Ujiri preaching continuity in an end-of-season press conference after a feel-good year is a lot different than actually doubling down on each of the seven main rotation players. Still, with decisions on Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson to be made this summer, and ones on Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross possibly coming next year, it is instructive to remember that the team the Raptors nearly beat was just ousted by the Heat in five games. Neither of the results is surprising. Heading into both series, the most likely outcome would have been the Nets dispatching the Raptors in a long series, following by a brief series loss to the Heat for Brooklyn. Yet, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Tim Leiweke wants a championship contender, and this year’s Nets were never at that level. Therefore, the belief that a little more time in the developmental oven will get the Raptors there is a little faulty. Make no mistake — the Raptors’ core should improve organically. However, they are more than mere time away from where they need to be. The Heat and Nets conspired to prove that in the second round.
The Raptors brought a large contingent of staffers to Chi-town to check out most of the draft’s top prospects (the top three were absent, but the Raptors pick 20th, so that is not a huge deal). Masai Ujiri was there, along with most of his front office, including Wayne Embry. Ujiri, who has a scouting background, said he and his staff have seen the players of interest many times, so the combine will not make or break any prospect, but it is an opportunity to see how tall and athletic they are in person against their peers. Teams can interview 18 different players at the combine and Toronto had interviews lined up with players at a variety of positions. A sampling: Canadians Tyler Ennis (point guard) and Nik Stauskas (shooting guard), NCAA player of the year Doug McDermott (small forward), Clemson’s C.J. McDaniels (small forward), Louisiana Lafayette point guard Elfrid Payton, UCLA combo guard Kyle Anderson.
One could argue that the chemistry of the team this past season was arguably the best ever in franchise history. Lowry himself mentioned that this was the best group of guys in a locker room he’s ever had. Terrence Ross admitted Lowry was like a big brother, DeMar DeRozan echoed the sentiments by calling Lowry a sibling. Amir, Jonas, Greivis Vasquez and many others in the organization have all emphasized how important it is for the team to lock Lowry up. This franchise has not been good in terms of consistency, but that’s subject to change with Ujiri at the head of basketball operations mentioning that it’s going to be a “priority” to bring back the team’s leader. To sum it all up, if Lowry walks, the team’s path to success could become uncertain pretty fast. Lowry is the engine that runs the team’s offence, the head of the snake defensively, and the leader who has put the Raptors upon his shoulders in times of adversity.
The Raptors most obvious needs are a bigger wing player with a strong defensive game and another big man with shot blocking potential. Based on how Casey likes to run his offense and the types of players Ujiri has brought in since he arrived, a decent jump shot with range out the three-point line is definitely in the nice to have category. The other obvious change from past seasons is expectations for the Raptors will be higher next year. That means there will be fewer, if any, minutes for the typical project players often taken in the second round. It doesn’t mean Ujiri will not bring in two or more rookies into camp next October, it just isn’t likely there will be minutes available to develop that many players. The 20th pick will be the most likely spot to grab a player Casey can insert into the rotation unless Ujiri can trade up. An early list of possible candidates includes: (Mock draft Rank: Draft Express/NBADraft) 1) T.J. Warren, NC State sophomore 6’8 SF/PF, Rank 16/20 2) Jerami Grant, Syracuse sophomore 6’8 SF, Rank 20/19 3) Rodney Hood, Duke sophomore, 6’8 SF, Rank 22/16 4) Adriean Payne, Michigan State senior, 6’9 PF, Rank 21/24
2013-14 wasn’t exactly a by-definition breakout campaign for Ross, but he certainly secured his place on the NBA’s radar. He’s a high-flyer with the ability to light it up from the outside – see his 51-point game against the Clippers in January as evidence. I don’t think he’s the proper complement to DeMar Derozan as both players really rely on having the ball in their hands, and it’s unlikely the Raptors would prefer the ball in Ross’s hands over Derozan’s for at least the next few years. Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas are both serviceable big men, but Monroe could really take the team to the next level.
So what happens next for the Toronto Raptors? Well first things first, saving the most important element of the team, resigning Kyle Lowry. Although Lowry wasn’t the biggest stat-stuffer on the Raptors squad, he was the battery that kept it running. Lowry was a hustle machine, a three point threat, a top 10 facilitator, and a talented defender this season and was a large part of many of the Raptor’s wins. Lowry’s 17.9 points per game, 4.7 assists per game, and 1.5 steals per game made him an important part of this Toronto team and helped them secure a spot in the playoffs. Losing Lowry means losing a stepping stone towards a strong Toronto future.
There is little doubt what kind of player Ujiri might be looking for. He spoke this week of needed size and speed on the wing and an inside presence. It’s doubtful he will find at No. 20 the kind of player who can step in and contribute to a playoff team immediately but the long-term needs would suggest he’ll try to fill either of those gaps. Joining Ennis in the ever-growing list of potential Canadian draftees are guard Nik Stauskas of Michigan, forwards Dwight Powell of Stanford, Melvin Ejim of Iowa State and big men Khem Birch of UNLV and Jordan Bachynski of Arizona State. Ennis and Stauskas are seen as virtual first-round locks in the draft; the others will have to impress GMs at the combine and in any of the follow-up private workouts that may be scheduled after this week.
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