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Preseason Thoughts

We’re only hours away from the regular season beginning, but there is still some insight to be gleaned from preseason. Who looked good? Who still has kinks to work out? Here are some thoughts from preseason.

1. Kawhi Leonard

Leonard has dramatic room for improvement. Let’s start with the positives. He was a terrific passer, more than willing to pitch the ball without hesitation to shooters around the arc. He of course showed immediate chemistry with Danny Green, and Leonard hinted at moments of razzle with Kyle Lowry as well. His preseason assist percentage was 22.7, highest on the team among non-point guards. By comparison – because these things will be compared for a long, long time – DeMar DeRozan finished 2017-18 with an assist percentage of 24.5. If the Raptors shoot better come the regular season – Lowry and Serge Ibaka both shot sub-25 percent from 3 – expect Leonard’s assist rate to creep higher than 25 percent.

Leonard also showed incredible affinity to get to the rim and finish through contact. His handle was tight. His defence, when supported by any effort whatsoever, was god-level. Leonard will anchor a Raptors’ defence that will surely rank among the top-3 in the league.

There were some negatives. Leonard took oodles of midrange jumpers this preseason, and he missed the majority of them short. That could be caused either by rust or conditioning issues, neither of which would be an issue. But continued poor shooting would of course be a problem, and this scenario doesn’t have a non-zero possibility. I warned in my player preview that this would be a possible issue.

“A still-injured Kawhi Leonard with a weakened jumper is not an MVP-caliber offensive player. Last year the Spurs were 7.4 points per 100 possessions better on offence with Leonard off the court, the worst mark of Leonard’s illustrious career. The team took fewer shots at the rim and more from midrange when Leonard ran the show… The Spurs met an offensive ceiling last year whenever Leonard ran the show.”

That is still a realistic scenario for the Raptors this season. His quad injury affected all upright motion, and Leonard’s up-and-down shooting movement seemed to be hindered. His shooting plummeted in his nine games last year, which could easily be explained by small sample size theater. However, Leonard shot 38.7 percent from the field in preseason, and an eye-burning 12.5 percent from deep. He only hit 60 percent of his free throws.

This could still be a small sample size trick, or it could be rust, or a number of things. It could possibly be a lingering quad injury, so it’s important to keep an eye on Leonard’s shooting numbers. If he doesn’t rediscover his form as a hyper-efficient lead scorer, the Raptors’ offence will be hard-pressed to generate quality looks against the league’s best defences.

2. OG Anunoby

In only two games, OG Anunoby showed exactly why he’ll continue to be one of the Raptors’ deadliest weapons. Anunoby’s length is horrifying. He apparates into passing lanes like slender man, and his victims are no less frightened. Watch Aunonby cut off any passing lane across the baseline, forcing a high-arching pass over his outstretched arms. The ball takes so long getting to the intended target that Anunoby is already there, able to play smothering defence without losing a step on his closeout. He draws an offensive foul and blocks the shot.

Here he shows an advanced understanding of positioning and momentum, as he chooses not to drift above the arc with his mark, instead opting to plant in the paint and take the charge.

In only two games, Anunoby played 50 minutes, during which the Raptors outscored both Brooklyn and New Orleans. He hit four of nine triples, which means nothing, but is still good to see. Anunoby’s shooting will be important for Toronto throughout the season, especially if he is going to continue to do little on offence beyond spotting up behind the arc. His rebounding was mediocre, and he committed too many fouls, but those are minor problems to be addressed over time as he learns to play the power forward position. If Anunoby does start for the Raptors, his ability to guard power forwards will save Leonard over a long season.

Anunoby was away from the team to start the preseason for personal reasons, and it was encouraging to see him play with focus and drive on his return.

3. Danny Green

Danny Green showed the widest variance in his play in preseason. He began far sloppier than expected, missing rotations, failing to help, losing track of his assignments, and generally playing godawful defence. He hit only two of his first eight triple attempts.

He exploded late in preseason. His defence against Brooklyn especially was terrifying, as he offered a virtual facsimile of Leonard’s hellhound on-ball defence. Green multiple times ripped the ball from hapless Brooklyn dribblers.

It helped that he hit seven of his attempted nine 3s against Brooklyn, but that hardly mattered. Green is a solid shooter, but the Raptors have a better one in CJ Miles. If Green can rediscover his form from two-three seasons ago as a premier perimeter defender, he opens up a playpen of rotation options. His defence is far more important than his shooting, and it trended in the right direction as the preseason waned.

4. Kyle Lowry

It’s not time to worry about Kyle Lowry. The off-court stuff is pretty well meaningless, particularly because it isn’t really a change in behavior for him. Anthony quite nicely covered the difficulties for him involved heading into the season, as well as why his surliness isn’t a problem.

The on-court stuff is less apparently not a problem, but it isn’t. Lowry played in three preseason games, scoring a total of 27 points, hitting three of 20 attempted 3s. That might seem like a problem, but again: it isn’t. It’s preseason, he’s only playing for 20 minutes a game, and Lowry is intentionally putting more effort into acclimatizing Leonard than scoring. His jumper is still picture-perfect and speedy as a jackrabbit.

Lowry’s game is not based on rapid crossovers or high-flying finishes. He may be losing some of his burst near the rim, but his game has aged well and should continue to do so. He finished last year with the 22nd-highest Player Impact Plus Minus in the league, ahead of vaunted stars like Al Horford, Daymond Green, and Paul George. Lowry’s best skill, aside from being one of the five best shooters in the league, is eking an advantage out of any possible situation. The context surrounding his ejection against Brooklyn is a terrific example of how Lowry’s positives, rather than negatives, caused the scandal.

Lowry pushed the ball and drove hard without an apparent transition opportunity, and he drew Brooklyn’s center as he warded off his own defender. He dished out to the trailing Jonas Valanciunas for a wide-open 3. A good basketball play wherein a diminutive guard uses guile to create an advantage on the court.

When Lowry tried the exact move only a minute later, his defender flopped, and Lowry was called for an offensive foul.

The inconsistency between the two plays infuriated Lowry, who has become one of the top-25 players in the league because of his ability to create advantages out of thin air. Lowry was ejected arguing for his own playstyle, which isn’t a problem going forward. He’s crafty and will continue to be crafty, lifting the Raptors wherever possible. He cares about winning – how can that be construed as an issue?

5. The Center Position

The Raptors still don’t have a center who can switch onto point guards, defend the rim, clean the defensive glass, set solid screens, and stretch the floor on offence. To be fair, those players are pretty well impossible to find in the league, but they’re incredibly useful. It turns out PJ Tucker could do it – who would have thought? – but Draymond Green invented the position. Importantly, the Celtics possess one of the league’s best in Al Horford.

Pascal Siakam can switch onto point guards, but he can’t really defend centers. He isn’t a huge deterrent at the rim, and he’s still a low-level rebounder for a center (unless his strong preseason numbers are to be believed). He may eventually become a small-ball center, but he doesn’t provide any of the skills aside from being able to switch onto the perimeters.

Serge Ibaka has dabbled at the position in the preseason, and he’s done an admirable job. On defence, he can protect the rim, and he’s a better rebounder when playing the center position than people acknowledge. However, he’s not as mobile as popularly believed, and he is not able to switch onto point guards. On offence, his inability to devour opponents with screens is a problem, and Lowry and Leonard especially need monster screen-setters to pop. The team could not score well when Ibaka was playing center in the preseason, sporting a 96.7 offensive rating.

Greg Monroe can’t do it, and new two-way signee Chris Boucher isn’t ready for real NBA minutes. To be honest, I thought Eric Moreland was best equipped to do the job on defence, but he’s such an offensive negative that it would have been a pointless trade-off.

Jonas Valanciunas might bizarrely be the team’s best choice.  He can’t switch onto point guards, but he actually has every other skill covered that’s required for small-ball centers. He’s a great roller and post-up player, to boot. When Valanciunas played alongside Lowry and Leonard in preseason, the team absolutely wrecked opponents on both ends.

The Raptors are good enough that they need specific players for specific situations. They have the general outline of a winning team covered. They will almost certainly win between 55-60 wins and go deep in the playoffs. How they are able to match up against Golden State’s Draymond-at-center or Boston’s Horford-at-center lineups will help determine advantages in a long series. They don’t currently have a player on the roster who can play center and switch 1-5. That won’t matter for 95 percent of the season, but it should matter in the playoffs. We’ll see if the Raptors aim to rectify that before the trade deadline.

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