With only seven games into the young NBA season, we’re thirteen games away from most sample sizes becoming actual realities. The Indiana Pacers are third in the Eastern Conference, Aaron Gordan is shooting close to 60% from three, but these things will most likely change quite a bit as the season goes on. It’s been hard to judge the Raptors so far. Their schedule has been tough, the lineups are getting worked out, the new look roster is learning how to play together, and there still seems to be a lot of moving pieces. Despite all of this, every night I turn on the Raptors I think to myself, “this is the most fun Raptors team in a very long time.”
The Raptors playing playoff basketball every year will never be disappointing for me however, the team had become somewhat predictable these past few season. The faces were the same, continuity isn’t a bad thing, but it wasn’t working when it mattered. Masai Ujiri rolled the dice this offseason, bringing back core pieces like Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, and losing some of their veteran bench players like Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson, opting to rely heavily on recent draft selections.
One of the main concerns entering this season was the amount youth coming off the bench. They’re inexperienced and some of these players still looked like very raw talent. How would this bench look defensively? Would they be able to compete offensively with a lack of shooting? The Raptors have changed their system, and the younger players were forced to step up in a big way. So far, it’s looks like it could be one of their strengths.
The play of OG Anunody, Jakob Poeltl, and Pascal Siakam have blown my expectations away so far. Before the season, the report was we shouldn’t expect Anunoby to play until at least January. Instead, he played on opening night, is hitting his threes with an improved looking shot, and playing some incredibly active defense, which is scary when paired with other active guards like Delon Wright or Norman Powell.
Poeltl looks a bit more physical on both sides of the floor this year. He’s finishing around the basket with more determination, and is boxing out defensive rebounds with force. Teams are beginning to game plan a bit more for his amazing offensive rebounding skills, and his defense around the rim remains to be very good. Poeltl has become one of the more impressive bench players in this young season, and looks like the perfect backup centre behind Jonas Valanciunas.
I wasn’t very high on Siakam entering this season. I’ve never been too sure what he was good at exactly. He runs the floor beautifully, and has the ability to guard multiple positions but this year, his shot is much improved, he looks confident handling the ball driving to the basket and finishing with ease, and adds another smart/active defender who is amazing in transition.
The continued development of the Raptors youngest players is proving to be what might make or break them this year. Can the youth keep playing the defense they’re playing? Can the shooting get better? Will we ever see Bruno Cabaclo play? These are questions I ask myself at the beginning of each game and I’m excited to see how they play out over the next 70 plus games.
The new offense, and the unselfishness of the players on the team, is making the new look Raptors must watch basketball. Even if they aren’t hitting their shots at the moment, it’s a much more attractive style of play compared to the very slow down/ISO heavy style they played the past few seasons. I hope that cold shooting streaks like they are on this don’t force the Raptors to revert back to their old style of play, which we got a preview of against the Denver Nuggets the other night. Even with losses like the Wednesday (which I considered a bit of a schedule loss), it was still fun to see guys like Alfonzo McKinnie get some playing time. With so much youth on the bench, losses like that are bound to happen but trusting the system is clearly something the Raptors will have to continue to strive for.
There’s a chance the record might not be as good as years past, but this style of play, and added youth, will hopefully help the Raptors play better basketball into the playoffs, and continue to grow for years to come. This year seems different, it feels like with the young guys coming off the bench that there’s more a stake. The storylines early in this season for the Raptors are compelling, this team feels different, and I can’t wait for the next 70 games.