Draw all the conclusions from training camp | Ibaka has a malleable role this year | Ujiri committed for another year
VanVleet’s analysis was accurate. Asked about Davis after the game, Nick Nurse highlighted a shot he turned down as a negative mark rather than anything he did too much of.
“Can we get him making really good decisions on offense? I thought he did tonight, all but maybe one or two,” Nurse said after laying out Davis’ strengths. “But he knew it right away when he did it. Then can we rely on him to execute the defensive game plan and execute our defensive schemes the way we need him to? But very, very positive from him all the way through so far.”
Davis passed up a clean 3 to take a tougher 2, a move that would have counted for negative points in Raptors scrimmages a few years back. He also took a heat-check 3 in the first half, which may have been what caused him to hesitate a little later, and turned the ball over on a wild transition drive.
VanVleet’s advice seemed to recentre him, as his second-half performance was smooth and fit in well as his team pulled away. Davis had a strong take for a left-handed finish late in the third and had a fun sequence trading one-on-one stops with Malcolm Miller in the fourth.
All told, Davis stood out on a night when it was fresher faces making an impression and returners or more experienced imports showing some offseason rust.
“There were some guys I thought that showed some things. I liked Oshae Brissett, I liked Terence Davis, I liked Matt Thomas, Chris Boucher has had a good summer and camp. They played tonight, and I thought Rondae (Hollis-Jefferson) did a decent job, too,” Nurse said. “There were some other guys that I didn’t think, you know, they need to show better. You’re new faces. But it’s early and they’re still trying to learn. The biggest thing with those guys is getting them to learn how we want them to play or how they can find a role with us on our team, and that takes probably a little bit more than a few days.”
Host William Lou is joined by Alex Wong to share their first impressions of the Toronto Raptors following the conclusion of training camp in Quebec City.
Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol off to delayed starts
Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka look ready and hungry
Pascal Siakam’s next step is a work in progress
Terence Davis and Matt Thomas impress at intrasquad game
Question marks for Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Few had a better evening than Fred VanVleet, who didn’t even bother to don his game shorts, playing the four 10-minute periods in sweat pants.
It certainly didn’t hinder him. VanVleet easily led the black squad to a double-digit victory with what appeared to be more points than anyone else on the floor, although that could not be confirmed as technological issues kept actual stats from being provided.
VanVleet was hitting threes with regularity, often from 30 feet out and further while making it look easy.
Sharing the marquee with VanVleet and a much bigger surprise was Terrence Davis II. Davis II who VanVleet has kind of taken under his wing since learning he, like the Raptors point guard himself, is attempting to take the unorthodox route of undrafted player right into the league.
Davis, out of Ole Miss, was playing alongside VanVleet for much of the evening and, like VanVleet, seemed to score at will.
Earlier in the week Nurse mentioned him prominently as a guy who had caught his eye and Thursday evening’s performance can only help his cause.
“The first thing is he’s got a really explosive game,” Nurse said of the 22-year-old, 6-foot-4, 205 pound guard. “He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast, he’s quick, so that right there is gonna be able to let you survive in an NBA game. And then he vaults up and shoots a three, he’s gonna explode by you and put it on the deck and get to the rim, and he has some defensive capabilities, especially on-ball.”
It stands to reason that Ibaka will start the season coming off the bench. The Raptors lineup that makes the most sense, as far as I can tell, is Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell (or Fred VanVleet) in the backcourt, with OG Anunoby back in the starting lineup across from Pascal Siakam and Gasol. In this scenario, Ibaka (along with Norm or Fred) become the two most prominent subs off the bench (with Stanley Johnson, Patrick McCaw, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson filling out the rest of the spots in some order/capacity).
If I’m Ibaka at 30 years old and in a contract year, this situation is only made tenable by considering the other 45 percent of this ratio (well, 35 percent, as you’ll see in the next section). Even if Ibaka is a friendly teammate and personality nowadays, it has to be tough to swallow the idea that the starter contract money he’s earned over the last few seasons is gone for good — especially with 4-5 years still left to play. I have to assume Raptors management knows this and understands that keeping Ibaka happy in the short term is best for the team and, in a sense, for him too. A happy Serge is a productive Serge, is my point.
Time Spent in This Position: 55%
In the midst of opening up last year, Ibaka was not always comfortable. Before coming off the bench on opening night, Ibaka had started his previous 550 regular season games, dating back to his second year in the league. After being told that a 3-pointer would be a necessary addition to his game for so many years, Ibaka’s range was restricted again, as he took 128 fewer deep balls last year than he took in 2017-18 — partially a product of Ibaka shifting positions, and partially because he shot the ball so well from the mid-range. Even still, his usage ended up at a career-high 22.8 percent, third on the team behind only Leonard and Jonas Valanciunas. It was a year of instability, as Ibaka was asked to expand certain parts of his game and to compress others. He knows the same will be true this year, too.
On Wednesday, Ibaka was open about how awkward the transition to being a reserve was at times, as he had to learn that he could not simply let the game come to him as he could when he was a starter.
“Making that sacrifice, it already made (me) a better teammate because it’s not easy,” Ibaka said. “Personally, I’m going to come off the bench and try to be there for my teammates. It already made me a great teammate here.
“I’m a lot better (of) a basketball player (now than when he arrived in Toronto in February 2017) — not only skill-wise, but understanding the game, playing as a team, helping a team, helping your teammates to get better, and then doing all the little things to help your team without scoring. Of course, you have to score, but just understanding the game, positioning myself where it can not only be good (for me but also) for my teammates. And also being a great teammate, too. Since I’ve been here, since my first year and now, I’ve been getting better and better to be a good teammate on and off the court.”
In the meantime, nobody this side of Gasol seemed to take to championship life better than Ibaka. He spent time at both the Paris and New York Fashion Week, found some time for a Mediterranean vacation, teased future episodes of his YouTube show with Kevin Durant and Tiffany Haddish and took the championship home to his native Congo, where he shared a meal with Larry O’Bee.
Josh Lewenberg explains how Terence Davis stood out during the Raptors’ open scrimmage in front of a sellout crowd in Quebec City, and discusses Fred VanVleet’s growing leadership on the team.
The undrafted guard, who signed a two-year contract with Toronto this summer, has impressed coach Nick Nurse with just about all facets of his game during a week of practices here.
“I think the first thing is he’s got a really explosive game … so that right there is gonna be able to let you survive in an NBA game,” Nurse said, after Toronto wrapped up the training camp portion of the pre-season here on Thursday.
“And then he vaults up and shoots a three, he’s gonna explode by you and put it on the deck and get to the rim, and he has some defensive capabilities, especially on ball.”
One of the bigger things Davis has to learn is to take shots when they present themselves and resist any urge to defer, as he did at a couple of points in an intrasquad scrimmage on Thursday.
“During the game … I turned down a shot, and (Fred VanVleet) was like, ‘Don’t stop shooting now’,” Davis said. “So it’s definitely getting comfortable within the flow of the game.”
Nurse said coaching Davis into being a smart NBA player on a consistent basis is the challenge; his skills are impressive but it’s a far different game than he’s used to playing.
“Can we get him making really good decisions on offence?” Nurse said. “I thought he did tonight, all but maybe one or two. There was one shot he turned down, wide open from three and dribbled it into a contested tough two, which we’ll have to teach him a little bit. But he knew it right away when he did it.”
Keeping it simple is one thing, but keeping it status quo is another. Anunoby doesn’t need to become Toronto’s No. 2 scoring option every night, but he can’t be absent either.
To be an impact player for the Raptors, he has to start making an impact. In his first two seasons, there’s been an excuse as to why Anunoby wasn’t more aggressive offensively. Year 1, he was a rookie trying to find his way. Year 2, Kawhi Leonard was in town and everyone had to fall in line.
This is Year 3, where most NBA players find comfort as a professional. There are no more excuses. Anunoby can’t go through nights where he’s taking three shots in a game – which, by the way, happened in 14 of the 67 games he appeared in last season.
“I mean, the season didn’t go as planned but I think I grew from it,” Anunoby told reporters last week. “I think I got better from the year. I learned more about myself. It made me stronger.”
A lot happened off the court last season for Anunoby. Here’s hoping he’s been able to put it all behind him and showcase the skills that have almost been kept a secret the last two seasons.
It is no secret that Dolan has long been an admirer of Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri. Maybe it has something to do with Ujiri memorably crushing the Knicks in two trades; first the Carmelo Anthony deal when Ujiri was with the Denver Nuggets and then the ill-fated Andrea Bargnani deal when Ujiri moved to Canada.
Ujiri’s name surfaced as a possible replacement for Jackson two summers ago before Mills convinced Dolan to promote him and allow him to pick his general manager, which turned out to be Scott Perry. Ujiri’s reputation and asking price have increased significantly in the last two years. The Raptors won the title in June and almost immediately the Washington Wizards were about to make Ujiri an offer he couldn’t refuse. That offer never came but Ujiri, the charismatic Nigerian immigrant whose tight circle of friends include Barack Obama and Adam Silver, remains a hot commodity.
It’s also not lost on anyone that when Ujiri becomes a free agent in 2021, another charismatic, franchise-changing free agent is also available. How does a package of Ujiri and Giannis Antetokounmpo sound?
Knick fans are all too familiar with dreaming about signing the best players only to end up with a broken down Joakim Noah or a retread like Elfrid Payton. Today, Giannis is a pipe dream. Ujiri, however, is a different story.
Ujiri could find the Knicks a very appealing challenge. For 20 years they’ve been the NBA’s laughingstock. If you can win a title in Toronto anything is possible. When I asked Ujiri on Saturday in Toronto about his future, he said his sole focus is with the Raptors.
“The most important thing is that when you sign a contract you’re obligated to serve it,” he said. “I signed the contract and I have time left on that contract and I will serve the time. This place has been unbelievable to me. It’s been just a blessing.”
For what it’s worth Thomas’ ‘Team Black’ was the winning side although the scoreboard wasn’t the most reliable. But when all was said and done Thomas could look down at a pretty efficient night – 11 points on seven shots, to start with. It easily could have been more but he missed a pair of easy looks from the corners. He did knock down one triple from well behind the three-point line and another while curling off a screen at near full speed. He made some sound decisions in the half-court and a runner off the glass after he was chased off the three-point line at one point and he was smart in transition. Overall he provided the kind of constant magnetism that shooters of his quality create for those around them.
If he had any worries before the game, they likely melted away after his night started with a 30-footer he launched on the heels of Pascal Siakam picking up a loose ball and shovelling it over to his new teammate — who didn’t hesitate despite the distance.
“I didn’t really have nerves,” Thomas said. “For me you know, I get maybe a little nervous anxious like before the game but once I get on the court, I’m good, I locked in.
“[The shot] felt good. Pascal, you know, drove it in transition and pushed it back to me … he believed in me to knock it down. So I gotta believe in myself to knock it down.”
Thomas wasn’t the only player who looked sharp in the sprint for a roster spot or a role. Terrence Davis II — a big combo guard signed as an undrafted free agent — looked like an NBA player and Chris Boucher, the stick-thin Montrealer, continued his habit of filling the boxscore almost any time he hits the floor.
But overall it wasn’t a night to draw any conclusions.
As I mentioned, the opportunity is there. With the departure of Kawhi and Danny Green, a whole bunch of minutes and shot attempts have opened in the starting lineup. Coach Nick Nurse has hinted at playing Pascal Siakam at the 3 with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, but that seems to be a situational lineup against longer frontcourts like the Philadelphia 76ers. That leaves Anunoby, Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as the players all vying for minutes and a starting position.
It should be Anunoby’s spot to lose. He’s a better perimeter shooter at 35 percent than Johnson (29.3 percent) and Hollis-Jefferson (22.3 percent), and he’s already built a level of trust with Kyle Lowry, the main engine of the Raptors.
Depending on who’s starting at the two (my guess is Norman Powell) the starting lineup could use his perimeter shooting to space the floor for Siakam’s post game. Anunoby is also versatile defensively and can guard spots one through four effectively, with the potential to form a disruptive pairing with Siakam.
If the lineup does shake out to be Lowry/Powell/Anunoby/Siakam/Gasol, OG could very well fill the spot left by Danny Green as the lineup’s 3-and-D guy. Powell and Siakam should see an increase in shot attempts, while Lowry and Gasol act as the playmakers. Anunoby would be that glue that makes the lineup work on both sides of the ball.
Hines says that Siakam is the hardest worker he’s seen. And this summer, despite every excuse to relax and catch a breath following an unbelievable — and draining — 2018-19 season, he says the Raptors’ rising star hasn’t skipped a beat. It’s a good sign for both the player and his team, as the Raptors are reportedly in the midst of negotiating what could be a max-level contract extension before the start of the season.
“He showed up very confident, very happy, very grateful — all of the things Pascal always is,” says Hines. “Nothing had really changed. He was still Pascal: ready to work and hungry as ever.”
Hines earned Siakam’s trust a long time ago. And after watching all of Siakam’s games, plus maintaining an ongoing dialogue with the Raptors coaching staff, they knew what to work on.
This summer Hines and Siakam focused on shooting — after all, it’s a shooters league these days — and playmaking, two areas in which the Raps are expecting Siakam take great strides in as he inherits a primary role on the offensive end after the departure of Kawhi Leonard.
“We shot a lot,” Hines says adding that Siakam’s “form is nice and compact, nice and tight, confident.”
They worked on comfortably extending his range — Siakam has gone from a 14 per cent shooter as a rookie (not a typo) to hitting 37 per cent of his threes last season, but he only wants to see that number climb. They also put in extensive work shooting from the high-post and mid-post (where Siakam torched McGee) with the goal of giving Siakam a new package of shots from the spots on the floor in which he’ll likely see most of his scoring opportunities initiate.
The biggest emphasis, however, has been playmaking. It’s an area where Siakam has a distinct advantage over other forwards. His speed, explosiveness, herky-jerky movement with the ball and advanced ballhandling skills for a player of his size make him a nightmare to defend, and it’s an area the Raptors look to exploit.
For Espiritu, the Nuit Blanche monument is not only a celebration of how far the Raptors have come, but also how far he has come through his struggles with mental health.
His coded language is interspersed with iconography familiar to Raptors fans, like lightning bolts, triangular shapes, player numbers from old jerseys, even the tread of a basketball. It represents the discipline it took to get this far – both in terms of the Raptors championship and communal successes in talking about mental health – and the gratitude we should have for this moment.
“On your way to be great don’t forget to be grateful,” says Espiritu, who believes the monument is not just about the championship, but something Toronto can hold forever. “If we have a bad season, we can look back and be like ‘we did that, though.’ We know we’re capable. That works on varying degrees with our own mental health and our own personal success.
“My life was real shit before,” Espiritu continues. The Raptors sculpture is also a highlight he can simply hold on to, even if one day he is forced to go back to his old job, fixing “the wickedest bagels” at Tim Hortons. “If I never do anything like this again, I’m still going to be grateful that it happened.”
With Kawhi Leonard no longer on the Raptors, Gasol is one of the players who should see an uptick in opportunities this season.
Prior to the trade that brought him to Toronto, Gasol was averaging a career-high 4.7 assists per game. On a team that lacked playmaking, the Grizzlies ran a lot of their offence through him at the elbows, where he has led the league in touches per game in each of the last six seasons. Nikola Jokic is clearly the best passing centre in the league today, but Gasol might be the second-best, making it worth Memphis’ and now Toronto’s while to play off of him.
Gasol actually averaged more assists per 36 minutes with the Raptors (5.6) than he did with the Grizzlies (5.0) last season – an encouraging sign moving forward – but Toronto needs him to maintain that level of production in a larger role. If he can, it would take a lot of pressure off of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam to replace the 26.6 points and 3.3 assists Leonard averaged last season all by themselves.
It helps that the Raptors are loaded with smart cutters, from Lowry and Siakam to Norman Powell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Gasol has already established chemistry with Lowry, Siakam and Powell, and Hollis-Jefferson should benefit greatly from playing with a jump shooting centre who can reward him for being in constant motion on offence.
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