So much for not panicking.
Jared Sullinger will undergo surgery on his injured left foot Monday, according to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical. Wojnarowski indicates that Sullinger will miss “extended” time, though what, exactly, that means is unclear.
The team confirmed Sunday that Sullinger will have a screw inserted into his fifth metatarsal, calling the procedure “a preventative measure to alleviate symptomatic stress reactions.” The team did not provide a timeline for recovery.
This is a big blow for the Raptors ahead of Wednesday’s season opener, leaving multiple positions of perceived weakness even thinner. With Sullinger sidelined, Lucas Nogueira dealing with an ankle sprain, Terrence Ross dinged up, and DeMarre Carroll’s workload being monitored closely, the Raptors find themselves thin in the frontcourt to start the year. Factor in the injury to Delon Wright, which necessitated Fred VanVleet earning the 15th roster spot, and the Raptors’ rotation could be a patch-work one when Detroit visits in three days.
Sullinger was the team’s biggest offseason splash, signing for the mid-level exception on a one-year deal meant to help him improve his market value for the summer of 2017 while providing the Raptors with a below-market asset. He figured to be the team’s starting power forward while also soaking up minutes as a backup center, solidifying the team’s rebounding presence and adding some additional offensive flare and, if his corner three came along as planned, shooting. He may still bring those things, but he’ll be getting a late start to his first season with the club now, and any role or fit will remain strictly hypothetical for a while longer.
An unknown player stepped on Sullinger’s left foot during the team’s preseason opener against Golden State, and he tried to practice through it before setbacks occurred. From there, he was limited to conditioning work, but the issue didn’t improve, calling his status for the season opener in doubt. That timeline has shifted significantly now. It was originally believed that Sullinger had no structural damage in the foot, and that may still be the case given the “preventative” part of the team’s release, but with pain persisting even as his practice load was limited, the team opted to take another look. Clearly, they’re proceeding with the longview in mind.
The news presents a pretty massive opportunity for rookie Pascal Siakam, who may find himself as the team’s starting power forward. The Raptors could shift Patrick Patterson into the starting lineup, a natural and logical two-way fit that has long been there best option, anyway, but the team’s been hesitant to do so in the past, preferring Patterson in a sixth man role he’s excelled in. Siakam’s turned in a strong preseason, and while he’s going to make some of the mistakes you’d expect from a relatively green rookie, his hustle, energy, and defensive versatility can help make up for those miscues. He’d be deployed in a low-usage role, anyway, so the biggest detriment beyond mistakes borne of inexperience may be the somewhat tight spacing, though he’d help goose the transition offense to make up for some of that. You don’t want to have to throw a late first-round pick to the wolves out of the gate, but Siakam’s at least shown some encouraging flashes early on.
Regardless of who starts, the Raptors simply don’t have the bodies to play small often enough to cover up for Sullinger’s absence, so the freshman should be in line for regular minutes to start the year. The Raptors could task Carroll with spending more time at the four, essentially using Ross and Norman Powell to help sop up the vacated minutes in multi-wing lineups. The Raptors were successful going small fairly often last year, and those groups can be a lot of fun at both ends of the floor, but they may not want to put an even greater physical toll on Carroll so early in the year.
And that’s the thing to keep in mind here, however disappointing this news and to whatever degree it stands to hurt in the short-term: The Raptors will continue to focus on what they can be in April, which is exactly why Sullinger didn’t push the matter initially. Starting the season so thin may cost the Raptors a few wins, but if they can manage to enter the playoffs healthy and with enough time to have built up some chemistry, they’ll probably survive this.
This is tough news to take on the eve of the season, and there’s not really a positive way to spin the team’s biggest signing missing extended time with a foot injury, especially when that player has struggled with conditioning and foot issues before (he missed a quarter of a season with a stress fracture in the same foot in 2014-15). If you were to spin it, the angle would be that the Raptors, for the first time ever, are comfortably good enough to be confident in withstanding such a loss in the short-run. It’s also worth noting the team was pleased with Sullinger’s offseason conditioning work and the shape in which he showed up to training camp, and the Raptors training staff has done a good job of keeping injured players in proper form in the past. (I realize telling people to try not to worry about Sullinger, his foot, and the resulting conditioning questions would fall on deaf ears, but try not to assume disaster.)
So, hey, Pascal Siakam and fun, smaller lineups, let’s go.