MURPHY: As for your question, my philosophy is based around only being in the lottery once during what we’ll call this next contention window. Things would have to go very poorly — again, with some intent like 2020-21 — for the Raptors to not be a playoff team in the East with Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Anunoby and the depth pieces growing or incoming around them. That philosophical shift, though, is based at least in part on where the Raptors land in the draft lottery.
For example, at No. 1, there is no window consideration. Cunningham is a sure-fire top pick, and you’re selecting him whether you want someone to build around for five years down the line or who can be contributing to winning within a year or two.
Prospects Nos. 2-4 — and maybe even 2-5 depending on who you ask — all occupy the same tier. Within that tier, you can have preferences based on prospect, archetype, fit and timeline. I think it is sometimes overthinking things, even this high in the draft, to worry about how a prospect looks on the roster at the moment of the draft. Rookies take time, rosters are fluid and the Raptors will only have four players under guaranteed contract at the time of the draft, anyway. I personally lean Evan Mobley there, and that is partially based on how he profiles with the core over the next three years, but I’m also just high on him. Either Jalen — Green or Suggs — fills a scoring punch need, likely in a bench heater role to start.
It’s beyond that top group where the lottery-pick scarcity comes into play for me. I think there could be three camps in that meaty third tier, working with the assumption that the Raptors won’t have another lottery pick during the life of the VanVleet and Siakam deals:
• This is such a rare asset that you have to get utility out of it, so a prospect with a nearer-term developmental timeline who complements the existing core should be the preference.
• This is such a rare chance to find a ceiling-raising talent that you have to swing for the fences. Jakob Poeltl was a great pick who turned out to be the right one, fit the core, contributed and became a functional trade asset, but it’s ceiling-raisers, not floor-raisers, who break you free from the good-not-great fate this core could be headed for.
• You should shop the pick. Rookies are unpredictable and don’t often contribute to winning in the short-term, so the pick is most valuable as a means of acquiring someone ready to contribute now.
I think any of those positions is justifiable. I also think I’ve been pretty clear, in the early part of our draft coverage and over the years in general, that I’m in the second group. The Raptors are very adept at finding and developing undervalued players and turning them into rotation pieces, which is great. It’s here, in the lottery, where I want to know if they can do the same with a high-upside, lower-probability prospect like Keon Johnson, Kai Jones, Jalen Johnson, Sharife Cooper or Jaden Springer, to name a few. You’re going to see my rankings and analysis in that tier skew toward an 80th-percentile outcome rather than a 50th-percentile one.
With free agency coming up, Birch understands that he has controlled what he could and soon it will be time to let the chips fall where they may. Freddie Gillespie showed promise in a backup role as well and Nurse is encouraged by what both could potentially bring to the table if given the opportunity next season.
“I feel pretty good about who they are and their development,” Nurse said. “I’m not all the way there yet, they need to have good summers. They need to have a good fall. I think with our development people and our coaching staff, they will. I see tremendous upside in both of them. Khem shows you flashes of all kinds of stuff. Can we get some of those flashes to be a little more frequent? Just drives to the basket, offensive rebounds that turn into dunks.
“With that kind of stuff, you’re like, ‘Wow, Khem, where did that come from?’ We need that to be part of who he is rather than flashes. We need to see more of that.”
It is fascinating that a player who has bounced around a little bit and is approaching free agency is unbothered by the uncertainty. Birch credits a lot of it to his mother, who—in addition to running her own podcast Courtside Moms—has always maintained the focus on being the best basketball player he can be and not necessarily setting the NBA as a target and measuring success accordingly. Birch can remember wanting to just have fun as a kid and his mom pushing him to go tournaments away from home, constantly challenging him to get better due to the belief that the best way to do so was to play. And what he appreciates about the Raptors and Nurse is that the only way you play is if you do it the right way.
“It’s funny because you can get subbed out for not making the right play, you can score but you can get subbed out for the wrong play,” Birch said. “Coach Nurse doesn’t like that type of stuff.”
With the Raptors ending their seven-year playoff run, Birch will have the opportunity to learn more about what Nurse wants and how he can further tap into his potential when Canada’s Senior Men’s National Team plays their Olympic Qualifying Tournament beginning June 29 in Victoria, BC. Birch has assured that barring a freak injury he has every intention of participating and helping the men’s team to its first Olympic berth since 2000. He’s already accepted a training camp invite.
Whether he’s chosen, whether he re-signs with the Raps, whether Canada qualifies, it can all be up in the air, but as long as Birch is playing basketball somewhere, he is happy to make the most of the opportunity given to him.
At 28 years old, what’s next for Boucher is kind of difficult to predict. Essentially most NBAers peak in their late-20s and while Boucher fit into his role with the Raptors this past season to almost near perfection, the key now will be for him to improve his IQ and court awareness — and also recover from his knee injury.
The MCL that cut Boucher’s season short is one to watch for with a 6’9”, 200-pound athlete. We can’t forget it was the same left knee in which Boucher suffered a torn ACL in his final season with Oregon. And as a result, he announced via Twitter that he won’t be joining Team Canada in Tokyo this summer for the Olympics to rehab the knee — which is a loss for the Men’s National Team.
It’s also easy to forget that Boucher didn’t start playing organized basketball until the age of 19. To say he’s peaked isn’t fair to him and what more he can do on both sides of the basketball court.
If Boucher can add muscle to his frame in the offseason, it’ll help him finish stronger at the rim and possibly lead to more trips to the charity stripe. Boucher averaged only 3.2 trips to the line.
Boucher mentioned in his post-season media conference that watching clips of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam play and defend the four is one area he’ll specifically focus on. While the Raptors have been known for some small-ball play as of late, being able to use Boucher at the four and go with bigger lineups will help in certain matchup scenarios.
Overall, it has been a long journey for Boucher. He’s gone from a high school drop-out to going undrafted and being released after one year with the Warriors, and then finally getting an opportunity with the Raptors both in the G League and in the NBA. Boucher has found his game in the NBA after a career-season and will once again play an important role for the Raptors next year.
Unfortunately, while those skills were present, Johnson’s shooting still really wasn’t. Sure, he set career highs for three-point shooting, and effective field-goal percentage, it’s just they both still kind of stunk — those marks came in at a modest 33.1 percent (excluding half-court heaves), and 49.1 percent, respectively. Cleaning The Glass notes that the former ranks Johnson in the bottom third in the league for forwards, while the latter puts him in the 18th-percentile.
Oh, and remember how I said Johnson was good at getting fouled? He almost totally neutered that skill by being putrid at finishing through contact — completing the and-1 less than half the time — a rate that was in the 26th-percentile for his position.
Like much of Johnson’s presence on the court, there’s still a bright spot to consider here. There is indeed a glimmer of hope that Johnson’s shooting could still come around: he hit a healthy 80 percent of his free throws.
At the end of the day, despite playing in 61 games for the Raptors in 2020-21, Johnson rarely got a chance to show what he might be capable of. Johnson barely topped the thousand-minute mark for the season and, as I mentioned in my Raptors season wrap-up, when he was on the floor he seemed very hesitant to try to force any action — posting per-minute lows in almost every category across the ball.
At this stage of his career it feels that while Johnson has done enough on defense to earn a league-minimum deal somewhere, the best move might be to head to Europe and see if he can find a higher-usage role that would allow him to hone, and then showcase those diverse skills.
Even with a small sample size with the main club, I believe Jalen Harris has shown enough to compete for a full roster spot next season. Still, there’s no guarantee that he’ll get a standard contract. At the very least, he showed that he deserves a second two-way contract. Much like Flynn, Harris is not a raw 19-year-old prospect, so there’s not quite the same upside to playing in the G League next season. Perhaps the Raptors can send him to the G League to play as the 905’s starting point guard to work on his playmaking skills and hopefully parlay a good campaign into a standard contract, like what happened to Chris Boucher.
Another 905 stint might still be in the cards, but I believe Harris needs a step up in competition for him to take his game to the next level. Even with the few games that we’ve seen, it looks like he can hang with the big boys if the Raptors are willing to invest in him. Still, we know that at least two of VanVleet, Lowry, Gary Trent Jr., and Flynn will be around next season, and they would eat most of Toronto’s guard minutes.
And now, a note of caution. At best, despite our optimism, Harris may only be a part-time 7th or 8th man in the Raptors’ rotation. His ability to play off-ball, be an instant source of offense, and his knack for efficient shooting (over his last nine games at 63.2 EFG%) are encouraging.
Harris needs to work on his decision-making with the ball — he was a bit loose with it once his usage went up. Defensively, he’ll always play the passing lane, looking for opportunities to dig, but as an on-ball defender, Harris will need to be better if he wants consistent playing time from coach Nick Nurse. Harris needs to get into his stance better and better use his lateral quickness to stay in front of opponents.
Offensively, Harris can get in trouble if he gets funnelled into a crowd. He’ll need some counters, as eventually his moves will get scouted as he plays more. Right now, his game is the mirror image of lefties, where he almost always go right and extreme right. Another area of improvement is releasing his perimeter shot faster and hitting perimeter shots within less than ideal parameters. Harris’ shot looks good right now because he’s catching the ball with a lot of space. As the fourth or fifth offensive option, that’s fine — but if he wants to be an effective scorer in the NBA, he’ll need to be able to shoot under duress.
Harris has a big summer ahead of him. He should have a good idea of what works and what needs refinement among the tools in his bag. Physically, Harris will likely need to get stronger now so he can endure the bumps offensively and defensively. What we’ve seen so far, though, suggests he’s capable of more at the NBA level. And in all, Harris might be ready to parlay his two-way contract into a full one next season.