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Trusting the Raptors process

In the modern NBA world of data and analytics, the temptation to chop and change as daily results trickle in on what worked and what didn’t can be tempting. There will always be numbers to back it up.

The challenge — at least during the regular season — is in maintaining faith, allowing initial decisions to play themselves out, and ignoring the background noise until there’s at least enough of a data set to make meaningful observations.

Like a parent watching their child suffer through some early growing pains, the true development stems from failing in those moments and learning from them.

For the Toronto Raptors, that process begins at the BioSteel Centre. Tales of the “war room” are legend now, and the success they’ve had drafting players the past couple of years reflect $38 million well spent.

“There’s a lot of thinking that goes on in there,” President Masai Ujiri told the media back in February of 2016. “A lot of debating, a lot of questioning, a lot of research, and when you do all those things, you want all the right information in front of you all at once.”

Note what’s changed. It’s just the ease with which they access the information they need.  The grunt work has remained the same from the old room to the new one, and it’s that process which makes the Raptors so confident in their choices, so stubborn in their faith. Look up and down the roster, and there are examples of it scattered throughout the roster.

DeMar DeRozan stands as the prototype of what the Raptors hope to be rewarded with for their virtuous pursuit, having gone from high flying rookie, to the president of the old man’s game, to no-fun-analytically-acceptable MVP candidate. His first extension worth $40 million over four years seems as though it was many moons ago and was frowned upon from many angles at the time. It makes the unrelenting faith the organization has placed in him that much more impressive.

For players such as Delon Wright, Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, they know that there is no better place than Toronto for the incubation of hard work and dedication to their craft.

Wright has had a few shoulder scares to this point, but the team saw the makings of the man they envisioned and jettisoned local favorite Cory Joseph to Indiana to further his progression. He’s repaid that faith with excellent backup guard minutes and even some forward minutes when necessary.

Powell just hasn’t found his game this season, but his rise from the 46th overall pick in the 2015 draft to a player who will have a four-year $42 million extension kick in at the start of the 2018-19 season is still impressive in the grand scheme of things.

As the ninth overall pick in 2016, Poeltl has lived up to expectations, but one of the areas in which he has left something to be desired to this point is against centers who can overpower him. He has tried using his length and the principle of verticality to counter the opposing big’s strength, but more often than not, the deep post position surrendered has left him trapped in quicksand.

Both Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge stand out as the most glaring examples of times when the Raptors young bigs couldn’t cope with size, and Siakam has shared in these challenges.

When the Raptors took on the San Antonio Spurs this past Friday, the excellence of Jonas Valanciunas made their inability to meet the Aldridge challenge that much more glaring. The extended minutes Siakam and Poeltl received against him, while puzzling in the moment, will only serve to better prepare them for the future.

Siakam already showed evidence of learning from his struggles with the way he started this season after the manner in which closed the 2016-17 season. After initially being slotted as the backup power forward to Jared Sullinger a year ago, injury led to him starting 38 games. He was passable to begin with, but faded as the season went on.

He had a rough go at trying to regain his confidence, but the Raptors weren’t intent on just letting him roll over and sent him to the then D-League to find his game. That he did, finishing with the Finals MVP as the Raptors 905 clinched the title.

He rode that high into this season and has been a key contributor to the Raptors bench success. Again, he’s struggled a bit of late, but trust the Raptors to manage his growth the right way.

That’s the beauty of the regular season. This isn’t the playoffs where every loss is of paramount concerm and Dwane Casey is forced emphasize the short-term. VanVleet and Siakam lead the Raptors in fourth quarter minutes, while the former Utah Utes Wright and Poeltl are fourth and sixth respectively.

VanVleet’s journey to the NBA is well known by now, but he too has validated the faith placed in him. He struggled out of the gate, shooting just 3-of-18 from three over the first 12 games, and defending well below his standard as well.

Since turning things around, he has played key minutes alongside Kyle Lowry and DeRozan, and has learned there too. There were times initially when his shot preparation was poor and he unable to find the trigger when the team needed him to, but has quickly learned to let fly as the recipient of open looks from the starting backcourt.

Anunoby is another who, up until a month ago, was making the most of the opportunities created for him by Lowry and DeRozan. Whatever the Raptors did in their war room to arrive at the conclusion that they couldn’t be the 23rd team to pass on the former Hoosier on draft night must be praised. That he made his return before the regular season even began seems a near-miracle, but as this organization has proved time and time again, there’s nothing random about their process.

Two players drafted by the Raptors who I haven’t mentioned to this point are Jonas Valanciunas and Bruno Caboclo. They are in different stratospheres in terms of what they’ve accomplished in their respective careers, but yet serve as different types of evidence that this is an organization that refuses to look at the grass on the other side.

While Valanciunas has been scrutinized for what he isn’t, Caboclo has been criticized for not becoming what people project for a 20th overall pick. The Lithuanian has been rumoured to be traded in seasons past, while Caboclo faces an off-season of doubt. For now, both are still in Toronto, and both are immersed in the developmental process on different ends of the spectrum.

For those who doubt where their future lies, perhaps recent history offers a bit of a hint. DeRozan has become the standard bearer of Toronto draft picks, and now, there is an entire contingent ready to follow his lead.

Whether or not they can take over the mantle or continue this legacy of stability is a question that cannot be answered now. For that, we must wait just as the Raptors have.

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