The Toronto Raptors looked to be in mid-season form in their 2020-21 Summer League debut against the New York Knicks, leading the entire game and winning on the back of their defense, 89-79.
They looked similar to the real Raptors team that many of us expect to see this upcoming season: big, long, athletic, and on a string defensively, with the ability to recover for each other and protect the rim without a traditional rim protector. In fact, holding a Knicks team that was favoured to win Summer League and has two offensive weapons in Immanuel Quickly and Obi Toppin to just 79 points is extremely impressive. They also looked similar in that their offense was shaky at times, especially in the half court where Malachi Flynn was the only one consistently creating advantages.
But what really makes this Raptors team stand out, as corny as it might sound, is how hard they play. When it came to focusing on the task at hand and competing for loose balls and rebounds, the Raptors outworked the Knicks from the jump. And it starts with the No. 4 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Scottie Barnes.
Say what you will about Barnes — he struggles to shoot, he doesn’t touch the paint on drives, he wears braces — but his character was clearly a big reason the Raptors jumped at the opportunity to select him, and it was evident in his first professional basketball game. Barnes brought the energy from the start, with the first play of the game being a lob to Barnes that immediately showcased the newfound athletic identity that this team is made up of. And what sticks out about Barnes is his ability to make his presence felt on the court at all times. Watching the Raptors with Barnes, you never wonder: where is he? What is he doing right now? He is everywhere while still playing within the confines of team basketball, and his high-feel is what allows him to do that, with the veteran-like quality of balancing his own offence with that of his teammates, dishing out five assists on the night.
What impressed me most about Barnes offensively was his confidence shooting the ball both from beyond the arc and the mid-range. After his first three-point attempted air-balled, I wondered if he would hesitate next time around and turn down open looks. Instead, he shot four threes and made one of them, while showcasing a versatile array of shots inside the arc including mid-range pull-ups from the elbow that are impossible to contest due to his high release point, a running floater, post-ups, and offensive rebound put-backs.
On defense, Barnes is ready to play in the NBA. He was constantly tasked with guarding two defenders either on the weak-side or in the main action as part of a ball-screen, and he moves well enough for someone his size to cover a ton of ground and play the cat-and-mouse game effectively. More importantly, he is usually in the perfect position to nullify actions defensively, and he moves his feet to stay in front of players and deflect balls. He has such a big frame and wingspan that as long as he is in the right position, offensive players will be hesitant to go at him. He also sprinted back after turnovers in order to get contests and protected the rim and rebounded really well for someone his size, which should bode well for his ability to play the small-ball five in the future.
It’s no wonder Barnes was a +11 with 18 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, 2 steals and a block in his debut.
“He’s talented, a lot of potential. I love his desire to win. I love his willingness to listen and also say ‘my bad’ or encourage his teammates,” Raptors Summer League head coach Patrick Mutombo said about Barnes. “There’s a lot of work to do with him but, man, it’s exciting the potential he has”
While Barnes was the defensive fulcrum of the Raptors, it was Flynn that carried them offensively from start to finish. And he did it with a newfound confidence, one we had started to see come along towards the end of last season but never really sustained itself.
Similar to Barnes, Flynn managed to balance his own scoring with his playmaking at a really veteran level against the Knicks, getting his teammates touches early on and, after seeing his center and pick-and-roll partner Freddie Gilelspie struggle, adjusted by taking over the game himself with 23 points on 8-13, including 4-5 made three-pointers. Speaking of his threes, Flynn has increased his range, looking confident shooting from a few feet outside the arc, which is huge for small guards. He also looked great shooting off the dribble, which should go a long way towards putting pressure at the rim, though in this game the lane was so clogged due to poor spacing that Flynn couldn’t really attack.
Flynn outplayed Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley by a decent margin, and if he can do that against similar guards in the regular season, that could change the trajectory of the Raptors and their bench. As of right now, the Raptors project to have a really fast and athletic bench that remains raw in terms of offensive talent in the half court. But if Flynn can organize them like he did against the Knicks while carrying the scoring load on most nights, the Raptors’ young bench could be a problem.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) August 8, 2021
One thing I would like to see more of next game is pick-and-rolls between Flynn and Barnes as the roll man. Those two need to develop a chemistry together on the offensive end, and I’d like to see what Barnes can do on the roll. We know that he can pass out of the short roll and get up for lobs, and with his ability to pop out for three adding another dimension to his ball-screen game, it’s worth seeing what he can do in those positions. Especially if Gillespie is going to continue to struggle and/or Precious Achiuwa is not ready to play.
In general, the Raptors offense was good enough to beat the Knicks, but the Knicks also didn’t make it particularly hard. They struggled to stay in front of Raptors’ players and didn’t rotate over when their teammates got beat, leading to a lot of open threes, which the Raptors shot 42.4 percent on. The Golden State Warriors should be a better test in that regard on August 11th, with Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, and 905 guard Gary Payton II projecting to make the Raptors work much harder for buckets in the half-court, when we should get an even better idea of Flynn’s leap and Barnes’ ability to create offense against tougher opponents.
It's impossible to not smile watching Scottie Barnes pic.twitter.com/sKUak02JC2
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) August 8, 2021
- Freddie Gillespie had a night to forget, shooting 1-9 from the field and blowing really good looks on the roll and after offensive boards. Look for Precious Achiuwa to start next game, as he is the more accomplished player. But it might have just been a case of first-game jitters and not a whole lot of 5-on-5 ball for Gillespie, and he should be better moving forward.
- Matt Morgan and Justin Champagnie lit the Knicks up from beyond the arc, each shooting 4-7 from three. That scoring off the bench was pivotal for the Raptors and it will be moving forward for a roster that doesn’t have a whole lot of spacing. Maybe one of them will even be moved into the starting lineup, but if not, there’s always an online casino they can try their hands at.
- Dalano Banton and David Johnson (who just signed a two-way contract with the Raptors) can clearly both play defense. They are both long and quick laterally, they play hard and sprint back after turnovers, and they are smart defenders who rotate to cover for their teammates’ mistakes. Still, the offense remains a work in progress, as they aren’t good enough shooters to be very effective off-ball or good enough ball-handlers/playmakers to demand lots of reps on the ball, especially with Flynn and Barnes in the fold. In fact, Banton had five turnovers in this one, including some really silly passes that were never going to make it to their teammates, so they will have to work to coach Mutombo to figure out how to be best utilized in the Raptors’ system.