OG’s option was picked, gametime now | Hollis-Jefferson wants to be here and is a good fit | Kawhi’s not funny when he’s trying to be
A declaration for the North by the North.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 3, 2019
At the moment, with the roster as currently constructed, this Raptors team is looking like a squad that can likely push for a seed anywhere within the No. 4-6 range, and if they’re going to accomplish this – and maybe aim higher – an Anunoby jump will be required.
It doesn’t have to be Siakam-level, but there needs to be improvement and progress shown from Anunoby.
As mentioned earlier, Anunoby flashed big potential of how he can be a difference-maker on both ends of the floor. This season is setting up to hopefully be an-off-the-court distraction and injury-free one and as such flashes won’t be good enough.
Anunoby figures to step right into the starting three spot – where one Kawhi Leonard used to be – and will be relied upon more as both a spot-up shooter and as a slasher offensively, while also probably given the assignment of covering an opposing team’s best perimeter player.
Defensively, there should be no issue with Anunoby as he’s proven he has all the tools to potentially become an NBA All-Defensive player, offensively, though, there are definite question marks.
Coming out of college at Indiana, Anunoby was best compared to P.J. Tucker because of his athleticism, defensive acumen and three-point accuracy. So far, only his defence has shown to be a true consistent attribute.
His three-point stroke regressed mightily last season (down to 33.2 per cent) and, most troubling, his possibly overwhelming athletic and strength advantages he has over opponents haven’t manifested into what should be a strong drive and slashing game.
These are areas that must improve and, optimistically speaking, they will.
RHJ has gone from 5-star recruit at Arizona, to hopeful saviour in Brooklyn, to underwhelming bench player, to Toronto, where he can hopefully combine those experiences and become a 5-star saviour for an underwhelming bench.
RHJ was highly recruited in high school — which is expected when you’re the star player of a program that wins two state titles — opting for Arizona over Florida and Syracuse. His basketball success transitioned smoothly into the next level, as he nabbed First Team All-PAC-12, PAC-12 All-Defensive, and PAC-12 All-Freshman honours over his two seasons with the Wildcats.
Hollis-Jefferson was drafted 23rd in the 2015 NBA Draft by Portland, then immediately flipped to Brooklyn, along with Steve Blake (remember him?), for Pat Connaughton and one of the many Plumlee brothers. The Nets were on the decline, having just completed a sub-.500 (but playoff!) season, and entering the post-KG/post-Deron era. Expectations for the team were low, but hopes were high for the Chester, PA native.
After three seasons of listless basketball and zero postseason appearances, Brooklyn returned to the playoffs last season. Not coincidentally, RHJ had his lowest minutes per game average, worst offensive season, and first campaign with a negative VORP. Kenny Atkinson figured out a winning formula — one that didn’t require Hollis-Jefferson’s skill set.
Through it all, RHJ was the consummate professional, fan favourite, and lovable teammate. He was the voice of reason in the locker room, lead dancer on the bench, and, in a somewhat poetic way, led the Nets to their most improbable comeback last season.
You’ve learned what it means to bet on yourself. You already understand the grind. The newest Raptor arrives equipped with a slogan of his own, a mantra that matches perfectly with this season’s roster, CHAP — calm, humble, and patient.
How many times through last spring’s successful playoff run did you hear a member of the Raptors talk about the willingness to do whatever it took sacrifice whatever necessary to make the proper play. That is borne out of good chemistry and to even come close to repeating the success the team had a year ago, that kind of chemistry is going to paramount again.
Hollis-Jefferson hasn’t just been impressed with the chemistry on this club. He’s impressed with the commitment level.
“Guys locked in, trying to get better. We’ve got a lot of young guys so trying to learn new things, including myself. It’s been great, everyone’s been attentive, listening and focused,” he said.
Hollis-Jefferson, despite four years in the league, is one of those young guys. He’s already finding his role within the team.
“It’s a drive-and-kick team,” he said. “Like to get to the rim, definitely like to pass so I definitely can see myself fitting in here.
And they have bunch of a great guys who look to facilitate — Marc (Gasol), Kyle (Lowry), Fred (VanVleet) so I feel like I fit in great here.”
Hollis-Jefferson is a tireless defender as well, which will immediately put him in good stead with Nurse and the veterans on this team who put a premium on defence. At 6-foot-7 — on his best day he jokes — Hollis-Jefferson isn’t exactly a giant in the paint but he is comfortable rebounding in there and getting his offence in there.
There were difficult periods last season for Serge Ibaka — difficult and confusing — when he was a Raptors starter some nights, a backup some others, before settling into a vital role as a second-unit standout during the run to an NBA championship.
That title — the first of his career — made it all worthwhile, of course, but it was not easy and not always enjoyable for the veteran forward who had never before been bounced around as much.
He fought through it, though, and it helped him grow as a player and a teammate. He’s more at ease, more accepting, more content now than he’s ever been.
“Last year was tough,” Ibaka said after a training camp practice at Laval University here this week. “It could be tough for anybody. This year, I don’t really know, I don’t really care what direction, what you want me to do. I’m just ready. My mind is ready …
“Whatever it takes to help the team to get wins, I’m going to do it.”
Raptors coach Nick Nurse sees a change in attitude, personality and mental makeup this season. The coach knows that last season was hard for Ibaka at times, and Nurse was partially responsible as he tried to figure out how to use him with Jonas Valanciunas, and then with Marc Gasol for the stretch run.
“He seems much more comfortable this year, like light years more comfortable,” Nurse said of the 30-year-old Ibaka. “I mean last year it was a little edgy. You have to understand, a first-time coach and a bunch of new players and nobody really knew where they stood.
“There was a lot of tenseness around some of that stuff.”
It’s a fit that makes sense for both parties. Johnson spoke to Raptors president Masai Ujiri over the phone early in the free agency. There was interest on both sides, but Toronto was in a holding pattern as the team waited on Leonard’s decision.
Once the Finals MVP chose the Clippers, the Raptors – still capped out and unable to chase a marquee free agent – moved on Johnson, signing him to a two-year $7.5 million deal, with a player option in the second season.
“Me and my representation talked to a bunch of teams and felt this was the best fit for me,” Johnson said. “The system and the culture that we knew was here and how they care so much about everything – it was the right fit. So I got lucky that it was open and available.”
While the Raptors have minutes, shots and even a starting job up for grabs at his position, Johnson insists that’s not what drew him to Toronto. The defending champs have built a strong league-wide reputation for developing young players. And, despite his experience as a pro, Johnson is still a young player with plenty of room to grow.
That things didn’t work out in Detroit isn’t an indictment of Johnson or even the Pistons’ system, necessarily. Players develop at different rates. There’s no blueprint. Some reach or exceed their potential – and even “potential” is subjective – quickly, others take more time, and some don’t ever get there.
Projecting a player’s upside is an inexact science. No team gets it right every time. The Raptors have had some recent success finding and developing talent – Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell come to mind – but somebody like Bismack Biyombo might be a more relevant example here.
Like Johnson, Biyombo was coming off his rookie deal when the Raptors signed him to an inexpensive short-term contract in 2015. The former seventh-overall pick had fallen out of favour with Charlotte but turned his career around in Toronto, where he became a crucial piece of a Raps team that pushed LeBron James and the Cavaliers to six games in the Conference Finals. He signed a much larger deal with Orlando that summer.
That’s exactly what Johnson is hoping to do this season. In Toronto, he’ll have the chance to carve out a role in a winning environment, re-establish his value and then re-enter free agency next summer, or the year after.
Let me scream this for the Spooky Mulder contingent in Toronto: The champs are only here — and not one tier up — due to the possibility they trade any or all of Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. That said, folks parroting Toronto’s record last season without Leonard as evidence that this will be easy are underestimating the challenge of filling 70-ish minutes on the wing that left with Leonard and Green.
The return of OG Anunoby helps. More of the Lowry-Fred VanVleet pairing absorbs some of those minutes, but Toronto has to be a little careful overextending that ultra-small look.
But this team is solid. I’m interested to see how the Pascal Siakam-Ibaka-Gasol supersized trio that helped in the Philly series might fare over more minutes.
No one’s saying it is but the spidey senses are tingling that (a) they’re not close today on a deal and (b) finding a salary number is going to be tremendously difficult and (c) how many years on a new deal does he want or does the team want to give?
Those are real concerns and I truly believe they’re the elephant in the room that’s going to be hard to get around.
Now, reasonable men can reach reasonable decisions that are amenable to both sides and maybe that eventually happens here. But it hasn’t and there’s no suggestion it will any time soon and there the key player sits, nursing a surgically repaired thumb and perhaps growing a bit frustrated by his contractual situation.
Maybe it’s nothing more than what it is, a far slower recuperation period than anyone thought since, originally, Lowry thought he’d be okay to play in the World Cup.
But maybe it is and it’s going to cloud the situation for some time.
Good times ahead, folks.
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