2020-21 Player Review: Malachi Flynn

Flynn flashed real scoring upside in his rookie season, but he had his work cut out for him in the trying 2020-21 season.

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Graphic via @88drewy on Instagram

This is part of a series of player review from the 2020-21 season. To find the remainder of the series, please click here.

Malachi Flynn was the 29th overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft and the Toronto Raptors’ first first-round selection since 2017, when they took OG Anunoby 23rd overall. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound point guard out of San Diego State came to the Raptors with three seasons of college experience, but the combination of having his senior season cut short due to COVID, no NBA summer league, and a shortened training camp meant that Flynn had his work cut out for him in his first NBA season.

While Flynn came to the Raptors after winning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in his senior season of college, his defence turned out to be even better than advertised. Using his small frame, quick foot-speed, and excellent footwork to maneuver around screens, Flynn made a name for himself by fighting over every screen and sticking to his man — usually a quick point guard — contesting shots or poking the ball out from behind. Screen navigation is one of the most important skills in modern defence, and it’s where Flynn excels. He also turned out to be a very smart help defender who is usually in the right place at the right time, switches when the scheme calls for it, and uses his quick hands to dig down on bigs, forcing 1.5 steals per 36 minutes. All in all, Flynn has a very high floor defensively, but adding strength to his frame should help him avoid getting stuck on screens and more effectively battle in the post. 

But Flynn struggled offensively out of the gate, showing a real hesitancy to shoot the three or dribble into tight spaces, allowing defences to take away passing lanes and making it hard for him to make plays for his teammates. Since he was uncomfortable shooting the three and rarely got to the rim, Flynn took a really tough diet of shots in his rookie season — including a lot of off-the-dribble mid-range jumpers — and couldn’t be trusted to do much on or off the ball, making it hard for him to earn head coach Nick Nurse’s trust early in the season.

That’s why Flynn was assigned to the Raptors’ G League affiliate Raptors 905 on February 3rd, where he got to have the ball in his hands and get into a rhythm, getting more comfortable playing against the size and speed of professional players and NBA schemes. In 6 games as a member of the 905, Flynn averaged 20.8 points on 44/41/92 shooting splits (on 7.3 three-pointers per game) along with 4.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 2.5 turnovers per game. The combination of Flynn dominating G League opponents (he was +5.3 per game) and an injury to Raptors’ point guard Kyle Lowry encouraged the Raptors to recall Flynn on February 18th, only to have him play two games before being sidelined due to health and safety protocols. Flynn missed the next 10 games before slowly working himself back into the mix. 

It’s already difficult to judge rookie point guards because the position is so hard to learn in the NBA, where the size of players and speed of the game are so extremely compared to college that it often takes young players years to adapt to the NBA game. Throw in the injury and COVID-riddled 2020-21 season, and it becomes even harder, especially considering we don’t even know if Flynn did in fact have COVID-19 or was just out due to contract tracing protocols. Fortunately, Flynn not only worked his way back into the rotation in late March but actually started 14 games down the stretch of the season when the Raptors decided to rest their core players, so we did get a good look at Flynn toward the end of the season, albeit in a much larger role than he was probably ready for. 

Flynn averaged 10.0 points on 39/35/82 shooting splits with 3.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.2 turnovers in 25.1 minutes per game in the 32 games he played since returning from health and safety protocols on March 19th. While the Raptors lost most of those games, Flynn was given a ton of room to grow and showed real signs of development as the season went along, looking more confident dribbling into tight spaces, shooting the three, isolating against mismatches, and getting his teammates involved. 

Flynn fits the Raptors’ mold of smart, solid players who don’t make a ton of mistakes. He has a very tight handle and knows how to operate out of the pick-and-roll, with an assist percentage of 22.6 while only turning the ball over on 8.0 percent of possessions, which ranks in the 91st percentile for his position. Sure, he is a risk-averse passer, especially when it comes to making skip passes, but he can thread the needle in the pick-and-roll with bounce passes or lobs to his rolling big-man, and his low turnover percentage is a welcomed sight for a rookie point guard who projects to run the bench as early as next season. 

It’s clear Flynn has a good feel for the game, as he is the type of player who is usually in the right place at the right time and makes the right read quickly when the ball comes to him. Unfortunately, Flynn struggled to stay engaged off the ball — sometimes standing around with his hands on his knees instead of relocating around the perimeter or setting off-ball screens — and didn’t maintain consistent form shooting catch-and-shoot threes, hitting just 34.6 percent of them, well below league average. His lack of off-ball preparedness also caused him to turn a ton of catch-and-shoot opportunities into pull-up threes due to the need to take a rhythm dribble, where he shot 31 percent. 

As I wrote for Sportsnet in my article about offseason improvements: “Aside from better understanding his teammates’ tendencies and being more active and prepared off the ball, Flynn should strengthen his core and improve his conditioning in order to better maintain form and repeatability in catch-and-shoot scenarios. Given the amount of other playmakers on the Raptors’ roster and the offensive system they run, Flynn needs to be a more effective off-ball player in order to maximize his potential on the offensive end.”

In terms of playmaking, Flynn is an average playmaker who makes the correct read quickly but doesn’t often manipulate a defence with look-aways or fakes, and fails to see over the defence due to his height, making it difficult for him to hit the weak side corner with skip passes or sometimes even make clean post-entry passes or lobs. Flynn has a hard time consistently find his teammates in advantageous positions when he is not running pick-and-roll, which is his bread-and-butter play and, even though the Raptors don’t run as much pick-and-roll as most teams, a team-high 41.5 percent of Flynn’s offence came via the pick-and-roll, where he scored 0.81 points per possession. I would compare him to Fred VanVleet in that regard, in terms of his upside being a good but not great playmaker.

But the real area for growth in Flynn’s game is his scoring. This might be a controversial take, but the area I see the highest upside for Flynn on this Raptors team is his ability to get a bucket, even more so than his playmaking. I don’t see him as a traditional point guard as much as I see him as a scoring threat off the bench (though if he is ever able to merge his scoring and playmaking effectively he will become a starting-level player). Part of that has to do with the roster around him, as the Raptors lack go-to scorers who can create their own bucket consistently, and while it will take Flynn time to get there if he ever does, I do see potential in that regard. 

The reason being, Flynn already has an elite handle, great burst, and a nice touch, and with enough spacing on the court he can dictate mismatches and take bigger, slower players off the dribble, easily getting to the hole or pulling up for three. It’s that isolation ability that the Raptors sorely lack, and while the Raptors will likely ask Flynn to be more of a creator than a scorer next season, his scoring upside is tantalizing, and he should be given some room to take advantage of self-creation opportunities. 

Aside from the ability to break down defenders at the point of attack, Flynn has a nice shooting stroke and a good enough handle and footwork to get to his spots. The problem last season was that Flynn struggled to finish, shooting 34 percent from three and 33 percent from the mid-range. Combine that with only getting to the rim on 19 percent of his shots (where he shot a decent 56 percent), and you understand how Flynn had a true shooting percentage of just 48.4 in his rookie season. 

Obviously, shooting needs to be a priority this offseason for Flynn. He might never be the type of player who can consistently get to the rim due to his lack of size and strength, but if he can capitalize on that mid-range area against drop-defences and hit catch-and-shoot threes at a respectable rate — especially if he can extend his range — his scoring effectiveness should go way up. He did shoot 36.3 percent from three on a tough diet of shots in his three college seasons, so there is reason to believe that his shooting will come around. 

The other real area for growth for Flynn is his pull-up shooting, as right now defenders can go under screens in the pick-and-roll and keep Flynn in front of them, making him and his teammates a lot easier to stop. However, if Flynn ever becomes a good pull-up shooter (which sometimes takes years to develop), defenders will need to chase him over screens, allowing him to get into the mid-range and play 2-on-1, where he has the ability to see how the defence plays it and make the right read almost every time, hitting mid-range shots, throwing lobs to his big, and getting his perimeter teammates involved. 

In conclusion, Flynn played like a rookie point guard in 2020-21. And that’s fine. You wouldn’t be blamed for looking around the league at some of the rookies taken after Flynn in the draft who had a bigger impact on their team this past season and feeling some type of way, but Flynn plays one of the hardest positions to learn in the NBA and he showed real growth throughout the season. He also flashed more off-the-dribble scoring upside than most young players tend to, so there are reasons to be optimistic. All in all, we’ll get a better idea of where Flynn fits on the Raptors next season when he should have a more normal season to showcase his skill set. 

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