Over the past couple of years, one of the best and most convenient ways I’ve found to prepare for the upcoming season is to listen to Nate Duncan’s Dunc’d On podcast team season previews. It’s an extremely detailed look at what teams accomplished the season before and will look to do in the season ahead. Our superstar Blake Murphy has been on to help preview the Toronto Raptors in the past so that’s always a nice bonus, too.
A segment that I have really enjoyed is when they go over regression candidates and so for this piece I thought I would take the positive route, for now, to look at candidates who I expect to be better next season. I find this particularly fascinating this season because of the success the Raptors had a season ago. They accomplished so much as a whole a season ago, but because of the way Masai Ujiri and the rest of the front office constructed the roster, there’s still a ton of potential for growth from an individual level.
Again, I’d like to emphasize that while there are some players who could easily improve upon their performance from last season, this is specifically my opinion of who I expect to actually follow through.
Let’s start with a layup. A player who, at his peak, is considered a top five player in the league averaged 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, two steals and a block a season ago in just 23 minutes per game (I think the minutes get ignored when looking at his raw stats) and shot a career-low 31.4 percent from three-point range. On a per 36 basis, that’s 25 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 3.1 steals and 1.5 blocks… L. O. L.
There are multiple reports to suggest that Leonard is past the right quadriceps injury that held him to just nine games a season ago. So, if he can actually get closer to the low-to-mid-30s range in terms of minutes, then it’s easy to see what all the fuss is about.
Statistically, the main area of struggle was his three-point shot, but one would expect that with the type of injury he suffered and assuming the impact it would have had on getting proper lift on his jumper and just being able to fully focus on the shot. What is encouraging is that Leonard did manage to keep his two-point game on point, shooting 53.9 percent, right around his mark for the three seasons prior.
Barring injury, he should outperform his 2017-18 season by a mile.
Some people are pegging him for Most Improved Player, and while I wouldn’t go that far just yet, I do believe Siakam is a safe bet to take his game to another level this 2018-19 season.
The low he suffered during the 2016-17 season after struggling as a starter and getting sent to the G League seems so far away. It’s hard to quantify just how much winning Finals MVP when the Raptors 905 won the championship did for his confidence, but he clearly hasn’t looked back since.
There’s been plenty of debate over whether OG Anunoby or Serge Ibaka should be the starting power forward for this team, but Siakam could end up showing that he is the best man on the roster at that position. I always find it hard to buy into videos of improved shooting from the summer, but his jumper can only go up from last season when he shot 22 percent from three and had that ugly streak of games without a make that, while better off forgotten, is exactly why it’s easy to believe in Siakam.
Siakam played about 21 minutes per game a season ago but I think his ability defensively is what will tempt head coach Nick Nurse to call on No. 43 for at least four to five more minutes per game.
He showed last season that he isn’t afraid of what the results look like when he knows deep down he’s putting in the work and that the process is right. Just like his fellow Cameroonian in Philadelphia, trusting that process is what should help him turn the potential of his multifaceted game into reality.
Green actually had a strong opening quarter of the season last year before injuries derailed his season. He shot just 33.7 percent from beyond the arc after the all-star break and 41.9 percent inside it. While the fact that he battled through it and played through most of the season in pain is commendable, it’s confounding that a groin tear went undetected until an end-of-season physical.
That reason alone is why I expect Green to take a step forward from last season and regain his status as one of the better role players in the league. This is a guy who set an NBA Finals record for three-pointers made back in 2013 in the first five games after shooting 42.9 percent from deep that season.
It’s certainly worth noting that Green hasn’t shot over the 38 percent mark from downtown since the 2014-15 season, but on a team with the likes of Kyle Lowry, Leonard, C.J. Miles and Fred VanVleet, it’s quite possible he becomes a beneficiary of easier looks.
Ibaka is coming off a miserable playoffs after an encouraging start in the first two games against the Washington Wizards. He scored just 8.7 points on 41.7 percent shooting and was even benched for Game 3 in Cleveland (ironically, his best performance in the series). This was all the more discouraging after the previous postseason where he averaged 14.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks and came away looking like one of Toronto’s best postseason players.
Why should there be optimism surrounding a guy whose starting job appears to already be under threat? I see him having a season much like Jonas Valanciunas last year. His numbers may not pop, but a potentially changed role could be exactly what he needs to find a game that can be effective with the Raptors. If he can go back to being a rim protector as the first centre off the bench instead of slotting alongside Valanciunas, he could regain some of that defensive fuzzy he became famous for and possibly even a go-to option for the Bench Mob in the half-court.
Perhaps I’m being a bit overzealous in assuming that this will be his role for the majority of the season but it really just makes too much sense.
Between having a baby and dentist appointments gone wrong and acclimating himself to a new team last season, I think this season could be one that brings the one word generally lacking from his game: consistency.
He shot five percent lower from deep than he did in his final season in Indiana but didn’t shy away from getting them up with 12.2 attempts per 36 minutes. Where he could use the most improvement is from straight on and the right elbow extended. Miles only made 33 percent of his attempts from up top and 30 percent from the right elbow extended. Corner shots are a highly valued commodity in the NBA, and while he excelled from there last season, defenses to key in on them and do their best to minimize them. His ability to knock down threes from other areas of the floor could be pivotal.
The improved defense and shooting along the perimeter for the Raptors should also allow Nurse to maximize what he gets out of Miles. With a full season in Toronto in the books, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him with a better life balance and better game as a result.
A brief note on the guys who could have made the list but here’s the primary reason I didn’t:
- Norman Powell: I think he’s going to be limited by the numbers game on the wings. Hard to see him getting ahead of OG Anunoby, Green or Miles.
- Jonas Valanciunas: I’m just not sure whether to lean towards the side of Nick Nurse using him more often or going all-in on the current era of basketball and maximizing small lineups.
- OG Anunoby: This was a tough omission. I think Anunoby, while he may have indeed improved over the summer, will have little opportunity to showcase his ball handling or individual scoring prowess in a season where everything will revolve around Leonard.
- Delon Wright: So much of the Bench Mob’s success was predicated on what the unit could achieve as a whole and so I do believe playing alongside Fred VanVleet limits how much he can showcase himself. So, barring a shocking promotion to the starting lineup, I do see him doing just about as well as he did a season ago.