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Mini-Mailbag: Sullinger’s role, 905 call-ups, #FreeBruno, and more

19 mins read

You know the deal at this point: When the Raptors have multiple days off or I have some free time to kill, I drop a mailbag. You can find all of the previous editions here, though I don’t know why you’d bother. Today, I happen to be at the D-League Showcase and thought I’d take time to answer a few questions, albeit not as many as usual.

Before we go ahead: A reminder that we have a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. If you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do (and try to do even more). You can also follow me on Twitter for, uhh, tweets, and on Facebook for all of my writing/podcasting/radio stuff. Validate me. You can also ask me questions at any time using #RRMailbag, and I’ll be sure to include them in the next mailbag, no matter how long between.

Alright, let’s get this money.

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Before we get into potential replacements, it’s worth pointing out that, while the collision was scary, DeMarre Carroll was only diagnoses with a “sore neck.” It sounds like he may have avoided the worst-case scenario here, and several of the bad-case scenarios. We probably won’t know for sure until tip-off on Friday if he’s even on the shelf or not – the Raptors will surely play things cautious if he’s anything but 100 percent – but it’s not even a certainty we need to be having this conversation.

If he were to sit out, I don’t think the minutes would trickle down to Bruno Caboclo just yet. The team is so deep at the guard positions that their first approach to replacing Carroll’s minutes would be to downsize a bit – Norman Powell will start, and Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, and even Fred VanVleet (who played regular rotation minutes as a third point guard in the first half Wednesday) would see extra minutes. Caboclo is probably still another injury at the forward spots from playing anything more than scrap minutes.

To speak on Caboclo in general, though, I’ve been impressed with his defensive progress with Raptors 905. He’s been their best team defender on multiple occasions, and he’s generally made a positive impact when he’s been on the floor. Jerry Stackhouse has simplified Caboclo’s role on offense (perhaps with an eye toward getting him comfortable with his ultimate NBA role as a 3-and-D combo-forward), and so it’s been tougher to judge his progress on that side. He can shoot a bit and his defense is improving, so if he can keep decreasing the frequency with which he looks like a deer in the headlights, there might be something yet.

The reality, three years in, is that he’s still hard to project – his size, age, and shooting are worth dreaming on, and he’s still very inexperienced. But he’s not quite as good a D-Leaguer as I expected by this point, and that’s understandably discouraging for some. There’s also the spectre that he could hit a wall at some point and plateau in his development, though there’s also a chance the light turns on and he takes off. The Raptors are seeing it through next year, at least, so if another injury strikes, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to see how he looks in spot minutes.

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That is a complex answer that’s probably worth its own basketball case study. You could paint with broad strokes and simply says that Lowry brings a lot of intangibles that are hard to measure, and that’s certainly true, but the on-off numbers (even isolating for individual players with and without Lowry) do a pretty good job of capturing the net impact.

Offensively, the biggest thing Lowry has going for him is his brain. He reads, sees, and thinks the game at such a high level that a lot of his points and assists simply wouldn’t be there for other players. He’s a master of snaking through bodies or sneaking offensive rebounds, and he is a keen sense of a defender’s balance of weight, allowing him to change speeds or directions quickly to carve out a few inches of space. His forays under the basket to pull a big away from the rim are the latest addition to his bag of tricks, and it allows him to get his bigs some easy looks in close. And in terms of getting teammates involved, he has a knack for knowing not only how and where to get them the ball, but when, often declining to score until the team needs it.

At the other end, Lowry only occasionally locks in as a terrific defender, because you wouldn’t want him to be going all-out all the time, anyway. That doesn’t mean he’s bad in other scenarios, but he has an extra gear (as does DeMar DeRozan, for what it’s worth) when necessary. Outside of strictly guarding one-on-one, Lowry’s intelligence again comes into play, as he’s one of the better ball-hawks cheating off of his man to tip or intercept passes. And despite his size, Lowry has some switchability, as he’s eager to guard in the post on switches, leap for a block in help, or use the principle of VerticaLowry to disrupt transition attacks (Lowry may be the best odd-man rush defender among all NBA point guards).

It feels reductive to even list all of these things he does well. Players are more than the list of their skills, and it’s what makes great players like Lowry and DeRozan tough to describe with text or appreciate with numbers. Have you ever tried to describe DeRozan’s in-between game to someone briefly? It’s impossible, because he’s using so many different elements of his game at once, it’s just kind of a see-it-to-believe-it arsenal. With Lowry, it takes watching the game and finding the four or five plays every night that make you shake your head. They seem arbitrary on their own, but they fundamentally change games, and they are what makes him KLOE. Luckily, the advanced numbers generally do a good job capturing Lowry’s impact, but take a look at All-Star voting or the general reaction any time someone tweets about the league’s top point guards, and it’s clear that what Lowry does isn’t tangible enough for mass appreciation, even after three-plus years near this level.

(As an aside to the people who can’t seem to handle praise of only ONE of Lowry or DeRozan – DeRozan is also amazing in his own ways, but the question was about Lowry. Relax.)

I think the best comparison for Lowry in a small role on a more loaded team comes from his time with USA Basketball this summer. In that tournament, Lowry came off the bench behind Kyrie Irving, working first as a facilitator and spot-up threat, not a scorer. He was also one of the team’s best defenders, because he’s good, and also because he was able to unleash all of his energy at that end, with less asked of him on offense.

If you’re talking a straight Lowry-Irving swap right now, that’s probably the approach Lowry would take – work primarily as an outlet for James and someone who can take the burden off of him, and then run second units so the Cavaliers can better stay afloat when James sits. He would probably also be regarded, then, as one of the league’s top defensive point men, as it would be an even more important part of his role. This isn’t to say Lowry is necessarily a better fit there than Irving – Irving’s scoring is immensely important to what Cleveland does, and his gravity in the pick-and-roll and in transition is a huge factor for them – but Lowry’s game is pretty malleable, and I think he’d fit well just about anywhere that winning was the primary focus.

I mean, uhh, Lowry doesn’t work anywhere but Toronto and he’d be silly to sign anywhere else this summer. Nope, couldn’t play anywhere else. Has to stay.

The 905 are a little harder to read this year in terms of call-ups than last year, when two players were plucked from their roster in March. Stackhouse is using an all-for-one approach, leveraging the team’s depth and putting a shared ball ahead of everything else on offense. There was a point in time that the 905 owned the best record in the D-League and didn’t have a top-40 scorer, and they routinely have six, seven, or even nine players score in double-figures. The individual numbers, then, don’t pop, though obviously an NBA team would be looking beyond surface stats and would have scouted players in-depth.

There’s only one 905er I’m 100-percent convinced is an NBA player, and that’s Axel Toupane. I felt strongly about it around this time last year, and in early March he got the call from the Denver Nuggets. I was then fairly shocked when he was cut in camp in favor of Alonzo Gee, who himself was later waived. Toupane’s taken it in stride and made further improvements to his game, where he’s now not only the 905’s best defender at multiple positions, but probably their most dangerous scorer, as well. In talking to some team personnel and scouts at the D-League Showcase over the last couple of days, it’s clear that Toupane is a name on a lot of teams’ radars. I’d be surprised if he’s not in the NBA at some point again this year.

The other name I’ve heard a fair amount is Edy Tavares, which makes sense given his size. Personally, I think he probably needs more work defensively if he’s ever going to be a good NBA player, but at his size, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him get another look as a fifth big in a rotation. He’s enormous, he positions himself well on the glass, and he has a fairly soft touch around the rim, with an unblockable hook shot he can get off from different angles. Modern offenses would be able to attack his limited lateral mobility (he’s not slow, but he’s not exactly graceful, either), but he’ll turn away some shots in close, and he’s smart about getting back into a position to deter shots if he’s pulled away from the rim.

Elsewhere on the roster, there are a few players who play their defined role so well that you could see them getting a call at some point, just because the transition to 14th- or 15th-man would be so seamless. E.J. Singler and Will Sheehey fit the bill in that regard, as both can handle multiple positions, put the ball on the floor, and shoot, and the organization likes the leadership both bring. C.J. Leslie has shown a lot at both ends, too, but I wonder if his inconsistency may put off teams who want someone they know will bring it in an energy role. I think he’s talented enough, but I’m not sure he gets the call. And because someone will inevitably ask – Brady Heslip can still really shoot.

Entering the season, I thought Jared Sullinger would be best deployed primarily as the team’s backup center, with only occasional minutes at power forward. That was more a vote of no-confidence in a Sullinger-Jonas Valanciunas pairing than one in Lucas Nogueira, who has been about as good as I thought he might be able to be if given the chance. Nogueira’s emergence definitely lessens the need for Sullinger to soak up minutes there, but against certain opponents, the Raptors might still be best with Sullinger at the five. He provides a way of downsizing the lineup without losing too much size, and there are some fun lineup iterations you can construct with him there and either Carroll or Patrick Patterson at the four. The Carroll-Patterson-Sullinger frontcourt might be their best look opposite Cleveland when Kevin Love or Channing Frye are at the five, for example, and you can definitely get away with it against Boston.

Over the course of the rest of the regular season, then, it’s worth seeing some minutes like that. The rest of the season is about learning and putting the team in the best position to succeed in April and May, and that occasionally means trying things that might not have the most short-term EV. Nogueira and Valanciunas don’t necessarily deserve to lose minutes, but the team should see what they look like with Sullinger at center.

They also need to see what he’s like at power forward. The guess here is that Sullinger is starting alongside Valanciunas by the time the calendar turns to February, because while I didn’t agree with that deployment in the first place, if the team is set on Patterson coming off the bench, it’s the next-best option. Figuring out if the physicality, rebounding, and added playmaking (and screen setting!) that the Sullinger-Valanciunas pairing provides makes up for some of the speed and defensive shortcomings is a question the Raptors need the answer to above all else. I’m a little skeptical about the defense, but the net effect will probably be better than some of the options the Raptors have been forced into using (at least in some matchups).

Anyway, the truthful answer is we don’t know how best Sullinger will be used yet, which is why it’s so great that he’s back early. Come April, Sullinger’s probably splitting his minutes between the two interior positions, opening up even more lineup flexibility for Dwane Casey. He certainly won’t hurt, anyway,

 

As a reminder, if you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, we’ve started a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. Any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do, and try to do even more.

I appreciate you.

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