Fiercer Raptors Practices Will Pay Dividends

Ishmail Wainright, Dalano Banton and Scottie Barnes will provide ample competition in practice.

I was rummaging through some summer league box scores and noticed that Malachi Flynn shot 41.4% from three on 7.3 attempts in summer league. During the regular season he shot 32.1% on 3.6 attempts. Leaving the quality of competition caveat aside, this is a marked improvement for a guy whose main criticism last year was lack of perimeter shooting. There are minutes freed up with Kyle Lowry’s departure, and the two guard candidates are Flynn and Goran Dragic. I don’t see why the Raptors would invest in Dragic other than to bump his trade value so I would imagine Dragic isn’t taking all of Lowry’s minutes. Nick Nurse could decide to distribute the Lowry minutes away form diminutive guards and instead give guys like Scottie Barnes or Dalano Banton some light point guard duties, but there’s still spillover there. I would expect Flynn’s minutes to increase from 19.7 to somewhere around the 23-25 range quite easily, giving him ample opportunity to stake his claim. However, he could get squeezed out depending on our commitment to length-and-strength.

Two voids left by Lowry’s departure translate to two open questions for the Raptors. Who will supply the leadership and who will supply the playmaking. Manny covered how Fred VanVleet is poised to take over the leadership responsibilities and the general consensus around playmaking is that it’ll be by committee (what with all these point forwards we’re trying to manufacture). In this context Flynn is an interesting option because he is a playmaker of the traditional mold that is closer to a one-for-one replacement for Lowry than anything the Raptors have. He’s a solid ball handler, very good on-ball defender and though his playmaking is currently questionable, it needs the fuel of NBA minutes to improve. Those minutes are dependent on the organization’s pledge toward the length-and-strength experiment because Flynn is neither. This is where Flynn could lose minutes despite being “deserving” of them.

These can be classified as a nice problem to have because competition within a team is critical, and this Raptors squad will have some animated practice sessions to say the least. Take for example Pascal Siakam and Ishmail Wainright. How many times in the last two years did you see Pascal Siakam get absolutely out-muscled and overpowered by a smaller player? Could that be because he’s going up against slighter bench guys like Yuta Watanabe in practice but seeing something a lot better in games? I don’t know, but it’s not an unreasonable hypotheses. Enter a guy like Wainright who is built like a tank and has the center of gravity of a Neutron Star, and suddenly practices become more challenging, leading to better game preparation.

Toronto fans have vivid memories of Jayson Tatum navigating over Fred VanVleet to pick apart the Raptors in the playoffs. Enter Dalano Banton. This here is a 6’9″ specimen who can handle the ball and is liable to terrorize VanVleet in practice. How much of a tall, lanky and effective playmaker has VanVleet or Flynn seen in practice last year? Not much, and it’s reasonable to assume that this prepares them for the real games much better. Some of these signings may not get a lot of playing time, but they’re hungry enough to want playing time and would be willing to make a meal out of the starters in practice to get it.

Let’s do one more. Scottie Barnes. It’s well established that OG Anunoby is probably the Raptors strongest wing player and Pascal Siakam the most offensively talented. The length and physicality that Barnes brings to the table can disrupt both the Raptors key players and push their games further out. He’ll be able to contest them in face-up and post situations which should harden them both. In fact, when you look at any of the new guys in Wainright, Banton and Barnes, they may just end up making just as big an impact indirectly be elevating the games of the Raptors key players, than they might facing real competition.

This obviously isn’t anything profoundly new and more like common sense, but it’s not often we talk about practice matchups and how they influence game play. This is especially true of younger players who may be lulled into a sense of complacency by dominating practices only to be surprised at 7:30 PM EST. Part of a rebuild effort is to have consistency in effort and focus throughout the rebuild as not everything will be about winning games. We aren’t the Lakers who might see the regular season as something to coast through so they arrive at the playoffs healthy. For the Raptors, the cobblestones of the rebuild are laid in the regular season, often behind closed doors.