As a team last year, the Raptors had a dramatic jump in assist rate, moving from the bottom to the middle of the league. The Raptors have not done particularly well assisting on the made field goals of teammates through three noisy preseason games, and player tracking data is not available, but there are some positive indicators. Valanciunas, Ibaka and the newly acquired Greg Monroe, for example, have respective assist rates of 10.2, 12.1 and 13.5 per cent, and for Valanciunas and Ibaka those would dwarf previous career highs. (The turnover rates are what you’d expect with such experimentation.)
“Our mindset is play freely,” Valanciunas says. “When you play freely, everybody’s touching the ball, everybody’s sharing the ball, everybody has a right to make a decision. Not just a decision to drive to the basket and lay it in. A decision to get somebody open, a decision to have a good pass, whatever. So it’s just our mindset, to be free, share the ball, and play together.”
Whereas a lot of this is still new for Valanciunas and Ibaka, Monroe adds an element of experienced stability here. Not only is he used to touching the ball more in general, often initiating a corner offence and working as a playmaker from the elbows in previous stops, Monroe has never graded lower than the 60th percentile for centres in terms of assist rate relative to usage, per Cleaning the Glass. For entire seasons, he’s graded as one of the best passing bigs in the league.
This, as much as his vivacious energy and positive demeanour around the team, has helped Monroe fit in on offence quickly. Nurse has not asked Monroe to do much more than fill the ever-expanding roles the Raptors ask of their centres; being the sort of platonic ideal of what a Raptors’ big could do as a playmaker and ball-handler, that transition has been easy. Monroe hasn’t unleashed too many threes yet – it’s unclear just to what degree those should even be expected to come given his 0-of-12 career mark – but otherwise it’s been a sharp fit.
“Nick was actually the first person I talked to when talks between my agent and the team started and he just talked about using me in places that I would be comfortable and also expanding my game,” Monroe said on media day. “He’s coached against me and I know what they do, so I know I’ll fit right in. Just going over the offensive things we do already, I feel really comfortable.”
Of course, the elephant in the room is Leonard’s contract status. Unless there’s a sudden change in strategy, Leonard won’t sign an extension this season and will weigh his options this summer. Should he bolt for a sunnier situation — the hometown Lakers or Clippers, perhaps — Ujiri will be forced to address the next phase of the Raptors. And in that scenario, he could press restart, trade Lowry (whose contract expires in the summer of 2020) and create from scratch.
But that’s a season away, and in the meantime, Ujiri has a concept to show to his newest and most important acquisition.
“I think there’s a lot to sell here,” Ujiri said. “Our team. Our culture. Our city. Our ownership. We have everything here except a championship in my humble opinion.”
Are the retooled Raptors any closer to a championship now than last spring, when LeBron destroyed their dreams? The Celtics will have a say in that, maybe the Sixers as well. Ujiri knows championship windows don’t stay open very long for 95 percent of the league (the Warriors being the exception). You must do what it takes to keep the breeze blowing in, even if tough decisions involve a pair of the most important people in club history.
“I have to do everything in this organization to get us to a championship level,” Ujiri said. “There’s also a human side of this business and that’s the part I really struggle with the most … the human part doesn’t make it easy at all.
“Our team (was) just not at that level. We have to do something different, even if it wasn’t this. I could have done anything I wanted. At some point we have to do something different.”
Ben Golliver: For sure. People were trying to say the same thing about the Spurs. Like how they didn’t have Kawhi last year and won this many games and they add an All-Star but that’s not true because of all the guys they lost. But the flipside for the Raptors is actually true right? They are getting a massive upgrade at the wing position. We don’t have to bury DeMar as we did in previous years but Kawhi is better in every aspect of basketball than DeMar is and they didn’t lost any meaningful players from the rest of their rotation. They had the best bench in the entire league—those guys are going to be accustomed to playing with each other and are going to have more chemistry and camaraderie right?
So the whole season comes down to how well do Lowry and Kawhi fit together and then how close to his ceiling does Kawhi get and how healthy can he stay? Those are the main fundamental questions. But I still think even in a best-case scenario, I’m not sure I trust them more than Boston. I still think Boston has more top-end talent coming from more places. I think Toronto vs. Philly is more of a coin-flip. I will take Philly at this point but I can absolutely see arguments from Toronto’s side.
If I was a Raptors’ fan, I would be playing the disrespect card because that’s what they do. They have been doing it for five years and I will be saying, we should be right there viewed with Boston as the class of the conference and everybody else is chasing us.
C.J. Miles explains how impressed he has been by the communication from Kawhi Leonard so far in training camp and how beneficial it is for all the Raptors to hear Leonard’s knowledge of the game.
In Episode 393 of Locked on Raptors, Sean Woodley and William Lou (The Score, Raptors Republic) try to handicap the race for the Eastern Conference’s top-four seeds. They talk about growing pains in Boston, Philly’s incomplete roster, the wacky Wizards. the unheralded Pacers, and where the Raptors fit into the conversation.
Boucher’s Montreal isn’t on any tourism videos, and his path to the cusp of the NBA wasn’t for the faint of heart.
But the beanpole who can run for miles and jump for days and confidently step into open three-pointers has plenty of heart. That’s how he earned his way to the Raptors training camp and how he’s earned the respect of his veteran peers as he tries to crack one of the NBA’s deepest rosters.
“He surprises people every day,” said 13-year veteran C.J. Miles. “I mean I didn’t know him [before training camp] – but the first couple of days obviously, I noticed he’s mobile for his size, he runs the floor, he blocks shots and then he starts making threes … he has a chip on his shoulder and he plays hard. That’s the biggest thing. He competes. You can see it in his face and in his demeanour when he turns the switch on.”
Says point guard Fred VanVleet: “He’s good, man. He’s got a chance to be really good …. he may not always do it right but he busts his ass and gets the job done.”
Against considerable odds and through the slimmest of windows.
Boucher translated one year at Alma Academy into two years of junior college in the US, split between stops in New Mexico and Wyoming. But given a chance he has always shone. As a junior college all-American he earned a scholarship to the University of Oregon where he played two seasons and forced his way onto the NBA radar with his unique ability to run the floor, block shots, rebound and make threes outweighing concerns about his rail thin frame, on which his listed weight of 200 pounds is very likely generously rounded up.
“As a member of the skinny community I can definitely say he needs to bulk up a little bit,” says Pascal Siakam, whose high-energy style could well be an NBA model for Boucher. “I’m like JV [Raptors big man Jonas Valanciunas] to him, or [Oklahoma City strongman] Steven Adams. But I like the way he plays … he’s a good player. “
Danny Green said on Monday that Kawhi Leonard has been more vocal during training camp than he’s ever been before. Josh Lewenberg joins SportsCentre to explain what this change in him means for the Raptors, and share his thoughts on what he’s seen from Kawhi on the court so far.
With Anunoby and Leonard slated to play significant minutes at the power forward position and Ibaka’s rumoured transition to a more centre-heavy role, exactly how Siakam’s minutes will shake-out is a work in progress that will evolve as the season does. Don’t expect the Raptors rotation on opening night to look like it will come mid-March. Fans love to dream on fun defensively switchable lineups like Lowry-Wright-Leonard-Anunoby-Siakam playing together but with Valanciunas, Ibaka and Greg Monroe all on the roster, it’s unlikely we’ll see a lot of anything like that, at least initially.
Expect to see Siakam garner his usual 20ish minutes per night, with the chance to earn more run if his shooting has truly improved. His 22 percent on 132 three point attempts last season ranked dead last among NBA players who attempted over 100 triples. Second last was Phoenix’s Josh Jackson, who managed 26.3 percent, so it wasn’t particularly close either. it will be interesting to see if this is a part of his game that’s emphasized again this season, particularly if he struggles early on.
What you can expect to see in those 20 minutes though, is the fun part. Even if Siakam is simply what he was last year, he’ll be a hugely important bench piece. And if Siakam can show anything like the developing arsenal he exhibited in the Drew League? Well then he’s quickly going to become over-qualified for a bench role, the kind of internal development that is exactly how good teams push themselves over the top.
The Raptors are going to be searching for a player that can fill-in when OG has an off-night or Kawhi needs rest. A player that can take a huge step forward, a la Fred VanVleet last season. A spark, who can also provide a steadying influence on the nightly rotation. Siakam is the leading candidate to be that guy. He has all the tools, he just needs to find the latch to the toolbox on a nightly basis. If he can do that, the Raptors depth goes from solid to scary really quickly. Everything we’ve seen so far about his work ethic suggests that he’ll get there. There’s a clear map to success for Siakam, he just needs to follow it.
As impressive as last year’s transformation was, VanVleet realizes that it is firmly in the past. So what’s in store for him for the upcoming campaign? Will he continue his astonishing emergence or regress to the trajectory that was expected of him prior to last year?
After signing his two-year $19 million contract, the Raptors are clearly betting that his second half success was no fluke. After all, the sample size of 42 games wasn’t that small, with VanVleet sustaining his excellent play for a full half-season.
His role should pick up where it left off — as the Raps’ leader off the bench. And he should have plenty of opportunities to shine yet again as the second unit looks to fill the crucial role it played in 2017-18. Many observers believe that the Raps will once again have the NBA’s best bench this season.
VanVleet is looking to continue his progression from the arc and should convert at around the 40-44 percent clip he did in the second half of last season. His shooting consistency will be central as head coach Nick Nurse’s new offense emphasizes more three-point shooting than under Casey.
Fred VanVleet should also have his sights set on the Sixth Man of the Year award this season. He came close last year on only half a season. It is entirely conceivable that he performs to the same standard or better over the entire upcoming campaign.
FVV will be pivotal to the Raptors success in 2018-19. There is no reason why he shouldn’t continue to excel, contributing to another Eastern Conference championship for Toronto, and hopefully that oh-so elusive trip to the NBA Finals.
“I feel like I can show a lot of people, a lot of kids, that it’s possible to make it,” Boucher said after the Raptors worked out in Toronto on Tuesday. “A lot of people have been following me and just didn’t have the chance to see me play a lot, so I think that’s the one good thing about this trip is that they’ll be able to see an NBA game and be able to see me, too.
“A lot of young kids want to make it, you know, and (it helps) seeing a guy that’s actually playing and can give them hope and inspiration to make it.”
That Boucher is at this point in his life truly is a tremendous story. He fought through a difficult childhood — he didn’t even play basketball before his teenage years — and bounced around a couple of junior colleges before landing the University of Oregon.
He blossomed there but blew out an ACL in his last college game, went undrafted despite his raw talent, spent last season on a two-way deal with the Golden State Warriors and the Santa Cruz Warriors of the G League. Cut adrift, he latched on with the Raptors at the Las Vegas Summer League and has impressed coach Nick Nurse enough to be in the running for one of the two-way spots the Raptors have. One has gone to Jordan Loyd but the second is for Boucher or Eric Moreland to grab, Nurse has hinted.
“He was kind of late coming to Summer League practice and stuff because some of that national team stuff, and then we didn’t really discover him, I didn’t discover him really, until about Game 3,” Nurse said. “I moved him to the five-spot and he was much more comfortable, he was blocking shots, and all of a sudden we thought we had an interesting prospect there.”
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