While Monday’s pace represented the far end of how quickly the Raptors might play, don’t expect it to be an outlier surrounded by swaths of empty space. The Raptors were 14th in the league in pace last year. While Nurse has said he doesn’t want his team to become a run-and-gun team, he does want them to try to force turnovers, which naturally leads to fast-break opportunities where, by the way, the Raptors’ long and athletic roster should excel.
Not to spoil a future predictions column, but one of my beliefs this season is the Raptors will be closer to being fifth in the league than the middle of the pack. They are already indoctrinating their ballhandlers, young and old.
“(Assistant coach Earl Watson) has been a great help for me since the day we connected and have been together,” said Dalano Banton, who had 13 points, five assists and five of those turnovers in his preseason debut. “Him just helping me change my game and play with that pace every possession since I came in, that was the main thing he’s been preaching to me, to play with pace, play up and down rather than side to side. That’s what’s going to help me be successful. Him staying on me about playing with pace every possession. Trying to play with that, and using every rep as help to be in shape to be able to do it in the game for a long period of time.”
If you tuned into Monday’s game, that was evident. Banton, Scottie Barnes and Yuta Watanabe led a long, lanky, traditional point guard-free five-man unit that turned a big Philadelphia lead into a lead of which the Raptors would not surrender. The specifics of the lineup are not necessarily important, but the how of it all was a clear indicator, if an exaggerated indicator, of how the Raptors want to play.
There are many reasons it makes sense for the Raptors to step on the gas this year, and not all of them are to negate their biggest weakness — playmaking and ballhandling in the half court. Nurse noted that in watching the video from the game, he thought that even though the 76ers were often back in time on transition, they got confused with positional cross-matches, the result of the Raptors having plenty of players they trust to bring the ball up the floor.
Just as important, though, is having guys that they are confident in making catch-and-shoot looks. A lot of those players just happen to be their traditional guards. If the Raptors have to waste time in the backcourt getting the ball to one of those guards, those guys cannot sprint up the court to get in a position to take an open 3 against a confused defence.
It was also a pretty good indicator of the style of game the Raptors might be looking to play this season when the games start to become real.
This is a team that’s likely going to want to play fast.
Last season, Toronto averaged 99.57 possessions per game, good for 14th in the league. During Monday’s contest, however, the Raptors significantly upped that pace by racking up 107.5 possessions, about eight full possessions more than what they averaged last season.
Of course one game – let alone a pre-season game – doesn’t make for much of a sample size, but given all the length, athleticism and relative youth this Raptors squad could potentially flash, getting out and running would make a lot of sense as a tactic to match the personnel.
This isn’t to say that the Raptors young guns like Banton and Barnes have just been given license to run with no real plan, however. Plays like the one that led to that Watanabe dunk in the second quarter of Monday’s game don’t just materialize out of nothing, after all.
“I know it looks like it’s just running around, but there is a lot thought and design and stuff put into it,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse after his team practiced Tuesday. “It’s another thing somebody asked me about the tape from last night. I saw that moving all those positions around was confusing them in transition defence. Like they were back when all of a sudden they were plugged the middle one time and all of a sudden they were running the corner and the next time they were guarding the ball.
“We were creating a lot of stuff because of the running around.”
Not everything all that running created was necessarily a good thing, however.
The Raptors committed 22 turnovers leading to 27 Philadelphia points, and a lot of it could be attributed to the Helter Skelter style the Raptors were playing.
Optically, it wasn’t a great look but it is still just pre-season and, according to Nurse, the high turnover numbers might not mean much when put into context of how many possessions the Raptors had on Monday.
“I think that increased pace and increased possessions will obviously lead to higher turnover numbers, but I think it’s another one of those stats that if you want to keep living in 1975 where if you just keep looking at the total number of points regardless of possession, the total rebounds or total turnovers, it’s all relative to the possessions in the game.”
But while the turnovers aren’t quite as concerning to Nurse with what appeared to be an increased pace of play from his team, rebounding might be an area he’ll look at to slow things down a touch. While he sees benefits in playing fast on the offensive glass, cleaning up the defensive boards may prove to be tough if too many guys are leaking out looking for an outlet pass.
The possibilities with Banton would seem endless. He is a six-foot-nine bundle of potential: quick, lanky and able to block shots at one end and lead the break to the other. He has played only two seasons of college ball over three years but the skills are all there. It’s just a matter of Watson and the staff finding the triggers to bring them out and Banton discovering the work ethic to maximize them.
“Having a coach who has been a point guard and is a vet in the NBA is definitely a plus,” Banton said. “He never gives us hell for asking questions, even if it’s something we might need to know already.
“Having someone who is never going to tell you it’s a stupid question but is always giving you the advice you need and help lead you down the right path … Coach Watson has been that for me and I’m grateful for it.”
Where, or even if, Banton fits with the Raptors this season remains to be seen but he certainly is intriguing. He’s likely to spend some time this with the G League Raptors 905 because he needs to play and there’s not going to be a lot of opportunity on a team with Fred VanVleet, Goran Dragić and Malachi Flynn as established NBAers.
But Banton has enough in his game that he’s going to get a long look as a long-term contributor. His wisest course of action is to soak up the knowledge of Watson, Nurse and his teammates.
“Just trying to be smart out there and make the proper passes, make the proper reads, push it and know when to stop pushing it,” Banton said. “So it’s a lot to handle but with the guys I have in my support system — Coach Earl and Coach Nurse — I feel like I’m in the right hands to help develop my game.”
One thing that will drive Banton throughout the season is the simple fact that he’s a Raptor. The first Canadian drafted by the Raptors, Banton grew up watching the franchise through the Chris Bosh era right through the 2019 championship run and it does hold special meaning that he is with the team on a fully guaranteed contract this season.
As well as he has shown in camp, then in a team scrimmage in London over the weekend and Monday’s game against the 76ers, there are strides to be made in his development to ensure he becomes more than a footnote in team history as the first Canadian ever drafted by the club.
Banton has been working since his first day in Vegas with the Raptors’ summer league team with new assistant and former NBA head coach Earl Watson.
As a long-time point guard in the league, Watson knows exactly what it takes to make it in the NBA and he has been tasked with sharing that knowledge with Banton and Malachi Flynn, and even a veteran like Fred VanVleet.
For Banton, who signed a two-year rookie contract with the Raptors after being selected 46th overall in last season’s draft, the focus has been on ramping up the pace at which he plays. More north-south movement as opposed to east-west.
Having played at a particular pace for most of his life, speeding things up may sound easy but the fact remains it means taking something that felt natural and doing something unnatural. Banton is fully behind the change, seeing the advantages playing at a quicker pace can bring, but that hasn’t made it easy.
“It was difficult, maybe after the first two trips up an down, you might have it down but when he’s on you every possession, it’s been 15 possessions and you’re still running up the court, that’s when he preaches mind over matter,” Banton said of Watson’s instruction. “In order to be a point guard in this league for a long time you’re going to have to be durable, you’re gonna have to be able to stay on the court for a long time and be able to push the pace. Working towards that and trying to put myself in the best possible shape, I’m just going to keep trying to play with pace and wherever he can help make me better, I know I’m going to listen to him and try and add it.”
Banton wasn’t sure exactly how many friends and family he had in attendance on Monday night, but the size of the cheering section was considerable. He’s hoping and expecting it will get even bigger in the future.
“A lot of people that I know aren’t vaccinated so everyone that was vaccinated I got them to come,” Banton said. “So once everyone gets vaccinated I’m going to have everybody there. There was still a lot of people though. It was still a really good amount.”
In that respect, Banton has found a way to incentivize vaccination that not even governments around the world have come up with.
So how did it feel to see the team on the floor? Well, the crowd did its best during intros to make some noise; Fred VanVleet got the final spot and the loudest ovation, but the crowd definitely made some noise for Scottie Barnes, who led the team out of the tunnel, and then did a crab walk for some low fives during player intros. I mean, how could you not make noise for this guy?
I think Sean Woodley, sitting next to me, might have been the happiest person in the building at that point.
On the other side, Danny Green, back in the building for the first time since he was a Raptor himself, got a pretty decent hand.
Yuta Watanabe got a huge (again, huge being relative here) cheer when he checked in for the first time in front of the Toronto fans, but the loudest cheers were surely for local boy Dalano Banton — who immediately picked up a rebound, led a fast break and found Svi for a breakaway layup all in his first 15 seconds. He then followed that up taking another rebound coast to coast for an and-1.
Yeah, he’s a day-one fan favourite, no doubt about it.
One cool thing about the silent arena, is that you could hear Scottie Barnes yelling out defensive instructions from the bench! Even all the way from up in the press box. He is definitely as much of a talker as everyone says he is.
Post-game, Nick Nurse was appreciative of the crowd and the energy — he said he didn’t realize it was “that bad” down there in Tampa, but it the vibe and the energy was definitely there for the team, back home in Toronto. Fred VanVleet, for his part, said it was great to see familiar faces, to make eye contact with real people — but that it wasn’t enough, and he can’t wait to see the crowd back to full capacity.
And when that day does come — yeah, it’s gonna feel pretty great.
All in all it was very strange to be back in the building, but not strange in a bad way — just in an, “oh, this is familiar, I just need to get acclimated way.” Once I got settled in, the sights and sounds started to seem familiar, and once the Raptors were rolling — pretty much running the 76ers off the floor in the second quarter — it all felt, well, pretty normal. And safe.
And that’s almost as exciting and welcoming as seeing the Raptors get a win in their first game back on their home floor.