3 storylines to watch in training camp

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Media Day later this morning marks the official start of 2016-17 training camp for the Toronto Raptors. After today’s session, they’re off to beautiful British Columbia for a few days of practice and an exhibition game against those dastardly Golden State Warriors, at which point we’ll finally get to see some actual basketball. For a week still, we’re mostly left to speculate and read tea leaves – even the seven preseason games may not shed any true light on the biggest questions facing the Raptors.

That doesn’t mean we can’t spin our wheels though. As training camp opens, here are the three biggest storylines to watch out for over the next month.

Who wins the 15th roster spot?

This one is pretty straight-forward. The Raptors are bringing in six players on non- or partially guaranteed deals to fight for the 15th and final roster spot, and one of them will almost surely crack the opening day roster. There’s little flexibility lost by keeping a small guarantee on the books, as those deals don’t become locked in until Jan. 10, and the Raptors aren’t close enough to the luxury tax for the cost to really impede future trade plans appreciably (that they spent a shade over $200,000 in partial guarantees confirms they agree). They’re opening the season with 15 players.

Fred VanVleet – One of the top undrafted players, VanVleet parlayed a strong Summer League showing into a two-year deal with a partial guarantee. He’s hoping to force the Raptors into a tough decision, one that may be complicated by Delon Wright’s injury. The $50,000 partial guarantee may help supplement a D-League salary but there’s no guarantee he’ll go there, or even clear waivers if he’s cut. He’s probably a slight favorite for the final spot just as additional point guard and insurance, and the team was really high on him even before Wright’s injury, but he’ll still have to play well enough to lock the job down. If VanVleet isn’t the choice, look for Norman Powell to work as the de facto emergency third point guard while Wright’s on the mend.

Drew Crawford – A steady hand capable of playing solid defense and working as a secondary ball-handler, Crawford would bring maturity despite his inexperience but may be in tough due to the team’s depth at the position. He didn’t receive a guarantee on his one-year deal and is headed overseas if he doesn’t make the team, which would be a disappointing turn for his new best friends, Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira. Crawford’s case might be the most interesting, as he may be the best of these six players at this snapshot in time (he was an All-Star in Israel least year), but he may fit less than anyone but Moreira. Talent and maturity could win out, though.

Brady Heslip – A sharpshooter from Burlington/Oakville, Heslip was signed to apartial guarantee and will head to the 905 if cut. While the fact that he got the largest guarantee at $56,500 may signal the team really wanted to bring him in, the price they paid for his D-League rights suggests, to me, he’s not in the immediate NBA plans. Heslip doesn’t bring a ton of NBA skills to the table, but he might be the best shooter in the entire world not already in the league, and that type of preternatural marksmanship can really swing a game.

E.J. Singler – Acquired late last season by the 905, Singler won fans there and again in Las Vegas. His shooting and versatility makes him a malleable piece, but he’s agreed to head to the D-League, with a $50,00 guarantee to ease the pain, if he can’t make the NBA squad. Singler’s an intriguing option as the 15th man – at the outset, it looks like he may only be the third- or fourth-most likely option, but he may wind up the best choice given how many little things (shooting, versatility, ball-handling, passable defense) he brings to the table and how few (top-knot) he takes off of it.

Jarrod Uthoff – The closest thing to a fit based on position, defense, and shooting, Uthoff still has stiff competition. He was also given a $50,000 guarantee  on a two-year deal that interestingly contains a $100,000 guarantee for next year, too, if he’s on the roster past Summer League. That 2016-17 bonus suggests he may be amenable to the D-League if cut, where he could really push the Raptors’ young forwards at the defensive end in practice. Uthoff won a Raptors Republic poll about who should make the team, and his combination of floor-spacing, shot-blocking, and ability to play either forward spot are good reasons why. He’s probably the second-leading favorite after VanVleet.

Yanick Moreira – Still a bit of a project big man, he didn’t receive a guarantee but is likely headed for the 905, anyway. He’s made friends with Caboclo and Nogueira quickly, which is nice to see, and given the 905’s lack of interior depth without assignments, he could be an anchor for their defense in Mississauga. From an NBA perspective, Moreira doesn’t really fit a need and probably isn’t polished enough offensively to make a legitimate push for the roster this year, though the team does hold an option on him for 2017-18 if he surprises.

The question from here becomes whether we even see much of these guys over the course of the preseason schedule. One would think with seven games, the answer is yes, especially since names like Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Patrick Patterson don’t exactly need a ton of reps to get up to speed. The Raptors will probably try to get the rookies some work, too, which could limit floor time for Uthoff and Moreira, but there are 1,680 minutes to spread around over the next few weeks. We’ll have to be on the lookout for context clues (Wright updates, how much Powell is handling the ball, how often the Raptors are playing small) to get a feel for what they may do, but we should be able to at least eliminate a name or two ahead of cut day on Oct. 24.

Can Lucas Nogueira run with the backup center job?

This was a massive summer for Nogueira ahead of his third NBA season. He got married, he had a baby, and he began speaking like someone who knew he had a genuine opportunity ahead of him that was anything but guaranteed. Consistency has always been an issue with Nogueira, so it’s yet to be seen if what seemed like a more focused attitude in July will carry over, but he was at least saying the right things at Summer League.

“I think it’s going to be a great opportunity. The NBA, the league is about get a chance and take advantage of the opportunity. I think an opportunity is going to come early and right now, I’ve gotta be ready to take it,” Nogueira said in Las Vegas. “I’m not gonna say it’s my spot because I’m more time in the league than the rookies. The Raptors just drafted two amazing big men, so I’ve gotta fight for the position. I take the assignment very seriously to try to be the best that I can in training camp. So I’m gonna be ready to go in training camp to try to set the tone and try to show the coach I deserve the chance to play next year.”

If Nogueira can come in and contribute, the Raptors’ rotation gets a little easier to peg down. Logic would suggest they’d like to get Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam some time with the 905 before thrusting them into an NBA role, Poeltl to help him lock down the schemes (Utah switched their schemes at both ends a lot over his two years, so he’s comfortable doing anything but not really an expert in any system, either), and Siakam to continue working on his ball skill and ironing the hitch out of his jumper. The team is high enough on both rookies that head coach Dwane Casey won’t hesitate to pivot if Nogueira struggles, but even Casey was pretty clear in July who he thinks will have first crack at backing up Jonas Valanciunas.

“It’s open right now. He’s the prime candidate. I’m not gonna anoint him, but he’s a prime candidate for that position, because he knows our system and now it’s up to him to come and show that consistency,” Casey said, the sixth time he mentioned consistency in our short chat. “Nothing’s gonna be free. But he’s a prime candidate and he has all the tools to step in and take it.”

It’s worth remembering that Nogueira entered camp last year with the chance to fight for the backup spot, too, only to be beset by minor injuries for a second fall in a row. Once he returned to form, Bismack Biyombo had run with the opportunity, and save for a brief mid-season flash against, of all teams, Atlanta and Golden State, Nogueira was mostly relegated to the bench or the 905. He’ll again have the chance to grab a hold of the spot, but once again with the specter of a bench role looming – Poeltl and Siakam stand as logical threats, and Jared Sullinger’s best role with the team may ultimately be the minutes he spends as a smaller center with bench units. There’s no shortage of options, however imperfect, if the bouncy-haired Brazilian stumbles.

This is a player, keep in mind, who was a Defensive Player of the Year in a very good Spanish ACB league. He’s 24 years old, entering his third NBA season, and he’s flashed the ability to play at this level against tough competition. For all his absent-minded mistakes, few bigs can pass from the high post like Nogueira, few have the length to alter shots at the rim like his 9-foot-6 standing reach allows him to, and nobody on the team is anywhere close to the lob threat Nogueira is. He just has to, you know, do those things, and do them consistently.

Norman Powell vs. Terrence Ross

If you were to draw up a depth chart for the Raptors right now, both Powell and Ross make it, as the on-paper backup shooting guard and small forward. That’s not exactly how Casey’s rotations worked last year, though, because it’s not exactly how the Raptors’ roster is set up – Lowry carries a heavy load, and Cory Joseph is one of the best backup point guards in the league, and so the Raptors play two point guards for about 15 minutes per-game. That means Joseph is eating some time as the backup two (or Lowry, however you want to slice that), and that DeRozan is eating up backup small forward minutes. There’s not a natural path to heavy playing time for either Powell or Ross, let alone both, so long as DeMarre Carroll is healthy.

Carroll’s health isn’t a given, so perhaps the “competition” between the two off-guards will be rendered moot. At the outset, though, it looks like there may only be enough playing time for one initially. The Raptors can open up more time to share by going small more often (which I think they’ll do quite a bit of) and potentially using Powell as a lone ball-handler. They’ve been reticent to use either player as a three for long stretches, too, but Powell may have shown enough against bigger wings to warrant more opportunities (remember that his wingspan far outstrips his height, from a functional size standpoint).

So, assuming Lowry and DeRozan each play 35 minutes, Carroll plays 30, and Joseph plays 24, that only leaves 20 minutes, plus however often the Raptors play small (I’d guess around eight minutes) to split between Ross and Powell, before accounting for missed time. Last year, Ross averaged 23.9 minutes, and Powell averaged 14.8 (and 22.8 after the All-Star break, a much better sample). There is a minutes crunch here when the rotation is fully healthy.

I would bet my paltry salary for the season that I can guess how a Raptors Republic poll would go, were the decision up to the fanbase: Powell, in a land-slide. And that makes sense, given what a pleasant surprise Powell was last year, how strong a defensive performance he put on during the final quarter-plus of the season, and given how much rope Ross has received over the last four years. Powell is a better player than Ross, showing far more as a defender, ball-handler, scorer, and distributor, the former of which stands out a great deal. And yes, Powell also re-worked his 3-point shot and hit at a 45.5-percent clip from long-range in the second half. That’s enormous, and if he continues to show a high-30s stroke, the competition here probably won’t last all that long.

The rub, though, is that the one advantage Ross holds is a really important one. For four years now, Ross has established himself as one of the top-20 shooters in the NBA on a very high volume of attempts. He can hit spotting up or coming off of pin-downs, and opponents sell out to chase Ross off the line more than they do for any other Raptor. On a team that was sometimes thin on shooting last year (and thin on offensive punch in the second unit), Ross’ gravitational pull on a defense proved valuable. Teams still weren’t paying Powell much mind beyond the arc at the end of last year, and he’ll need to force them to change their approach as the season starts.

This one seems like it could be fluid throughout the season, and again, it’ll probably be less important than it seems if injuries occur or workloads change some. As camp kicks off, though, expect the most motivated Ross we’ve seen in five years, because Powell is at his heels.

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