Roles! Are they simplistic? Yes. Do they simplify things to look for and allow readers to then build their own opinion from a solid base? Hopefully.
I wrote a piece last season about the Raptors offensive archetypes. Creators and Finishers, as it were. This offseason they lost their lowest usage ‘creator’ in Marc Gasol and a high usage ‘finisher’ in Serge Ibaka. So, some things have been shaken up. Additionally, I only talked about the Raptors rotation of 8 in last seasons piece, and this time I’ll extend it all the way out and provide reasoning for each placement, based on their offensive game.
A quick aside: There’s only so much extrapolation to be done with the G-League level players, especially if their strengths overlap with the Raptors incumbent stars. Naturally, their roles are projected as rather limited. If you want more extensive info on these players, I recommend reading both Blake Murphy and Kelsea O’Brien – they’ve both done great work covering the G-League.
This group is the smallest on the team, coincides with their 3 largest contracts, and is reserved for players who consistently create their own looks, and looks for others.
Lowry’s game has never been flashy relative to other top-5 point guards and since most fans rarely saw him in highlight packages they assumed he was another pseudo-star in the Eastern Conference. Wrong. In the wake of the Raptors championship, plus all the news regarding the Clippers dysfunction and Kawhi Leonard’s transparent lamenting of his backcourt partners, Lowry’s star has risen. It used to be that you had to look a little closer to recognize Lowry’s brilliance. Tangible, genius game management and passing. Shot-making pop. A leader of men. Now we can zoom out and see something: relentless and non-stop winning. Truthfully, it’s always been there.
Despite his 3-point shooting trending downward, Lowry still remains the Raptors most potent threat with the ball in his hands. His interpretation of a shifting defense grants him passing lanes that don’t exist to many other players, and judging by his ballooning free throw rate, his reads on dropping big men don’t exist solely for the purpose of servicing his popping or rolling teammates.
As evidenced by the Celtics series, there’s few players in the NBA who you’d rather have making decisions with the ball as you creep towards the end of a big game.
It’s more than likely that Siakam will end this season as the Raptors ‘usage King’. Yes, he struggled in the bubble, but he’s been candid about the things that played into that, and I’m expecting a huge bounce back from him. He doesn’t read the weak-side as well as Lowry, or spot-up as well as Fred VanVleet, but he’s a major handful for teams to deal with and the Raptors love to throw him at opposing defenses and let them try to figure him out. He was the NBA’s most efficient ‘driver’ (77% from the field on drives) last season, can play the screener or the ball handler in the pick n’ roll, passes above average for his position, and can get you a bucket in the post in a pinch. So, there’s a lot of different ways to use him on-ball or off-ball. And based on his numbers as a top-10 iso-usage player in the NBA, few players were asked to create their own shot more often than him.
The steps Siakam has to take going into next year already have a firm base. 34-percent on pullup 3’s, 50th percentile and up in his heavy usage play-types (post up, isolation, pick n’ roll). With a proper mix of all these different looks, instead of Nurse’s over reliance on iso, we should see the efficiency creep up in these areas. He’s a player to be really, really excited about.
At his best next to Lowry, VanVleet oscillates between “passable pick n’ roll creator” and “scorching hot, rapidly relocating beacon of death that rains fire from downtown”. VanVleet is a lot more fun if you stop viewing him as the heir-apparent to Lowry, and more so the remarkably unique combo guard that he is. VanVleet fits the Raptors really well. He pushes in transition constantly, finds passing seams to the corners of the court – be it in transition or after a push dribble to the free throw line in the half court – remains one of the NBA’s best catch-and-shoot players, and has an extremely tidy 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Not to mention, he’ll snatch some ankles this season, too. The moniker of ‘Steady Freddy’ is well earned, as was his contract that leans very team friendly.
This group has the most diversity in playstyle. We’re looking at guys who will someday be full on creators but don’t yet have the possessions to do so, complimentary pieces that grease the wheels of offense outside of shot-making, tertiary ball-handlers, and ‘chaos creators’ who rarely handle the ball during primary actions but flash playmaking chops in the flow of the game.
The playmaking is a lot different from the point guards on the roster, but I think Baynes makes enough plays for his scorers that he fits the bill for this archetype. Screen-setting is not typically associated with playmaking, but when you’re one of the best in the league you should be respected for your ability to shed your teammates loose – Baynes’ screen-setting does that in spades.
There will be a significant drop-off in split-action with Gasol’s exit, but the DHO’s, and high-low feeds will be emulated quite well by Baynes, who has more passing chops than most think.
As for his finishing, he’ll do enough damage from behind the 3-point line, lob in enough of his strange floaters, and rumble directly to the rim well enough that we can all say he finishes plays.
Nick Nurse has been openly anticipating the return of McCaw to the Raptors lineup. In my player review for McCaw I described him as a risk-averse passer (which was contested) that the Raptors use as the primary initiator in heavily structured offensive sets. He does well to discern where the advantages are in those spots. Nurse seems poised for McCaw to reprise his role as a tertiary ball handler, and I see no reason why he can’t improve. He has very little explosion off-the-dribble and he is clearly not looking to create buckets for himself often. However, he is a passable shooter on ‘open’ shots, and has a good nose for cuts to the bucket. There isn’t a lot of volume to McCaw’s playstyle, but it places him firmly between ‘creator’ and ‘finisher’.
Flynn is going to be a full-on creator at some point. As it currently stands though, it’s unlikely the Raptors burden him with that much on-ball responsibility. And if Lowry and VanVleet are any indication, the Raptors like their guards to learn how to work off-ball. So, even though Flynn is coming in with some of the best pick n’ roll chops college basketball saw last year, he’s not going to run through possession after possession in that playtype. The Raptors organization seems really high on him, to the point where they discuss him like he’s a lottery pick in terms of impact and potential. He’s a smart player, and I’d expect him to find a nice mix on and off the ball.
If you want more on Flynn, Louis Zatzman wrote a monster of a piece on him and that’s here.
Here he is, our ‘chaos creator’. Bembry doesn’t have the jump-shot or self-creating on-ball skills to ever warrant the ball in his hands as a primary initiator. However, if you can recall the ‘bench mob’ version of Siakam, and how every once in awhile he would make a pass in transition, after a loose ball or as the connective tissue from one player to another that made you say “Holy **** this guy can pass.” then some of Bembry’s playmaking pop shouldn’t be too surprising. He’s a major thief on the defensive end, and should spring himself for transition pretty often this year, too.
There is an undeniable, and extremely fun ‘wiggle’ to Watson’s off the dribble game. An excellent shot-creator at the G-League level, and at his peak, a 3-level scorer. It remains to be seen whether he can do that consistently at the NBA level. His standout game last year was a 22-point performance against Denver. The potential for off-the-dribble scoring punch is there, but how many possessions he can command, and how many it would be worth for the Raptors to give to him remains to be seen. There’s a finite amount of possessions that are certain to go higher in the pecking order, and Watson has to make his short spurts count.
If you want more on Watson, Blake Murphy wrote a great piece on his offseason here.
This group has a chasm between the high ranking and low ranking members. Rim-runners, spot-up shooters, sprinters in transition – attacking closeouts helps a lot too.
Powell was really close to making the ‘inbetweeners’ group, but I decided that pin-down wizardry, despite the smarts it takes, couldn’t be viewed as similar to pick n’ roll possessions. Powell, as it currently stands, is a better player than anyone in the ‘inbetweeners’ group. That speaks to just how explosive his scoring game was last year, and looks like it could be this year. He is the Raptors best player when it comes to attacking closeouts, the Raptors relied on him for run-stopping buckets game in and game out, and he shot the hell out of the basketball – open shots or contested. Not to mention his finishing had been trending upward since the latter half of 17-18 and it’s a legitimate asset to his game now. When Powell is headed downhill you should feel confident. I don’t think it’s too much to say he has real scoring prowess. He’s followed his abilities and mentality to a point where, among wings, he was in the 94th percentile in points per shot-attempt and did so on heavy volume. A bucket-getter.
Everyone is holding their breath for this guy. One of the lowest-usage starters in the NBA last year, but very efficient. 50-39-70 splits from the floor last year, and .415% from three point land in the pressure cooker of the playoffs. He has a burgeoning pick n’ pop game, creeps the baseline like few others in his conference, and dunks everything around the rim. His game is a remarkably easy fit on any roster in the NBA. He’ll take a big off the dribble occasionally, but not often. And I’m hoping the extra possessions he gets this year come more in the form of Powell’s possessions than Siakam’s. Let him catch the ball on the move and off a screen, then put it down. Asking him to shake defenders straight up seems like a lot right now. Even a jump to 14 points per game at static efficiency would be massive.
Boucher is one of the easiest players to place because offensively all you ever notice is the finish. The big dunk, the launch from downtown – whatever. He should slot in as the Raptors best rim-runner this season and if you’re looking for a good fantasy pick, he’s a box score fiend. That might seem like an underwhelming explanation, but Boucher’s offense exists almost exclusively in the explosive parts of the game. He is a finisher through and through.
Was Thomas shoved into a couple ill-fitting ball handling spots this past season due to injuries? Yes. Does that mean the Raptors want him on-ball often? No. The man is an absolute sniper. There’s few shooters better in the world, and despite Thomas’ incredible (and underrated) rebounding chops, the shooting will always be the focus. Chris Finch came over from the New Orleans Pelicans to join the Raptors coaching staff, and many have been clamoring for the Raptors to swipe some of the sets that JJ Redick is the beneficiary of and repurpose them for Thomas. That could happen. At the very least, expect a bigger year from Thomas, because his defensive shortcomings weren’t as short as some expected and he should be fully acclimated to the speed of the NBA. Bomb away.
Len’s offensive role with the Raptors should be really, really simple. Set good screens, hound the offensive glass, rim-run, and maybe shoot some open threes. The Raptors won’t be asking Len to distribute out of the high or low post, and he won’t be a connective hub in the middle of the floor. He’ll play within himself on offense, and probably garner a lot of fanfare for his rim defense.
An optimist would label Johnson a question mark, and a pessimist would be completely out on him. Raptors fans love moments, and Johnson’s 23 point performance against Denver that came after he hit the game-winner against Philly captures Johnson at his best. A competent set shooter who can knife into the lane and drop off to bigs once the defense collapses. If you think that moment is an accurate representation of the player that Johnson will be consistently (although obviously with less robust numbers) then he could probably qualify for an inbetweener. However, I’m a little bit lower on him than that.
If Flynn is meant to be in the creator section but got bumped out because he’s a rookie, then Harris is suffering from the same thing only more extreme. Harris was an instant offense guard for Nevada. Plugged into any college game, Harris would score, get to the line, and playmake. With the Raptors though, that all remains to be seen. I expect the Raptors will want more of his off-ball game this early on – clever screen maneuvering, quality spot-up shooting, and the occasional punched gap for a dunk. Harris is pretty good at capitalizing on his momentum when he’s in motion and it carries him into the paint regularly. He’s pretty explosive out of the triple-threat, too.
As a player on the outer rim of the league, Brissett has had to start molding his game into the type of player that teams like to cushion the edges of their rosters with. In his NBA performances he’s basically allergic to any shot that isn’t in the paint or beyond-the-arc, and the vertical rebounding is a lot less effective – although the hustle rebounds aren’t. He’s really limited at this level, and the Raptors likely won’t ask him to ball handle or create at any point.
For this next trio, if you want something more in-depth, Blake Murphy has a great piece here.
Good control and pacing from the 3-point line to the mid-range after attacking a closeout. Showed some catch-and-shoot chops with the Memphis Hustle, and has a high defensive IQ that has translated to off-ball stuff offensively. He’s got a pretty good sense of when to flash to the ball handler or to the middle of the floor. All these attributes will be muted at the next level, but he can fit in with better players.
Johnson has some overlap with Watson and Flynn, in that the strong parts of his game overlap with players already on the roster. Even though he had an extremely high assist rate in the G-League, it dropped off a cliff in NBA games because he didn’t receive any priority as a playmaker. With that said, he’s got a jumper, eats offensive glass, and can throw down with a lot of authority.
An overwhelming offensive hub at the G-League level. Against that level of defense he can pass, shoot, and score in the post. The other shoe has yet to drop though, as he has been left off the floor by Detroit, then New York and Brooklyn.
The Raptors have been very tight lipped about Davis with the NBA’s current investigation still underway and his court date looming (Dec.11). Very little news about him is available, other than he is working on his game and is with the Raptors currently. There will be lots of coverage on him and his on-court game, in a lot of places, once the NBA or the Raptors take a hardline position themselves, seeing as they have all the info.
Your Toronto Raptors
Have a blessed day.