SI Rankings: Raptors have 3 from 51-100

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Sports Illustrated have started their unveiling of their annual Top 100 players list, and while DeMar DeRozan no longer being a Toronto Raptors takes some of the #ProveEm juice away from the release, it’s always interesting to see how the Raptors stack up. Ben and Rob are excellent and put a lot of work into this series each year, and so even if there’s disagreement from the fanbase, it’s a helpful re-calibration of how smart league-oriented writers view the team heading into 2018-19.

Here’s a quick (and only partial) look at the three Raptors who appear from Nos. 51-100 on the list. Check out the full thing here.

Fred VanVleet, 94

It’s no exaggeration to say that VanVleet (8.6 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 3.2 APG) was an impact stats god last year. The 24-year-old Raptors guard, who finished third in 2018 Sixth Man of the Year voting, was off the charts in virtually every lineup configuration. When he played with his fellow young reserves, who led the NBA among bench groups in net rating, Toronto was +17.1. When he joined a veteran-heavy and starters-dominated group as a floor-spacing third guard, Toronto was +24.9. Remarkably, VanVleet ranked No. 28 in the NBA in Real Plus-Minus and in the top 100 by both Win Shares and WARP. All this for an undersized, undrafted player who has yet to record a single start in two seasons.

I understand the hesitation to coronate a second-year back-up point guard, but the guess here is that VanVleet ranks even higher in next year’s edition. It’s a nice nod to how far he’s come so quickly that he’s well within the top 100, regardless.

Serge Ibaka, 78

Once the most fearsome shot-blocker in the league and an ideal smallball center for postseason matchup purposes, Ibaka (12.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.3 BPG) has skidded into an identity crisis. At the root of Ibaka’s troubles is major slippage on the defensive end: Toronto’s defensive rating was better without him last season, and his block rate was less than half of his peak levels during his early-20s. Remarkably, Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl both defended more shots within six feet and allowed a lower percentage on those shots than did Ibaka, whose three straight All-Defensive First Team selections already seem like a distant memory.

This might be a shade high given the version of Ibaka we last saw, but as I wrote at the end of the season, Ibaka’s still quite useful, just overpaid. He should benefit from extra space in the mid-range this year, from another year of a more movement-oriented system under his belt, and from more minutes as a small-ball five, possibly with bench groups.

Jonas Valanciunas, 63

As the NBA has plunged deeper into the smallball era, perception of Valanciunas (12.7 PPG, 8.6 RPG) has seesawed wildly. Once viewed as a potential All-Star, the Lithuanian center became a case study for natural selection on the hardwood: What chance did a lumbering 7-footer have of staying on the court during the playoffs? Rather than overhauling his game to become a full-fledged stretch five, Valanciunas has evolved in softer fashion: exerting maximum effort in fewer minutes, seeking out and exploiting undersized defenders for high-percentage scoring opportunities, dabbling with the three ball, and gradually improving his feel and confidence when forced to defend away from the hoop.

The result? Valanciunas, 26, proved to be a skilled battering ram in the 2018 playoffs, notching six double-doubles in 10 games, outplaying Washington’s Marcin Gortat in the first round, and pounding the Cavaliers for 21 points and 21 rebounds in Game 1 of the second round. Yes, the Raptors eventually went down in ugly fashion, but Valanciunas was hardly their weakest link. With excellent durability, well-honed post moves and greater comfort in his refashioned role, Valanciunas has managed to stave off stylistic extinction and trade rumors alike.

This one seems pretty spot on, in ranking and description. JV has outlasted his criticisms and the opinion that he couldn’t thrive in today’s NBA; he’s a huge part of the team’s success.

The top 50 will be rolled out throughout the rest of the week and will include Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors having five players in the top 100 – and likely one in the top 10 and another in the top 25 – is a good sign that they’re once again one of the deeper teams in the league. (If there’s a gripe, it’s probably that the Raptors didn’t have anyone in the top-25 snubs, even though I’d suggest one, maybe two of their rotation players are also sniffing the top 100.)

And once again, support Ben and Rob and the work they put into this project by checking the full list out here.

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