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Toronto Raptors Optimist Searches To Rediscover “It”

Having suffered through another summer of playoff malaise this Toronto Raptors optimist was on a mission to rediscover "it"

Having been starved for a Toronto Raptors win coupled with being severely sleep deprived Friday’s win was a welcome antidote to my blahs. I’m also well aware I’m likely guilty of wearing those same rose colored glasses Blake mentions in his article, but it’s hard not to take positives away from the Raptors first Summer League victory.

To be fair, I’ve been in a bit of a funk since our absolute drubbing in the playoffs. What stung the most was the way we lost the final game of the series. Sure, we’d been slipping defensively arguably for more than a season, but I’d never seen our squad (post Rudy Gay trade) simply give up.

It was obvious sweeping changes were due this summer and that likely one of my favorite players would be sacrificed in the reshuffling. While I’ll miss his ambassadorship and team commitment hearing Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge extol on Amir Johnson I’m happy he’s going to a situation where he’ll be appreciated. (see video below)

Still, the reality is his new contract ($24M) ceiling precluded his resigning, especially considering we’ve added 3 players for an additional $800k (Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola and Cory Joseph).


Suffice to say, while anxious to get a view of our new rookies and Air B&B’s growth I hadn’t quite shaken off my lingering depression of the post playoff oust and my Johnson departure hangover.

Like many instances in life, entering a situation without preconceived expectations it often produces a positive result. To wit, the progress of the Brazilian youngsters and first look at Delon Wright and Norman Powell renewed my hopes this franchise is evolving.

Granted it’s just Summer League, but here are my observations from the first foray in Vegas:

Focus On 4 Players and The Coach:

Coach Jesse Mermuys: I’ve heard Mermuys has a good rapport with the players and works tirelessly with them to progress their games. He’s set to be the 905 D-League coach, so I watched to see if anything stood out. First, he mentioned in an interview he made things too difficult for the players last season, so he chose to simplify things this time round. Hey what a novel idea, a coach who learns from their mistakes.

I noted he would grab a player as soon as they came off the floor immediately explaining what they’d done wrong. He also called appropriate time outs to stop opponent runs. Overall, it feels like he’ll be a good fit for the 905 squad.

Lucas Nogueira: Bebe was a premature exit having irritated his hammy (he called it hamstring fatigue). The box score says 2 blocks, but it sure felt like a lot more, plus he changed a lot of shots. He rebounded well, set some decent screens and maybe I’m crazy but at times I felt like I was watching a young Amir. I’d like to see him get real minutes this year on the roster and just hope the groin/hamstring issues aren’t a recurring problem.

Bonus: He’s bulked up and appears to have a better handle making a couple of in close passes I wasn’t expecting.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7L2C1LA5dc

Bruno Caboclo: I was anxious to see Bruno even though I’m not a fan of that coif. His Go-Go gadget arms continue to surprise opponents especially when he defends an inbound pass or his arm juts out to close a passing lane (of note he had 3 steals).

 

Announcers Chad Andrus and Brent Barry provided my first giggle of the night saying you could tell Bruno’s experience is paying off … um what experience. As I adjusted my rose colored glasses, I mused perhaps a couple of months in the D- League running specific Raptor sets might expedite his acceleration in time to play regular minutes by next spring.

While his 3 three pointers were nice, I saw improved ball handling, loved the Euro step in the paint and his team high plus +25. He’s raw, he’s 19, he needs a new barber, but I’ll excitedly watch his growth anxiously awaiting the time frame when he reaches being 2 weeks from 2 weeks away

Bonus: He gained some muscle, made defensive improvements, his ball handling is significantly better than last season as is his court sense.

Delon Wright: Yeah he needs to work on his shot but in his first outing he dished out 9 assists with no turnovers, scored 9 points, had 2 steals and was a plus +23. In comparison through 13 games in 2 days only two players had 8 assists: Chicago’s Ramon Galloway equaled Wright’s 9 assists, but he also had 6 turnovers. Tim Frazier came close to a triple-double with 8 assists, 9 rebounds and 11 points, yet he also coughed up the ball turning it over 5 times.

 

Bonus: With the slow paced Summer League game it was easy to spot Wright’s high basketball I.Q. He quarterbacks with calmness and he demonstrates crafty court sense. Case in point, he snatched a rebound away from 7’5″ Sim Bhullar via proper positioning. His calm confidence paid dividends as it permeates the group around him. With Toronto needing to increase their assist total this season it’s not hard to envision him sharing court time with Kyle Lowry or Cory Joseph to facilitate ball movement. And, notably Joseph and Wright represent significant upgrades defensively over Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams.

Norman Powell: Though I’d done my research I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw. His body actually looks NBA ready and though it was his defense pundits touted he’s a 2-way player: 20 points, 2 rebounds, 2 steals, a block and a plus 24. Though there were times I felt he could have passed the ball I was pleasantly surprised by his ability to change speeds, drive the bucket and mix up his offense while shooting a solid 53.3%. His tenacious defense was a welcome respite especially on transition.

Bonus: I forget which analyst said Powell would surprise people and was a veritably steal at 46 in the second round. The draft board called him a tenacious defender with intangibles. Well pardon me but WOW, those are some major intangibles. Sure it’s one game but you can see this kids motor …literally in game.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbXgCnpXooc

 

Other Observations

 

Raptors In Attenndance:
I expected to see DeMar DeRozan in Vegas who was joined by Jonas Valanciunas and 2 of the new Raptors: Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll. I also enjoyed Carroll’s comments re: Paul Pierce alluding to their possibly being a bit of bad blood “me and Paul got a little history all the way back to the summer in LA, he know what I’m talking about.”

Though Vegas has become somewhat of an annual visit now for the Raptors I did find it interesting neither Terrence Ross nor Kyle Lowry were in attendance. Last year Lowry arrived having just signed his new contract, so I wondered if this is just a coincidence or does this point to potential issues already.

 

Masai Takes a Shot at Ross?
My second giggle of the night came courtesy of Masai Ujiri. During his interview he pointed to the Carroll acquisition as necessary given how poorly we played versus 3’s (small forwards) for 2 straight seasons.

“Threes have given us nightmares you know throughout the playoffs in the last couple years, going back to Joe Johnson to Paul Pierce. We needed to get tougher, we needed to get bigger…. Hopefully he brings us some mental toughness and defense too.”

He back tracked a little saying we played two SG’s ( DeRozan/Ross) as part of the problem. Still, if the rumor that Ross is expected to replace Lou Will’s role doesn’t work there is a guy in Powell who’ll be more than happy for the opportunity. Powell’s not afraid to drive to the basket and offers a versatile offensive mix. He doesn’t have Ross’ length (Powell is 6’4″ and Ross is 6’7″) or 3 point prowess (yet) but I’d take a kid who’ll give 100% effort nightly. While he might not score 20 points often he’ll probably contribute consistently on both ends. That 2-way consistency for me wins out over sporadic big scoring nights with occasional defense every day.

 

What New Additions Mean?

  • First and foremost: T Ross has been put on notice! The combination of adding Carroll and 2-way rookie Powell with Bruno’s ongoing development and how easily Masai let Mr Iso-Will walk I bet has TRoss sweating bullets ….and he should be!
  • Bringing in two defensive point guards shouldn’t worry Lowry who’ll be tasked with DeRozan to be the primary scorers. However, it may serve to keep him focused knowing if Wright’s growth is quick it could easily provide Ujiri with a reason to shop Lowry to gain talent where the roster needs to add depth.
  • Regardless, if Powell can back up this first performance with the same effort (especially on defense) he’ll give Casey/Ujiri plenty of reason to consider giving him a roster spot or at worst keeping him close at hand in Mississauga. Ross has to be aware there are young colts breathing down his neck, but will that translate into a summer of progress of spur him into finding some passion?
  • Personally, I’ll hope for one crazy explosive month by TRoss followed be a swift trade with his spiked value. I was an advocate to wait for his development, but the absence of passion and no semblance of a heart have me preferring a less genetically gifted body with a bigger heart.
  • It’s only one game and Summer League at that, but my initial worries about ball movement are feeling somewhat placated given we’ve added Carroll, Joseph, Scola and Wright, all players who are pass oriented and understand the value of ball movement.

Cold War Over?
This week I caught a James Johnson interview with some poignant comments:

“I’ve been in the gym non stop the whole summer. Duane Casey and me been in the gym in the mornings 8AM. Just going back to my fundamentals of my shooting and going back to the basics trying to develop it, to make it faster”

Asked about whether he’ll see time at power forward with the trend of the league going small

“I’m here to do whatever Coach Casey wants of me whether it’s play the 3, play the 4, play the 5 play the bench”

 

He further explained last season he wasn’t fully familiar with the plays sets required at PF and hints Casey has been working with him on it. Does this mean the cold war is over?

 

 

Finding “It”
To reiterate I know it’s only Summer League, but the 4 players delivering on what was promised and then some left me feeling warm and fuzzy about the future potential of our prospects. If nothing else it creates some internal competition and I’m left feeling much more optimistic mid July than I ended the season. Apparently you can’t keep an optimist down and it is possible to rediscover “it!”

Tamberlyn @TTOTambz

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