The Toronto Raptors lose at Summer League, but the vision is starting to take shape

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The Toronto Raptors’ Summer League team has an identity, and it’s fearsome. They’re longer than long, as if the team figured out how to play five Bruno Caboclos on the court at the same time. They fly around the court, contesting everything, packing the paint, and still finding ways to recover to shooters and drive them off the line directly into the scrum.

Toronto’s collection of guard-wings in Ish Wainright, David Johnson, Justin Champagnie, and Dalano Banton were terrific at deflecting the ball.

“If you’re in the right place,” said Banton after the game, “they’ll throw the ball to you.”

With such incredible length, Toronto didn’t need to do too much on defense, trusting its locations and ability to shut down the lanes. Champagnie in particular had some highlights, as he tracked down layups and swatted them off the glass, but the entire group showed their length and strength on the defensive end. Jonathan Kuminga proved tough to wrangle, but the Raptors did a (mostly) good job of staying physical with him.

“The first thing is get stops and run,” said coach Patrick Mutombo after the game of his team’s offensive philosophy with such a wing-heavy lineup. “We don’t want to run a lot of set plays offensively.”

Toronto did get stops and run, but every basket can’t be scored in transition. The defense did them proud early, even if it didn’t build a lead. But they were hanging in there.

Well, for the first half anyway. As the game aged, Toronto’s frenetic defensive style took a toll on its players, and their energy waned. The score grew out of reach. Toronto’s off-ball defenders started sinking too far into the lane without recourse to recover to shooters.

Even though the defense became ugly, it never rivaled the sloppiness of the offense. The Raptors committed unforced turnovers, missed lobs, airballed jumpers, and had little connectivity together. Johnson and Champagnie threw a number of layups at the bottom of the rim after making nice moves to get there in the first place. All that’s normal and fine — nothing to worry about, especially in Summer League. The only player that Toronto has drafted in the last few years who can be considered an offensive creator is Malachi Flynn, and he had one of his worst games in a Raptors’ jersey. Without him keeping things organized, Toronto struggled.

The Raptors did get some points from Precious Achiuwa, who showed extend-o arms on his hook. On one play early in the third, he made a guard play in driving from outside the arc to lay it in. That sparked an Achiuwa-led run that saw him score in the post and on the fastbreak. He grabbed rebounds and pushed the pace. It looked like Barnes might pull Toronto back to close the quarter. His highlight came as he dribbled into the post and hit a turnaround 10-footer. He followed it up with a scream.

But Golden State started hitting shots, and Toronto’s halfcourt woes came back to bite them. The big club has creators in Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam who can steer the halfcourt through the storms. But the Summer League squad has to subsist on defensive energy, and Flynn domination, alone. Without either for stretches, these Raptors will falter.

Player notes:

  • Achiuwa was great on the defensive end. Summer League defense is always easier, but his motor really stood out as a disruptive force. He had an incredible block while drifting to his right after hanging with a driver. He switched onto guards, shut down the glass, and was wonderful altogether. I was critical of his defense in my breakdown of Toronto’s center rotation, so it was nice to be proved wrong. He’ll have to prove it in a real game, of course, but a very positive thing to see. That’s without even mentioning his offense — all in all, he was Toronto’s best in this one.
  • Flynn played like he knew he was too good for Summer League in the first game, and so thought he could do it without trying. He never got a rhythm and threw up his usual shots but without creating any separation first Rough outing for Flynn, who really is the only player on Toronto’s roster who can create offense for his teammates. He hit some shots late during a fake comeback, which means he’s a true Raptor, but he was off here. Nothing to worry about. We know he can dominate Summer League.
  • Scottie Barnes hit the first three he attempted, and he talked his talk immediately afterwards. He’s now 2-for-2 on talking about making triples. Love that. He airballed his next one — who cares. When he got into the lane, fouls more or less meant he couldn’t get a decent attempt at the rim at all — he’ll need to add some strength to become more effective through contact. He does, to his credit, draw a lot of fouls. When he didn’t have open lanes, he tried to crash through defenders and got called for offensive fouls — that’s the wrong type of strength. So his offense is still a work in progress. But that’s what Toronto picked; the Raptors knew his offense needed more development than many of the other players picked in the lottery. They picked him for his ceiling, not for his ability to contribute in the present. To that point, Barnes’ defense was to the Warriors what Marc Gasol used to be to Joel Embiid.
  • Johnson showed off some range! He’s very toolsy and a better defender and passer than shooter, so seeing him can his first one — deeeep behind the line — was encouraging.
  • Freddie Gillespie had a rough outing in the little things. Got outrebounded, found himself out of position, and didn’t contribute on the offensive end. But — and a big but here — he had one of the biggest blocks of the game, absolutely meeting a Warrior above the rim. That’s Gillespie’s strongest contribution, and it’s good to see him impact the game with his blocking.
  • Saving one of the other brightest spots for Toronto to the end, Banton was incredible. He’s listed at six-foot-eight or six-foot-nine depending on where you look, meaning he’s more or less tied as the tallest player on the team. For real: the Raptors have eight players listed at six-foot-nine. None, however, are guards like Banton. He led Toronto in rebounds against Golden State, with 12, and he also led the team with three assists. He often found himself in the right place, and even though he at times couldn’t wiggle through defensive cracks, he still managed to be a positive force. He’s an absolute Swiss Army Knife of versatility.

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