A word, a blurb on every Toronto Raptor before the season – Part 2

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A continuation of Part 1. Scottie Barnes, Yuta Watanabe, plus more.

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 Scottie Barnes takes). Enjoy!

Scottie Barnes

An effervescent bundle of energy, enthusiasm, and length. The #4 overall pick from the 2021 draft, a funkfest out of Florida State, Scottie Barnes. He is going to be off-beat, syncopated, and strange this year as he acclimates to the NBA. It’s why Coach Nick Nurse cited playing time as the benchmark to evaluate Barnes’ success with (the Raptors org will obviously go much deeper, as will I, but if he’s playing a lot it means they’re liking a lot of what they’re seeing) the team, as opposed to any type of counting stats – which is kind of an antiquated way to evaluate anyway.

“His role is going to be huge, I’m sitting here from Day 1 to give him as many minutes and reps that he can handle. I think his impact of defending, rebounding, running, spirit, enthusiasm and size get him in the mix early and often. He’ll stay in there often and late.” – Nick Nurse

The early returns of Barnes’ game should be seen with two things: Defense, the kind that could land him on multiple All-Defense teams, and a serious playmaking bent. I wouldn’t buy too much into the ‘Scottie Barnes, point guard defender’ narrative, because defending Jaheam Cornwall from Gardner-Webb is worlds apart from lining up opposite of, say, De’Aaron Fox. Barnes will no doubt switch out onto a great deal of ball-handlers though, and while everyone gives up blow-bys, Barnes will stonewall his fair share. He’ll scram-switch guys out of trouble, track across the back line of the defense for steals and bothersome help-side rotations, and detonate pick n’ rolls in a similar fashion to ‘Heatles Chris Bosh’. There’s just a lot of fascinating defensive applications in his future. Scouts I trust see him as closer to a court coverage dynamo (think Pascal Siakam) than they do to a 1-on-1 lockdown guy (erm, OG Anunoby), but projections are never definitive. More than anything, he has the length, defensive feel, and motor to cast a wide web of possible outcomes and they all appear overwhelmingly positive.

For his playmaking, it isn’t that Barnes exhibits elite touch as a shooter that bends defenses out of shape, or a tight handle to get anywhere he wants on the floor, it’s that he makes consistent high quality reads while in motion. Defenses move according to what advantages offenses create, and when the pocket, the lane, the asymmetrical lapse presents itself, Barnes can pass his teammates directly into buckets. An assist-rate of 31-percent coming out of his freshman year, with a wide array of different passes (and contexts for them) being made, Barnes had some scouts rating him as one of the best ‘big man’ passing prospects of the last decade.

Raptors fans should be well aware of the contrasting playmaking styles of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. DeRozan, bending the weak-side zone, winning the game of cat and mouse, and finding a shooter. Lowry, always finding the highest quality pass on second-side action, broken plays, and in transition. Expect more of the latter from Barnes (of course he won’t be Lowry, but those types of passes) at the start of his career. And maybe look forward to a heavy dose of head-turning transition passes in particular, because he’s comfortable spraying the ball in the open court. If he develops more shot-creation tools, he’ll be able to leverage more looks into playmaking opportunities as his career progresses, but we’ll wait on all that.

Barnes is reportedly working on ball-handling with Goran Dragic (and no doubt the Raptors as a whole, but this is a fun anecdote). He’s also overhauling shooting mechanics, most notably trying to release the ball off a different finger. He can finish above the rim, he drew free throws at a healthy rate in college, and I can’t wait to see what those look like at the NBA level.

Yuta Watanabe

A wonderful defender. He’s got a clean shooting stroke, hitting 40-percent from three last year, and moves well in and out of pockets of space on the offensive end. However, he could get a lot better offensively before he comes anywhere close to what he provides as a defender. He’s damn good on that end.

Watanabe moves so well defensively that he might even make you question how we view typical athleticism and how it relates to defense. Fans and analysts alike have told me that because of how Watanabe affects other players on defense, they thought his wingspan was over 7-feet. Shuttle speeds, wingspan, and vertical leap mean virtually nothing if the application isn’t rapid, and Watanabe’s defensive applications certainly are rapid. He’ll never spur on a dialogue like Luka Doncic has, but Watanabe makes me think about what I should start looking for in defensive prospects. – from me, and you can read the full piece here.

He cheats in all the right places to provide help defensively, he might be the NBA’s top dog at closeouts, and the only thing keeping him out of being an undeniable rotation player on a winning team in the NBA is his assertiveness offensively. There are players who look like they have the individual skills to reach a certain level offensively, but they’re passive. Watanabe has suffered from that passivity, whether it’s been a hesitancy to pull from downtown (despite being a good shooter), or put the ball on the floor to head downhill more often. Watanabe has the opportunity to add some punch and punctuation to his offensive game, though. Something he suggested being the go-to guy at the Olympics with Team Japan might have helped him with.

“With the international team I had to be that aggressive every time I touched the ball, even without the ball, I understand that my role is not going to be like that with the Raptors but still I’ve been saying I need to be more aggressive because it makes my teammates a lot easier to score or I can draw attention, I can pass the ball and they can make shots.” – Yuta Watanabe

I’m looking forward to what he can unlock for himself this year.

Malachi Flynn

A player with some serious wiggle. A plus defender, both on-ball and off of it, and in his best stretches, a guiding hand to bench units.

Flynn’s rookie season was a mixed bag as he adjusted to a different pecking order, and NBA level defenses. College basketball’s best pick n’ roll creator didn’t set the league ablaze with his pick n’ roll possessions, despite that being far and away his most common playtype – he actually used more of them than Pascal Siakam, which is infuriating. To be fair though, few players on the Raptors were better than average in the pick n’ roll. A result of who the bigs were, as Aron Baynes registered as one of the worst roll men in the league, Khem Birch was below average, and Chris Boucher can’t be involved in every ‘pnr’ action with everyone (because he was pretty damn good on the roll), that would be too much. Not to mention, Boucher will miss the start of the season with a recently surgically repaired finger.

All that to say, Flynn’s best playtype, his bread and butter, was maybe just butter last year because of the lack of bread (???). And none of that looks to be fixed headed into the start of the season. So, where does Flynn go when he can’t pass rollers and poppers into buckets? He goes to his pull-up. Despite middling numbers as a pull-up artist last year, the eye-test (my eye-test, maybe yours is different) lends itself towards optimism. His pull-up numbers are in the same ballpark as his catch and shoot, and they also come on much higher volume. Flynn has added muscle (helps to stabilize and add repeatability of motion) added reps, and it’s a bit of a leap of faith, but I think we should see a meaningful jump in pull-up potency from him. He certainly set things ablaze at Summer League.

He’s very picky finishing at the rim, not getting there or the line with much consistency (NBA or Summer League), he’s serviceable once he’s there, but rim numbers are truly meaningless without volume.

As a playmaker he’s accurate, composed, and highly aware of the lanes on the floor and how his teammates occupy them. He’s a great trigger man when the Raptors are running set pieces, and he’s got a great eye for where defenses are giving up space. With the less than stellar mid-range numbers he put up, and mediocre pick n’ roll partners, we didn’t get to see him passing against rotating defenses as much as we might like, but I think we’ll see a wealth of great decision making once he is.

As for the plus defender stuff, he’s really just a pest at the point of attack, moves well around screens, and is always a threat to cause a turnover when he’s rotating toward a player with the ball in their hands. Good defense is so essential to carving out a place in the league, and he’s definitely got it.

Precious Achiuwa

Perhaps the upside play at the Center position. Seems far away from being a positive player on offense, but he’s hitting step-back threes in pre-season games, so it’s hard to keep that the same, steely, pessimistic vision of his jumper. But, he’s shown virtually no volume outside of 10 feet in the NBA, and shoots very poorly from the free throw line. If I had to take a position? I’d say he’s still probably not even a mid-range shooter this year (on volume), let alone from downtown. He seems to have an advanced handle for his size, so there’s some possibilities for dynamic dribble hand-off sets with him as the trigger man, and he might be able to push in transition every once in awhile.

It seems fair to say that Achiuwa has been a below average roll man so far in his career. Does that mean he can’t develop that aspect of his game? Not at all. He’s only played 700 minutes in the NBA, there’s many things he could end up being. Currently though, he’s not comfortable in the short-roll, and his pacing as a rim-runner is lacking severely. If he’s skying for a dunk, it’s more than likely in transition or because he slipped into the dunker spot. Something to watch for.

Defensively, he should really pop in any zone that the Raptors play. Explosive, heady, and long. Once he has a full understanding of the quirks and rhythms of the Raptors defense, he should look great rotating as the low man, stepping out and disrupting actions above the break. In his preseason game, he looked pretty good tracking back to take away lobs in the pick n’ roll, or stepping out on them. He was above average contesting shots all over the floor (particularly near the bucket) with the Heat last year, so if he can carry over those contests with the motion that will be asked of him, the Raptors should be in a good spot.

There’s heaps of opportunity for Achiuwa to make huge strides in his career this year, let’s hope he makes good on it.

Khem Birch

Part of the optimist’s take: transcribed (with slight paraphrasing) from Louis Zatzman on the podcast we did together.

“Defensively, he’s a freak athlete, he can be in two places at once. He’s the most athletic center Toronto has had (recently). An exceptional athlete on the defensive end. Similar to Marc Gasol, he can have his weight in two places at once, the handler thinks he’s closing out, the roller thinks he’s being tagged and the play is blown up by virtue of that – only at twice the speed of Gasol. He recovers well, he can do a late clock scenario in space against a guard. Statistically he’s not a great rebounder, but his team always rebounds exceptionally well with him on the floor, affecting opponents offensive rebounding rates, he blocks out. He’s okay in the post. He won’t stop elite post matchups, but that’s only 5-10 times a season. And one last thing, he creates havoc. He creates deflections, turnover rates go up when he’s in the game. If Toronto wants to score at a decent clip they need to get out in transition. He fits in with the defense. If Toronto is going to be a good team, it won’t be because Birch is a good roller, or because Birch learns to shoot. They could have a top 3 or 4 defense when Birch is on the floor.” – Louis Zatzman, my buddy, my guy

Admittedly, I’m not quite as high on Birch’s defensive punch as Louis is, but I’d be extremely happy to be wrong. The more good players, the better.

After attempting only 23 3-pointers in his 188 career games prior to his Raptors tenure, he launched 31 in 19 games with Toronto. The returns? More positive than I might have guessed. 29-percent from downtown on a random spike in attempts is enough that you’d ask him to rep it out in the offseason. The catch is that he shot around 25-percent above-the-break, and despite the 35-percent he shot from the corner the Raptors will rarely ever have him spacing there. So, of how much utility would Birch’s 3-point shot be if it improved marginally this year? Almost none whatsoever. He’s on a 3-year contract, though, and maybe both parties have ideas about pick n’ pop viability by year 3.

Birch had also shown an uptick in reads out of the short-roll when he was with the Raptors. He’s pretty good at recognizing when the defense (at the nail or the hashmarks) are rotating over, and he consistently hit whoever was open above-the-break or in the corner – and was able to do so with two feet planted or with a jump pass. He’s also a pretty clever cutter, particularly from the 45. With the Raptors no doubt initiating sending Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Scottie Barnes downhill a lot this year (generating help-side rotations) Birch will slither into pockets of space for dunks and layups pretty frequently. Not to mention, he has a pretty viable floater for the in-between stuff.

There are lots of late bloomers when it comes to big men, and Birch is looking to be another one of them.

Part 3 should be out on Wednesday the 13th! And it should be the last installment. Hope you enjoyed the first two, though!

Have a blessed day.

 

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