A word, a blurb on every Toronto Raptor before the season – Part 1

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Photo from Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

A new cast of characters to join the old. Getting younger, while trying to jury rig upward momentum against the rising tide of the NBA.

There are gains to be made in the margins for end of rotation players in pre-season games. Yuta Watanabe gained ground on Oshae Brissett (and eventually surpassed him in the eyes of the organization) on the strength of his pre-season last year. For the most part though, the pre-season is an opportunity to see the draftees a couple months into their NBA training regimens, to ogle at returning players who are bursting with potential (see Anunoby, OG), and to witness your teams All-Stars grace the hardwood once again. All fun stuff!

So, consider this a data dump of sorts to catch you up on the team this year. These are ready made packets of analysis and wisdom you can take directly to the water cooler, your friends, and perhaps even your enemies (make them feel stupid and small with your nuanced Fred VanVleet takes). Enjoy!

Pascal Siakam

The Raptors best player. There’s a case to be made that Fred VanVleet was the Raptors best player in last years season from hell, but no one on the roster has reached the peaks that Siakam has – and will hopefully return to. One of the NBA’s best defensive problem solvers with his nearly unparalleled court coverage on that end. A dynamo who can fit into a multitude of different defensive schemes, and while there really isn’t a true 1-5 defender in the NBA, Siakam has been the primary defender on the likes of John Wall and Russell Westbrook in the past, and he can approximate the defensive worth of a center in help-side rotation and rim contests, although he gets bludgeoned on the glass and in post-up situations. He’s a remarkable defender, and one of All-Defense quality.

Offensively, Siakam has been toggling between a few different points of attack. He’s a more varied scorer than most of his frontcourt contemporaries, and with an extremely high burden of creation. A nightmarish bubble performance on offense, a COVID case, and a torn labrum has put a severe brake-check on Siakam’s incredible championship, MIP, max contract star-turn. With all that said, Siakam still sleepwalks to 21-7-5 (plus that great defense) and he did that while navigating minutes next to Mario Kart Thwomp: Aron Baynes, plugging up any semblance of a driving lane available to him, and fumbling countless gifted layups. The plugged paint, mixed with a severe drop in Siakam’s 3-point efficiency introduced awkward decision making stretches. And regarding Siakam’s 3-pointer, the Raptors are clearly tinkering with it. I’m more inclined to buy the 580 shot sample at 36-percent, rather than the 250 shot sample at 30-percent.

(I’m sorry Aron, you’re a good man, but you made it tough on our guy.)

Many routes to success are still untapped for Siakam. Most notably, his pick n’ roll possessions which have been returning positive numbers for 2 seasons now. Hopefully Nurse invites a little more ingenuity into Siakam packages this year. Asking him to isolate at a similarly prolific level as guys like DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Durant isn’t really tenable. Some horns sets from last year with the trio of Kyle Lowry, VanVleet, and Siakam stand out as a good baseline to introduce opportunities for Siakam to attack a defense in motion.

Is Siakam the guy? Probably not. There’s maybe 6 of those guys in the NBA. Is he good enough that you can win a championship with him on the team and earning a max contract? Yes. He’ll miss the start of the season – how long, we don’t know exactly – but, when he returns the Raptors will be bringing an All-Star caliber player back into the fold.

Fred VanVleet

A “catch-all metrics” superstar. VanVleet’s uncanny ability to win minutes when he’s on the floor is absolutely Lowry-esque. An excellent quality to have as he continues to try and carve out a role as a lead guard on a winning team. Another member of the Raptors who can contest for an All-Defense selection year in and year out. Few players in the NBA can track off-ball as well as VanVleet. His screen-craft, defensive reads, stout physical disposition, and heavy (HEAVY) hands make him a particularly bothersome defender at the point of attack and on dig downs.

Offensively, he’s always been at his best playing off of the ball. He deserves a lot of credit for what he’s added to his offensive game, though. Nash-ing the pick n’ roll, the pocket pass to diving and popping bigs, sprayed passes to 3-point shooters, and more brash pull-ups are excellent additions for one of the NBA’s best catch-and-shoot operators. However, the limitations of a player like VanVleet who doesn’t provide rim-pressure himself, and isn’t an all-time passer who finds passing lanes no one else sees, were well on display with the drought-ridden Raptors. Teams rarely have to break the shell of their defense to account for him. VanVleet can create run of the mill shots for teammates, but very little of the highest quality looks. A VanVleet-led offense is an open acceptance of high variance.

A player who defends like a calculated villain, shoots the hell out of the ball, and falls short on creating advantages at the same level as other stars in the NBA is still a very good player. Not to mention, VanVleet is by all accounts the vocal leader of the Raptors locker room and is continuously one of the most thoughtful speakers in the NBA.

OG Anunoby

A bright, shining beacon of hope for the Raptors. Similar to Siakam, Anunoby is punching up at the vaunted “defends 1-5” label, and it’s only the most brutish aspects of center play that leave you wanting. Otherwise, Anunoby can harass the most explosive ball handlers in the league, suppresses shot attempts from stars like few other players, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a player less reliant on help-side defense behind him. The most impressive defender on the roster, and a guy who could really nab a DPOY before he hangs up his sneakers.

Even though it’s been a slow climb, Anunoby has ratcheted up his offensive usage while maintaining high efficiency. He’s the most tantalizing player on the roster for his combination of shooting touch, overwhelming physical prowess, and defense. We’re all left to wonder what Anunoby’s career might look like with a burst of usage and the continued creep of progression he’s been on. With Siakam out to start the year, Anunoby should be asked to take on a significant offensive role, and if he pops the ceiling of this Raptors team climbs a little bit higher.

As far as the indicators for creation go, Anunoby has a few things working in his favor. He is an absolute load to handle at the rim (shooting 76-percent within 3-feet), his assist-percentage has climbed steadily each year, and he’s shown that he can find relocating shooters and players sliding into the dunker spot when the defense is rotating against him. While his true pull-up game is low volume and efficiency – a pound dribble and side-step counts as a pull-up per NBA (dot) com, but that isn’t the type of pull-up that would ever help shape how a defense guards him as a primary – he’s shot well enough from three and the free throw line that it’s absolutely worth it to see what the reps return for him.

And if nothing shakes out? Not a single improvement? Then he’s just an All-NBA defender, 40-percent 3-point shooter, and the best cutter on the Raptors, on what is one of the best contracts in the NBA. Can’t lose with Anunoby.

Goran Dragic

Despite all of the awkwardness of the situation with Goran Dragic, he appears to be suiting up for the Raptors on opening night and will absolutely be one of the best players on the roster. With the ball in Dragic’s hand the Raptors will be able to direct more of their offense towards the hoop because of his penchant for getting there, finishing there, and forcing rotations from the defense. Few players have more patience and guile – Raptors fans should be well aware of those qualities given Lowry’s tenure – in the middle of the floor.

He’s never been known for his 3-point shooting, but he’s teased a lot of attempts out of himself the past few years (1300) and found decent efficiency (.375-percent). While true shooting gravity and floor spacing might be an everchanging landscape, Dragic does his part from downtown. I wouldn’t expect a heavy dose of drag screens into pull-ups or flares into catch and shoot opportunities, but teams won’t be able to sag off.

Defensively, he’s clever at the point of attack, but that’s not really his bag. His feel for where to be and what to deny in team concepts on the defensive end is where he’s above average. Dragic is very comfortable in a zone defense, and particularly in the inverted zone that the Heat have famously run the past couple years – which might be something the Raptors try out given the influx of length on the roster.

I’d put big money down that the Raptors best five-man-unit features ‘The Dragon’.

Gary Trent Jr. 

With the Scottie Barnes pick, and the Kyle Lowry trade, the re-signing of Trent Jr. was somewhat under the radar. Lost in the shuffle of the Raptors reported shift to ‘all length everywhere’ as a team-building philosophy (VanVleet excluded, of course), Trent Jr. inked a 3-year deal with a player option on the third year (16M, 17.28M, 18.56M). Trent Jr. is one of the better players on the Raptors roster at creating his own shot, but that’s more so an indictment of the Raptors roster than it is a seal of approval for Trent Jr.

Relegated almost exclusively to the mid-range and beyond, Trent Jr. is extremely reliant on his shooting. The good news for him is that he can shoot the ball well, albeit with extreme swings in either direction from game to game. In the 8 games following his absolutely torrid 44-point performance (17-19 shooting!!!) he shot 32-percent from the floor and 29-percent from downtown. With all that said, there’s numerous actions the Raptors run for him that spring his 3-point shot and the 3-point shot is king in the NBA.

If the Raptors are banking on ‘GTJ’ taking over more offensive possessions as an initiator, things might get hairy. Numbers, eye test, whatever, there’s very little to suggest he’ll ever get to the rim, draw free throws or pass at even an average level. If they’re looking to supercharge his 3-point shooting and use him as a meaningful floor spacer in transition and half-court sets, then I think he could end up shooting well enough to be a positive offensively. He shoots it well enough to generate meaningful closeouts, and can dance around those into open space.

Trent Jr.’s defensive reputation probably exceeds its potency at this moment in time. No one should be writing his defense off, but he was no doubt a negative on that end with the Raptors. Missed rotations, toothless help, and sporadic bursts of manic isolation defense were the story of his first bundle of games with the Raptors. Caveats apply, though. The Raptors run a complex defense relative to the NBA (and especially the Blazers) and other good defenders have been vexed when trying to fit in. With a full training camp and preseason ahead of him, Trent Jr. has an opportunity to make a leap with the Raptors on that end of the floor.

Still young, but lofty responsibilities have been set on his shoulders and he’ll be paid handsomely to carry them as his burden. We’ll see.

Chris Boucher

Whether you’re a Boucher-optimist, Boucher-pessimist, or Trebuchet enthusiast, one thing is clear: Chris Boucher had a hell of an offensive season in 20-21. Bordering on absurd at times, Boucher put up 51/38/79 shooting splits on huge volume for a bench big. Most importantly though, is the context with which he let the ‘TreBoucher’ fly. Pin-downs, flares, the trail man in transition, Boucher was flinging the ball at the net. That shot-making pop was the lifeblood of impoverished Raptors bench units, and couldn’t be replicated by a single soul on the roster. This year, same as last, he figures to be the Raptors most potent pick n’ roll big, where he’ll stretch them out to the 3-point line as a shooter, and generate frantic back-line rotations as a rim-runner.

There’s no guarantee that Boucher can emulate just how nutty his season was from downtown last year, but his offensive utility is undeniable even if it takes a healthy dip.

The defense is a tale of mountains and valleys. Few players in the NBA can go-go-gadget into plays like Boucher can, and that creates a mind-numbing highlight reel of defensive plays. If you observed defense solely through that medium, he could very well equal Giannis Antetokounmpo in your eyes. Truthfully though, Boucher is still oscillating between positive and negative on that end too often. The skyscraping blocks out at the 3-point line operate as excellent exclamation points, but more often than not the ‘scheme preparedness’ that plagued the Raptors defense last year can be identified most easily with Boucher leaping out of bounds while players smoothly sidestep him. He can still look lost in the middle of the Raptors defense, and he’s surrendering some pounds with most he battles with. Boucher has been battling to control his chaos on the defensive end of the floor, and every positive step he takes with that makes him a demonstrably better defender because of his physical gifts.

If the Raptors are down and out near the trade deadline, Boucher is the type of guy that 12-16 teams could be sniffing around on. He’s good!

Thanks for reading!

Part 2 will be headlined by the tantalizing rookie, Scottie Barnes. It should be out Wednesday.

Have a blessed day.

 

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