How should the Toronto Raptors approach the 2021 NBA draft?

In their most consequential draft in years, the Raptors have no easy choices. 

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Photo via CBS Sports

The Toronto Raptors will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Instead of competing in the play-in tournament, they will test their luck in the lottery, with the seventh best odds at landing the No. 1 pick and a 31.9 percent chance at a top-4 pick. 

As Raptors’ fans shift their focus to the draft, we must be aware of the competing factors that make this first-round pick not only the most consequential selection in years, but also the most difficult to get right. That’s because the Raptors are not a normal lottery team, and they are significantly closer to contention than most.

Despite finishing 27-45, the Raptors had the second-best record in the league and the No. 2 defence as recently as last season. They lost their entire center rotation of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol last offseason, but otherwise kept the core intact. And while there are holes in the roster — ones we will expand on in more detail — the Raptors are significantly better than their 2020-21 record, and were negatively affected by health and safety protocols, injuries, and Tampa Bay, Florida. 

That the Raptors have the seventh-best lottery odds is a stroke of luck in and of itself, as the play-in tournament encouraged a lot of bad teams — Chicago, New Orleans, Sacramento — to go for it and finish ahead of Toronto in the standings. Those teams are behind Toronto in terms of being a contender, and they have no real constraints should they want to select more of a project in the draft and target pure upside rather than someone who can contribute to winning right away. 

The Raptors are in a similar position to the Golden State Warriors of 2020, who got the No. 2 pick in the draft due to injuries to their core players, and tried to balance selecting someone who could help them win now at a position of need while also targeting a player with tremendous upside. James Wiseman didn’t turn out to help right away, and considering that LaMelo Ball was selected after him, the Warriors could regret that pick for years to come. But more importantly, they regret it right now, because Steph Curry is having an MVP-caliber season and only has a few more years left in his prime (and his contract), so the Warriors were silly to not do everything in their power to surround him with talent. Drafting an extremely raw 19-year-old center — by far the hardest position to learn in the NBA as a young person — was not that.

Now, the Raptors don’t have a Steph Curry, but they are otherwise in a very similar position as the Warriors were. They are younger than the Warriors, but their core players are only locked into deals through 2022-23 in VanVleet’s case, and Kyle Lowry is getting old, so they would be wise to attack this window of contention while they still can. They need to balance prioritizing drafting someone who can help right away with someone with enough upside to potentially solve some of their most fundamental offensive issues in the future. Namely: someone who can eventually create for himself and/or put pressure on the rim. 

(As a quick aside, a lot of people have mentioned that the Raptors should trade this pick for a veteran who is ready to help. However, until a guy like Bradley Beal or CJ McCollum becomes available in trade talks, that is a purely speculative exercise, and there isn’t anyone currently on the trade market that would move the needle for the Raptors). 

So, what should the Raptors do? How can they best balance the need to win right away with the need to get a high-upside player who can one day be a “guy”? 

The simple answer is to get lucky and be awarded with the No. 1 pick, select Cade Cunningham, and immediately have a starting quality point guard who can one day be a generational talent. Even No. 2 and Evan Mobley would give the Raptors an athletic defensive fulcrum and rim protector at the center position who is much more developed than Wiseman and has generational upside. But outside of the top two, it gets extremely tricky for the Raptors, and a more philosophical approach has to be considered when weighing the options.

For example, who would the Raptors prefer between Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs? Does the team want to double-down on defense and transition offence, the two biggest components of Nick Nurse-led teams, and draft Suggs? Or do they want to shoot for higher upside and draft a fairly raw, athletic offensive weapon — the type of player that the Raptors historically have not targeted — in Jalen Green? 

Maybe they want to truly double-down on defense and transition scoring and draft a defensive specialist such as Scottie Barnes or Kai Jones, giving them a three-headed monster frontcourt. 

Or do the Raptors want to fill the most significant holes on their roster by prioritizing offense and specifically event creation and rim pressure, taking someone like Keon Johnson, James Bouknight, or Josh Giddey? Those types of players would surely help the Raptors half-court offence, but would they be able to play winning basketball right away by making the right playmaking reads and playing defence at the level Nurse demands?

The other option is to prioritize a more developed player who is ready to contribute right away, such as 22-year-old Davion Mitchell or a pure 3-and-D player such as Moses Moody or Corey Kispert? Those players could fit into the type of role that OG Anunoby used to occupy, guarding wings and shooting spot-up threes, but they might never grow into the type of players that can have the ball in their hands and make plays.

However, as I mentioned at the top, the approach that I would argue for is to try to strike that balance between someone who can contribute right away and someone who can potentially develop into an offensive weapon who can solve some of the Raptors’ most fundamental issues in the future. PD Web recently made the argument that the Raptors should target Jaden Springer, the 6-foot-4, 18-year-old guard out of Tennessee, who can immediately be an impactful defender, shooter, and put some pressure on the rim, but has the tools to one day develop into a No. 1 offensive option. 

There are others who could strike this balance — Suggs, Green, and Giddey come to mind — but outside of the top four, you could argue that no player embodies the Raptors’ spirit as a tough, defensive, high-IQ player while still having enough upside to one day be great than Springer does. 

The Raptors have to get this pick right. They can’t afford to have what happened to the Golden State Warriors this past season happen to them, watching other great rookies contribute to winning teams while theirs struggled to find his footing in the NBA and hurts their on-court performance. As we saw with the Kawhi Leonard trade, there are other ways to obtain the type of player that puts you over the edge, but given their odds in this lottery and the opportunity at hand, this could be the Raptors best chance at landing that type of player for a long time coming, especially given their relative lack of assets to send out in a trade. 

A lot is riding on the Raptors’ 2021 first-round draft pick, but with Masai Ujiri at the helm, you can’t feel anything but confident that the Raptors will strike gold. 

 

For more Raptors’ draft coverage, check out the previous few episodes of “The Rap Up” on Youtube:

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