Raptors beat Houston in first pre-season game | Durant a fan of Siakam and VanVleet | VanVleet on tap
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@brooklynnets forward @easymoneysniper on @fredvanvleet, “He’s stamped to me as a dog in the league. He gonna be in the league for a long long time, however long he wants to play. As an undrafted player, a lot of young guys should be looking at Fred VanVleet.” (Via @hot97)
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 8, 2019
2. Fred VanVleet started in place of Lowry and looked like he’s already had enough of a camp to get game-ready. He scored 16 points with five rebounds, five assists and three steals in 28 minutes and added a pair of threes, one of them from very deep. VanVleet’s shooting efficiency would have looked even better were he not hunting two-for-ones so aggressively, but that’s a major strength the Raptors won’t want him to move away from, even if it occasionally hurts his percentages.
More notable than the outside shooting was that VanVleet unleashed a couple of savvy finishes around the rim, hesitating or switching hands to protect the ball from defenders. Finishing inside was the weakest part of VanVleet’s offensive game last year and he’s been working to convert more effectively (and, he joked, to fall less). He also hit Serge Ibaka with a terrific pocket pass, a potentially important development for a bench pick-and-roll duo that never quite found their chemistry last year.
Four — A fresh thirty: Gasol and Lowry are easing into the season, but Serge Ibaka is roaring to go. The 30-year-old veteran looked to be the fittest player on the floor for both teams, and he was sharp and decisive with his moves. Ibaka opened the game shooting a perfect 5-of-5 from the field, and settled up with 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting. The Raptors made more of a point to establish Ibaka in the post, which isn’t and will never be his strength, but he’s as efficient as ever on pick-and-pops and dump-offs around the basket. If Ibaka keeps playing like this, the Raptors might be able to score a first-round pick in a trade deadline move if they choose to move in that direction. Regardless, it’s a testament to Ibaka’s commitment and professionalism that he came into camp with so much hunger and drive even after winning a championship.
Norman Powell got the start at the two-guard, and although he wasn’t overly involved in the offense early, he didn’t try and do too much or force anything, which is the bad habit he usually displays. Instead, he let the game come to him, waited for his opportunities and made the most of them. He ended up with 14 points in the first half, on 9 shots.
I was disappointed to see Powell benched for Patrick McCaw to start the second half. I know it’s the preseason and guys will be coming in and out of the rotation and getting a look, especially since the Raptors have a ton of wings. The good news for Norm is that none of Stanley Johnson, Cameron Payne or Patrick McCaw really took advantage of those second-half minutes (though Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had some moments). If Powell has more of that solid first-half play up his sleeve for the rest of the preseason, the starting off-guard job is probably his to live.
Pascal Siakam is seeking a max contract extension from the Raptors in wake of his breakout third season that saw him earn Most Improved Player honours. The Raptors have until the eve of the regular season to reach an agreement on a deal, but don’t really have any urgency to do anything. Their motivation might be to sign Siakam to a contract at some kind of modest discount – even in early negotiations the sides aren’t that far apart – but the multi-skilled forward would be a restricted free agent next summer and the Raptors could “max” him then. There is no real risk of losing the player, only potentially pissing him off.
In the meantime, all Siakam can do is play. And with all the caveats about it’s only pre-season and blah, blah, blah – the fourth-year forward looked fantastic. His task as a primary option will be to maintain all the things that got him this far: floor-running, defensive energy and the ability to score around the rim, while adding better passing, continuing to show a growing three-point threat and perhaps some in-between game too. Siakam showed every element of that, putting up an effortless 24 points and 11 rebounds as well as four assists. The turnover totals – five – will bear watching, but it doesn’t look like Siakam is going to be taking any steps back this coming season.
With Lowry and Marc Gasol sitting the game out, the Raptors started VanVleet, Norm Powell, OG Anunoby, Siakam and Serge Ibaka and then flipped Patrick McCaw for Powell at the start of the third quarter.
McCaw’s offensive passivity is going to be an issue. He may be an above average defender who can guard multiple positions but he played 21 minutes and did not have a single field-goal attempt. That has to change if he’s going to be considered for a regular role with the team’s second group.
The other end-of-the-roster guys who showed well in their limited time was Oshae Brissett and Chris Boucher, each fighting for a spot on the 15-man regular-season roster.
Boucher had 12 points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes; Brissett had six and four in 12 minutes.
With a need at point guard behind Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, the Raptors have been getting Davis, primarily a swingman in college, to learn a new position.
He showed some good vision with the assists and only two turnovers and also caught Chris Boucher in stride for what should have been an easy bucket, but Boucher fumbled the pass.
VanVleet, who also went undrafted and opted to sign with the Raptors, has taken Davis under his wing and is giving him some tough love amidst the support.
“He’s been good. He’s been aggressive (but) there’s a lot of room for growth,” VanVleet said when asked by the Toronto Sun about what he has seen from Davis so far.
“He’s got to get a lot better obviously to be able to help this team but you see flashes. You see what he brings to the table. But he’s kind of in an awkward position. I know they’re asking him to do some primary ball-handling which is probably not natural for him so I think in a more traditional second unit with a point guard (on the floor with him) he can play off the ball more,” VanVleet said.
“But he’s got the right approach. He works and the talent will show when it needs to show he’s got a bright future and we are all trying to help him and speed up his learning curve. He’s got a lot to learn as well but you like what you see from him.”
Coming into training camp Powell is projected to be in the lead to start at shooting guard. He has started 63 games in his career and was supposed to be the starting two guard for the Raptors in 2017-18. An injury led to him missing some games and OG Anunoby taking his spot. Last year, Danny Green occupied the two-spot in the starting lineup to great effect.
This season Powell will most likely start alongside Anunoby, the projected starting small forward. There are realistically two ways Powell isn’t in the starting lineup. First, if Nick Nurse chooses to adjust game-to-game and tinker with the lineup depending on opposing matchups, something he did at times last season. Secondly, if Powell isn’t consistently producing on both ends of the floor, he could lose his spot — most likely to a two-PG lineup featuring Fred VanVleet.
There’s no reason to assume either will happen just yet. Powell is a young veteran leader on this team, as he mentioned on Media Day. The opportunity for him to average double digit points for the first time in his career is this season.
Norm could achieve this scoring goal in the two ways he’s excelled at in his career. No one expected Powell to become a three-point threat, yet he’s averaged 40 percent from three twice in his four seasons, something he could improve on with consistent minutes. Meanwhile, it’s expected that Powell will continue to attack the rim, a strength he has shown throughout his career.
In short, Powell’s role is to take advantage of the scoring opportunities when they come. He doesn’t need to force his offensive game playing around Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and should work best as a complementary player (like Anunoby).
Excelling on basketball’s biggest stage has certainly worked wonders for VanVleet’s notoriety and perception across the league, and with resources scarce in the free agency class of 2020, the allure of what he brings to the table may be too good to resist. The NBA has projected the salary cap to be at $118M for the 2020-21 season, and while there are several teams with cap space, the Miami Heat will potentially be looking to replace Goran Dragic. Orlando — the place where VanVleet made his first NBA impression — will have room to maneuver and a starting opportunity depending on how Markelle Fultz performs, and Dwane Casey may offer a fit for him in Detroit with the Pistons.
The Raptors, for their part, will certainly prefer to keep him, as VanVleet is a long way from being viewed the way Patrick Patterson and Lou Williams were upon the expiry of their respective contracts and could be a key member of the future core. He has stated several times his affinity for Toronto and his desire to remain a Raptor, but the key free agency questions will surround the dollar amount and role he’s looking for next July.
“I’m never going to hurt the team in terms of what I want individually. That always comes after our team goals but those goals are there as well,” VanVleet said at training camp. “I’m gonna do a good job of keeping everything in perspective and just layering it and anchoring it in order. As long as you keep the team first, everything else will work itself out. I’m not gonna hurt our team with my own ambition. If they want me to start, I’ll start. If they don’t then I’ll be the best bench player I can be.”
There may be teams looking to preserve their cap room for the loaded free agent class of 2021, but for those looking to bet on VanVleet as a starter, there may be a match. This season is about proving he deserves that shot.
Gasol and Ibaka are in the same boat if a team is looking for frontcourt help. Both of their contracts are up after this year, and they are proven in this league. Front offices saw what they did for Toronto’s postseason run, and there will be interest for them, too.
Ujiri showed last year he is not afraid to make a splash when he traded longtime cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for the uncertain Leonard. If the right deal presents itself, be it in the form of unproven talent, draft capital, or younger assets, Ujiri will certainly consider it. The same rumblings in OKC for Chris Paul would theoretically be available for Lowry as well. Miami is always mentioned in these talks, and new suitors can surface at any time. All it takes is a good or bad stretch near the trade deadline for teams to change course, and organizations know Ujiri is bold enough to do something.
If the regular season goes a little better than or as expected, the Raptors may opt to keep their core intact. As mentioned, Milwaukee and Philadelphia are the cream of the Eastern Conference crop. The remaining six playoff teams of a year ago – Toronto, Boston, Indiana, Brooklyn, Orlando and Detroit – all have new additions, and with them new questions. A few nonplayoff teams – Miami, Atlanta, Chicago – all believe they are postseason contenders. Toronto could find themselves near the top of the standings as easily as they could the bottom, and how the playoff race shakes out will certainly inform Ujiri’s decisions regarding this roster. It is hard to break up a team that is looking at a three seed. It is not nearly as hard to do so for a team tied for seventh.
Toronto will receive their rings on October 22, as the first team since the 2014 HEAT to come off a title without a claim to the next one. But the most fascinating fact about the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors is intrigue on the court is overshadowed intrigue off of it. The shape of the other 29 teams will have a more significant influence on the Raptors than the Raptors themselves.
Last year, Ujiri’s moves made Toronto a contender. This year, their roster after the deadline could look vastly different from how it does now. How Ujiri feels leading up to and on February 7 will determine the Raptors’ immediate future – and will be far more impactful than anything that happens on the court this season.
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