Whether the Toronto Raptors win or lose, it’s clear at this point in the season their focus as a franchise is broader than simply winning basketball games. That doesn’t mean they’re tanking, but it does mean there are variable ways to analyze positive results. So Toronto may have beaten the solid San Antonio Spurs 117-112, but there was plenty more to take away from the game than a simple win. We know the Raptors are trying to win without sacrificing health — in that they’ve cycled Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Kyle Lowry through rest days to manage nagging conditioning issues or injuries — in the process.
There’s plenty more we’re starting to learn about the Raptors, too.
Perhaps most importantly, there’s a core of young, improving talent that the Raptors didn’t seem to have for much of the season. It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, and it seemed as though Toronto’s in-their-prime core was quickly aging into large contracts while the team was struggling to win games. Yet a talented core of youngsters who have plenty of improving to do has emerged.
Of course, OG Anunoby is only 23 years old. He’s long heavy on the strength and light on the fluidity, but he was moving with decisiveness against San Antonio. Even more impressive: he started at shooting guard with so many of Toronto’s players on the injured list, and he ran plenty of secondary and even some main actions. His processing speed was impressive as he finished with 22 points and 3 assists.
“We need OG to be that kind of player because I think he’s going to play some wing, some two, some four,” said Nick Nurse. “He’s going to be coming off screens, he’s going to be setting screens and when he’s setting them he’s going to get hit on the roll so he’s got to make the next quick decision to go on. He’s getting better.”
Anunoby has always been Toronto’s prime real estate on development island. That he’s improving as on-ball player is no shock. But he was joined by plenty of his younger teammates.
Twenty-two-year-old Malachi Flynn is progressing quickly. He led the team with seven assists, and though he didn’t shoot well from the floor, he was terrific at timing his passes early, late, or straight to maximize the runway he gave his teammates. His defense is terrific. More on him in the days to come, but suffice it to say that over the last few weeks, he has emerged into a key rotation piece that is on track for the chance at star potential that some of us identified before the season.
Gary Trent Jr. was out against the Spurs, but he’s 22 years old and has quickly elevated his game upon coming to Toronto. He has a quick trigger jumper that he can shoot off the catch or create for himself, and he has impressive footwork in the midrange to get to his spots.
Those are the big names. But there’s still more on the list of young talent. Freddie Gillespie was one of the most impressive performers for Toronto against San Antonio. He was insistent attacking the offensive glass, using his length to give Toronto second chances but also to keep the Spurs from getting in transition, where they hurt Toronto when given the opportunity. Gillespie protected the rim with aplomb, challenging all comers. He once used verticality with perfection and at other times just leaped with the best of them. On on occasion he jumped with DeMar DeRozan and caught him at the peak, only for Drew Eubanks to gather the rebound. Not to be deterred, Gillespie went back up against him only to fall short and succumb to the poster. His mindset was ideal.
“It’s a good league. Dudes get dunked on all the time,” he said after the game.
Gillespie threw down dunks of his own on offense and generally set good screens and snuck into open space when he could. Not to play the what-if game, but Toronto sure could have used Gillespie throughout the entire season. He’s about halfway through his first-ever 10-day contract, and if he keeps up this level of play, Toronto is surely salivating at the chance to add him long-term.
Paul Watson poured in triples in his first game back from the health and safety program, and it was a delight to see him return to the court after such a long break and keep up his high level of play. Yuta Watanabe played brilliant defense, hunted his jumpers, and played his typically useful brand of connective play.
Even Khem Birch — who isn’t technically young, at 28 years old — fits into the group of improving performers for Toronto. He was one of Toronto’s best players in the game, scoring efficiently, dominating in the pick and roll, and offering fantastic defense all over the court. He’s offering skills that he wasn’t able to showcase in Orlando, such as a smooth jumper.
“I feel like playing with this team, I’m getting out of the box. I was in a box in Orlando,” explained Birch.
Toronto may well be headed for the lottery at the moment, and in that sense, winning a basketball game hurts the team’s future chances. But arguably more important is the play of the team’s current young cadre. The Raptors have plenty of young, intriguing talent. That hasn’t always seemed true throughout the season, but when they all seem to play well at the same time, it bodes well for the future. The Raptors were without Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, and it was no problem against a very good Spurs squad. It was a floating mote of hope in a season of mostly settled sobriety.