The battle for the 15th and final roster spot on the 2016-17 Toronto Raptors is a storyline we covered pretty in depth to start the week, and one we’ve been talking about throughout the bulk of the far-too-long offseason. And that makes sense, not only because the Raptors are a little light on other storylines for training camp, but because the competition is far interesting than it’s ever been. This isn’t Greg Stiemsa, Will Cherrry, and Jordan Hamilton fighting for the right to cheer on dunks for the bench – this year’s “15th man” could see playing time well beyond what that role normally entails, given some early injury trouble and the inexperience on the back half of the roster.
It’s also interesting because several of the names who don’t wind up making the Raptors could find their way to the D-League as affiliate players with Raptors 905. Only Drew Crawford is confirmed to be heading overseas if he doesn’t make the team, and E.J. Singler and Brady Heslip have flat-out agreed to assignments if they’re cut and clear waivers. Considering how thinned out the 905 are ahead of the draft, which amounts largely to a “crapshoot” in the words of 905 general manager Dan Tolzman, that’s not an unimportant consideration.
The Raptors invested over $200,000 in partial guarantees to make sure they had the best talent possible fighting for this final spot and to ensure the D-League roster would be strong in support of NBA assignments. That also helped them land two of the top undrafted free agents in Fred VanVleet and Jarrod Uthoff, two players who had offers to be picked in the second round but preferred to control their own freedom as free agents rather than getting stashed overseas. The ability to lure top talent for camp speaks to the organizational equity the Raptors have built with agents and players around the league, but it also makes the final decision a very difficult one.
“You’re talking about two guys that we got undrafted, they’ve got to be two of the best undrafted players. That alone makes it a hard decision at that spot, and then now when you bring back guys like E.J. and Drew, who, they fill a little bit of a role of what we might need on the Raptors, it’s a tough spot to win,” Tolzman said. “There are gonna be some good players that are gonna miss that spot, and then hopefully they help the 905 get better.”
The focus of all six players, though, is squarely on cracking the parent club roster, not the D-League one. To do so, each of the six players is going to offer something unique to the club while also battling to show that they’ve added something new, that they’ve addressed a weakness, or that their overall talent matters more than a perceived fit.
Fred VanVleet – 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 made a little easier in the short-term by Delon Wright’s injury, as the would-be third point guard could be out into the new year. VanVleet isn’t using the team’s perceived need at the one as a reason to get complacent, though – it’s much the opposite.
“Naw, it just made me go even harder, things lining up that way for you,” VanVleet said at media day. “Obviously, that puts them in a bind in terms of not having that third point guard on call. But who knows? I don’t ask them every day or try to get inside their minds. I’ll let them do their job, and I do mine, and we’ll see what happens.”
Beyond filling a need, VanVleet offers a steady presence running an offense. As an efficient, low-turnover lead guard, VanVleet is the rare four-year senior who analytics looked favorably on, something his 3-point shooting helped with, as well. He was a solid defender at the college level, and the thing he may need to show most in camp is that he can defend bigger guards well enough that the team could use him in potential two-point lineups. Specifics aside, the consensus around Summer League inside and outside of the organization was that VanVleet is an NBA talent, so the next month is mostly about him showing just that.
“That I’m the best player,” VanVleet said about what he’s out to prove. “I’ve grown close with these guys over this experience, but I’m trying to show that I’m the best choice for the job. It’s nothing against the other guys, I just feel like I have the most to bring to the table.”
If VanVleet doesn’t make the roster, 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. He’ll still have to play well enough to lock the job down, because if VanVleet isn’t the choice, Norman Powell could always work as the de facto emergency 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 NBA inexperience but may be in tough due to the team’s depth at the position. Standing just under 6-foot-6 in shoes and with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Crawford is more a two than a three, though he guarded across multiple positions in Las Vegas. He’ll look to re-establish that in camp while perhaps showing added range to a 3-point shot that’s graded out as average over the last two seasons.
“I think my edge, the thing I have to do there, is defensive toughness,” Crawford said. “Being able to guard guys well, making energy plays, stuff like that. But really, getting defensive stops. And being able to knock down shots, too.”
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, the latter of whom won’t lay off the Drake look-alike comparisons. Crawford’s case might be the most interesting, as he may be the most established of these six players at this snapshot in time – he was an All-Star in Israel least year – but is a poorer fit than anyone outside of Moreira.
“The fact that he would rather go overseas after if he doesn’t make the team, it has nothing to do with the Raptors,” Tolzman explained. “He can make so much money overseas, it’s hard to really push and push to sell a guy.”
Brady Heslip – A sharpshooter from Burlington, Heslip was signed to a partial 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 he may not in the immediate NBA plans. At the same time, the Raptors are wondering if Heslip may be able to fill two roles at once, adding lethal shooting off the bench and, somewhat surprisingly, an extra emergency point man.
“The main thing I’m focusing on right now is defense and just showing that I can guard. In the workouts, I’ve been playing point guard, handling the ball,” Heslip revealed. “So I’m trying to show that I can run a unit, also. Showing them that I’m more than, you know, if I’m not knocking down shots on a given night, I can still bring stuff to the team. Obviously shooting’s my strong suit but you have to be able to do other stuff, too, so I’m just trying to show that.”
The book on Heslip is that he doesn’t bring a ton of NBA skills to the table, so the onus will be heavy to change minds. Even if he can’t, 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, though that’s a little tougher to put on display without preseason playing time.
“I think it’s hard to do it in a practice, but I can’t really control that,” Heslip said. “All I can do is worry about is hitting shots when I take them and being ready when my number’s called in the game.”
E.J. Singler – Acquired late last season by the 905, Singler won fans there and again in Las Vegas. His shooting and versatility make him a malleable piece, but he’s agreed to head to the D-League, with a $50,000 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-most likely option, but he may wind up the best choice given how many little things he brings to the table and how few he takes off of it. And there’s an intangible he’s trying to use in his favor, too: Experience, which he offers more of than any of the other names competing despite never playing in an NBA game.
“I’m probably one of the older guys that are trying to make the last 15 spot. So bringing that experience, that leadership role, is what I think will maybe separate me,” Singler said. “I would be considered the rookie, but I’ve played professional basketball. This is gonna be my fourth year. I’ll have the little-kid backpack, but I’ve had the experience, I’ve gone through it. So hopefully I can bring some experience and leadership to the team.”
The Raptors probably feel comfortable with the amount of leadership they have up and down the roster, though having more has never hurt. Singler’s going to have to win the job on the court, too, where he’ll need to show that the defensive improvements he made in the D-League can carry over to the NBA, enough that his ability to work as a versatile secondary ball-handler with a deadly outside shot can be utilized without a defensive trade-off. Consider the Raptors intrigued.
“He’s a guy that we want to get a really good look at to see if he’s capable of making the Raptors,” Tolzman said.
Jarrod Uthoff – The closest thing to a fit based on position, defense, and shooting, Uthoff still has stiff competition. The potential roster fit, though, isn’t lost on Uthoff, and wasn’t when he was deciding which NBA team to head to camp with.
“That’s another thing that went into the decision, another factor,” Uthoff said after explaining how much he liked the organization. “They need another guy at my position to fill the roster. So I’m excited for this opportunity, I’m happy to be here, and looking forward to the future.”
There’s little question that Uthoff’s shooting will carry over to the next level, where he could potentially play a stretch-four role. The Raptors need help at the three, too, and Uthoff’s college track record suggests that wouldn’t be a problem for him, either. His combination of size and athleticism should make him versatile at both ends, and his steal and block rates certainly suggest his plus-defense could carry over to the pros. As much as it should translate, it’s still the question he knows he has to answer in camp
“Absolutely. I think it’s gonna be a key emphasis for myself, showing that I can defend at the next level,” Uthoff said. “I believe that I can, and I’m gonna show that.”
Uthoff came second in a Raptors Republic poll about who readers want to 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, though he and Singler are probably close if the team goes with a forward. Uthoff 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 both ends of the floor in practice if so.
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. Both there and in camp, Moreira has an aggressive goal.
“I’m just trying to show my ability to rebound, run the floor, and try to block every shot,” Moreira said.
“Try to. You have to try. That’s it, that’s all you can do.”
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. There’s a lot to like from a defensive potential standpoint, he’s just not there yet.
(I have it Singler-Uthoff-VanVleet-Crawford-Heslip-Moreira due to my comfort with Powell playing some point, but the top three could juggle quickly with the benefit of preseason action.)