning of the year. Like the previous three years, most pundits (and many Raptor fans) saw the NBA lottery as the likely highlight of their season. On December 8th, 2013, the Raptors walked into the Staples Center with a record of 6-12 and without Rudy Gay, who was about to be traded to Sacramento. At that point, the consensus seemed to be that Masai Ujiri was going to give in and start tearing down what Bryan Colangelo had built in hopes of getting a top pick in the May 20th lottery and possibly draft hometown hero, Andrew Wiggins.
Well, we all know what happened after that, and while Raptor fans (and players) are focused on the playoff battle against the Nets, and few of them will even be paying attention to the lottery, the franchise still needs to look ahead beyond the playoffs.
Starting today, I’m going to be looking at the options the Raptors will have not only for the draft, but for the offseason.
Coincidentally, Andrew Wiggins made an appearance at the last Raptor game to cheer on his favourite team, leaving some to wonder whether he might actually end up in a Raptors’ jersey next season.
Obviously, the Raptors will have no chance of drafting him at their present draft position of 20th unless it comes out that Wiggins is dating a Kardashian1, so what they’ll have to do is trade for the pick. The question is, is it possible? [aside]1. For those unfamiliar with it, I am referring to the Kardashian Curse, which seems to kill the careers of professional athletes or turn Kanye West into himself, which might be a worse fate. If Wiggins is really serious about wanting to be drafted by the Raptors, he should find the first available Kardashian and start posting Instagrams of them canoodling (or canoeing) and watch his draft stock plummet.[/aside]
First there are a few things I feel the need to say about Wiggins and then we’ll look at whether he’d even be a good fit for the Raptors.
In Wiggins’ first and only season at Kansas, he lead the team in scoring, free throws and steals, broke the school record for points in a season by a freshman and points in a single game by a freshman, and he was on numerous post-season award teams. Despite this, Wiggins disappointed many because he didn’t have the freshman season many expected of him.
One player that often comes up in conversation criticizing Wiggins is Kevin Durant. Durant had one of the best freshman seasons in college basketball history, averaging 25.8 points per game while shooting over 40% from three and grabbing 11.1 rebounds per game. That still didn’t make him the top pick in the 2007 draft, but it seems to have become the benchmark from which to judge a player2.
[aside]2. Of course, where does Michael Beasley’s similarly dominant freshman season fit into this argument? Beasley had, by far, the best freshman season of anyone drafted in 2008, but it was Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love that went on to become stars.[/aside]
One of the big problems with the one-and-done era is that it puts a lot of pressure on players to make a big impact immediately in college. It allows little time for the development or growth of a player. It certainly can’t be argued that Wiggins was close to the player Durant was as a freshman, but maybe that doesn’t matter.
First let’s look at a few players who would be considered among the top ten in the league today:
In his freshman season, Paul George averaged a rather pedestrian 14.3 points per game and 6.2 rebounds.
Chris Paul averaged 14.8 points and 5.9 assists while only appearing on the ACC’s third team All American.
Blake Griffin averaged a good, but not great 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds and was expected to be a lottery pick after his freshman season, but returned for his sophomore season in hopes of going higher.
Even Tim Duncan, one of the best, if not THE best, player of his generation, averaged just 9.8 points and 9.6 rebounds in his freshman season.
Going back even farther, the great Michael Jordan averaged just 13.5 points and 4.4 rebounds a game in his freshman season at North Carolina.
The expectations for players nowadays is absolutely ridiculous. If they don’t dominate immediately, they’re written off. It’s just one reason why I’d like to see the NBA raise the age limit.
While Wiggins didn’t have a dominant freshman season, it was good enough to end the season on the All Freshman team and show enough promise to land on the top of the mock draft boards with just a couple of months to go before the draft. After averaging just 13.4 points per game in his first eighteen games, and then averaged 19 points per game over the final seventeen games (or 20 if you disregard his last game). He improved his defense, became more assertive, he improved his handle, his ability to move without the ball and read defenses.
Admittedly, Wiggins played horribly in his only NCAA Tournament game, but one game doesn’t say much about any player. Especially one so young.
Pundits and fans love to compare players even though those comparisons almost never turn out to be true, for good or bad. Andrea Bargnani was not the next Dirk Nowitzki any more than Kevin Durant was the next Tracy McGrady3.
[aside]3. Durant was also compared to Dirk Nowitzki, presumably because both are very tall and could shoot from outside AND it marks one of the very few times a player was compared to someone of a different race.[/aside]
Comparing players does give a bit of a snapshot of a player’s skills and abilities, though, and that’s about as far as it should go. Tyler Ennis reminds me a little of Mark Jackson, not because I think Ennis is the next Mark Jackson, but because they share some strengths, like the ability to run and offense, decision-making, leadership skills, ball handling ability, as well as weaknesses, like shooting and scoring and lack of elite athleticism.
I bring this up because one comparison for Wiggins I’ve heard is DeMar DeRozan, including by Grantland/ESPN’s own Jalen Rose. I don’t understand this in the least. Yes, both have unearthly athleticism and both were rather raw players in their only college season, but the comparison ends there. One of DeRozan’s biggest weakness is his defense, which is possibly Wiggins’ biggest strength right now.
Wiggins was widely considered to be the best defender on a very good Kansas team that featured Joel Embiid, one of the best shot blockers in the nation. And the one thing scouts agree upon is that even if Wiggins’ doesn’t reach his potential as a scorer, he should always be valuable as a defender.
And while DeRozan had a pretty decent mid-range jumper at USC, his outside shot was horrible. He shot just .167 from the college line. Wiggins hasn’t shown to be a great outside shooter, but his .341 percentage from beyond the arc is fairly decent.
Wiggins also displayed more of a post game than DeRozan ever did at USC. If I HAD to make a comparison, I’d say the player he shares the most attributes with is/was Maryland’s Len Bias4. Unfortunately we never got to see Bias play in the NBA, but they both were 6’8, incredible athletes who were silky smooth and made the game appear easy to them. They had very good mid-range jumpers and both were very good rebounders for their position.
[aside]4. Len Bias was one of the biggest ‘what-ifs’ in the history of the NBA. Even forgetting what he would have meant to the Celtics, Bias might have been the rival Michael Jordan never really had in the NBA. If Bias had lived and become the player many thought he would, we might have seen a very different career from Jordan. Maybe he doesn’t retire for nearly two years to try baseball because Bias’ presence would have kept him motivated.[/aside]
Interestingly, while Bias was considered by many to be a talent on par with Jordan, at the time he was drafted, in his freshman season, he averaged an unimpressive 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds in 22 minutes. It wasn’t until his third season did he have a season that was statistically comparable to Wiggins’ freshman season.
As for whether Wiggins would be a good fit for the Raptors, I would say definitely. He’s a team-first player who plays very good defense and can score in a variety of ways. He can play both the shooting guard and small forward position and he has star potential. The Raptors could definitely use all that. Yes, they won a franchise record 48 games and the Atlantic Division title, but they still lack the franchise player talent that teams generally need if they want to become true title contenders.
Does Wiggins have franchise player potential?
Hard to say, but he has more franchise player potential than any current Raptor, and as I pointed out earlier, his lack of dominance in his freshman season isn’t good enough evidence he doesn’t have it. That’s why most mock drafts have him number one.
The real question isn’t whether he’d be a good fit for the Raptors (yes) or whether the Raptors should try and acquire him (yes), it’s if have they ability to acquire him.
While the actual lottery will probably change the order, right now the five teams most likely drafting in the top five are Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Orlando, Utah and Boston. Considering their rosters and obvious strategy to build through the draft, it’s unlikely any of those teams would consider trading out of the lottery completely for an established player who isn’t already a top player in the league.
Unless there a lower team moves up, the best chance the Raptors have might be a team like the Lakers (currently drafting 6th), whose pick is apparently available.
Of course, the Raptors have only two real assets on the roster that are valuable enough to trade for a high lottery pick this year. DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas (Kyle Lowry’s unrestricted free agency means he has little sign-and-trade value, especially during a summer where so many teams have lots of cap room). The Raptors might be able to trade Valanciunas to the Lakers in exchange for their 6th pick, but then would have to make another deal to move up (perhaps the 6th and 20th picks). The question is whether or not that’s too much to give up for a player who might not end up becoming a superstar.
And how do you replace a guy like Valanciunas, a legit 7-footer center who can score in the post?
They could also work a three-way trade with Minnesota, where the Timberwolves would get DeRozan, who is more replaceable than Valanciunas (especially if they draft Wiggins), and other assets, the Lakers would get Kevin Love and the Raptors would end up getting the Lakers’ 6th pick.
Again, the Raptors would still have to move up, but DeRozan is obviously more of a known quantity (for good and bad) than Valanciunas is. Again, you have to ask whether it’s worth it.
The immediate future of the Raptors will depend on two things. The fate of Kyle Lowry, which the Raptors won’t know until after the draft, and the success the Raptors have in the playoffs.
Right now the Raptors are sitting at 1-1 against Nets with the series moving to Brooklyn, where they have a better home record than the Raptors do. If the Raptors don’t win another game, or just one more game, it might be an indication that changes might be needed and trading for someone like Wiggins might be considered5.
[aside]5. The player that might be the best fit for the Raptors could be Jabari Parker. A more assertive and polished scorer than Wiggins, Parker was simply more of the dominant player that the Raptors need to take the next step. And Parker might be easier to trade for than Wiggins, as well.[/aside]
On the other hand, if the Raptors take the series and move onto the second round, then it’s hard to foresee (or argue for) any major changes unless a Lowry exit forces their hand, and that wouldn’t be until after the draft.
It may seem premature to be discussing such things, but that’s the job of the GM. To look and plan ahead. And speaking of looking ahead, there might be another Canadian player that the Raptors DO have a better chance of acquiring on draft night. In the next of the series we’ll look at him…