Who is “The Guy” for the Raptors?

Maybe I'm a homer, but maybe I've got a point. Toronto just has so much talent on the roster. While the rewards may not be immediate, this season is about building chemistry and establishing a philosophy. But, in the mean time, who is the undisputed number one option for Toronto?

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Let me preface this by saying that the concept of having multiple players who are capable of carrying the Toronto Raptors offense is unlike any situation the team has found itself in before. It’s actually a great problem to have. The downside to that is the reality that Toronto finds themselves in now. OG Anunoby has steadily improved every year and looks to be ready for another massive increase in all-around productivity. Pascal Siakam, who is often thought of as the Raptors number one option, was hesitant to assert himself in that position during the franchises media day. Fred VanVleet, the heir apparent to Kyle Lowry, will have as many opportunities to score the bucket as the two previously mentioned names. There’s a fourth option in all of this and it might come to bite Toronto if they can secure a playoff spot. Is this a team that will execute offense by committee?

It’s an interesting question to pose simply because it’s as though Siakam’s prioritization on offense is the immovable object, yet OG’s improvement is the unstoppable force. VanVleet also has a stake to claim since he’ll have the ball in his hands at some point for every possession that he’s on the court. But, there’s players like Gary Trent Jr., who’s scoring ability cannot be ignored, Khem Birch who now has a set role for Toronto after being mismanaged in Orlando, Malachi Flynn who needs more reps this year after showcasing what he can do. Goran Dragic will undoubtedly garner some looks simply because he’s the teams veteran and is more than capable of filling the basket. There’s also rookie Scottie Barnes, someone that was drafted based on his length and versatility on defense but that Nick Nurse also assuredly stated will get a plethora of opportunities and play a huge role for the Raptors.

So, let’s start with the incumbent.

Pascal Siakam

The case for Pascal Siakam as the Raptors number one option is pretty simple. He’s the one with a max contract, he was the Robyn to Kawhi’s Batman in the championship run, and he’s the only current Toronto Raptor that’s been selected as an All-Star (Dragic was an All-Star in 2018 but that was with Miami and is so far off my radar right now, not to discount him).

Beginning with the 2019-20 season, these are Siakam’s averages:

Via: Basketball-reference.com

What this puts into perspective is how Siakam has handled his promotion in becoming Toronto’s first option. By no means is this a failure on his part. In fact, you could argue that those are numbers of a player that’s still developing. The key thing to understand in these numbers is just how far Siakam has come in his basketball career. He was drafted in 2016 as the 27th pick and was labelled as a high-energy, high-motor type of player. He was always going to be considered a project, especially considering that he didn’t have any big time basketball aspirations until he joined Luc Mbah a Moute’s basketball camp in 2011. At the age of just 17, Siakam had begun to play organized basketball, which is when both he and scouts started to take notice of how bright his future in the sport could be.

Siakam spent two years at New Mexico State, and after being drafted, he split time with D-League (now G-League) team, the Raptors 905, and with the Raptors throughout the 2016-17 season, winning the 905’s first G-League championship, and earning Finals MVP honours in the process. His development only continued after emerging as the second option during Toronto’s 2019 season, on his way to a NBA championship and being named the league’s Most Improved Player. This was all in the span of three years. That’s not something normally seen from a player selected in the late 20s of a draft.

How many times have you read that last season was the “season from hell”? My guess is probably too many to count. It’s true though and Siakam was facing a lot of pressure. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka moved on, and the only line of defense Siakam had at his disposal was himself and Aron Baynes. We know how it went and there’s no reason to hash it out again. I could sit here and make a million excuses about why Siakam and the Raptors 2021 season was so unfortunate. But, as Murphy’s law states “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Boom. That’s the easiest way to summarize the 2020-21 Toronto Raptors campaign.

And maybe to a more damning point, it’s forced Siakam to remain hesitant with his role on this years squad. You might come to that conclusion after reading what he said in his Media Day presser:

On how he deals with being “the guy”: “I don’t like the word ‘the guy’ ’cause like I don’t really even like using that, you know. I want to be the guy who wins. I want to win. That’s all I care about and if it’s playing more defense, if it’s scoring more points, if it’s being more of a vocal leader or maybe more like someone that leads by example, that’s all I want to do. I just want to figure out what my role is and whatever I can do to help the team, that’s what I’m going to do.”

On the addition of long, athletic, and versatile players: “I don’t know how it would change my role but I just think that it’s a lot of length. That’s the real thing I see. Obviously you get excited about it and just seeing the potential that’s there if we’re willing to get to people, deflections, and a lot of different things like it’s just a lot of length and athleticism. You can never go bad with that and I don’t know what my role will be but I know that we want to go out there and we want to have people not want to play us. I think that’s the mindset you got to have. Like being that team you just don’t want to play against, because of the length, the athleticism and the energy and all those things together.”

Ultimately, Siakam deserves more than just one and a half seasons to determine exactly how effective he can be as a number one. The spot is his for the taking.

OG Anunoby

For most of us, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. For OG, he should just take 100 percent of the shots available to him. Everyone that’s anyone is aware of just how great OG can become. He’s already known as one of the premier wing defenders in the league, which was always the hope when you consider his size and length. Here was my list of concerns for OG about two years ago. I was worried about his ball security, his handles, and his footwork. It stands to reason that after watching him throughout last season, he’s clearly on the right path to put it all together. There’s only been a handful of preseason games, but OG has starred in every one of them.

Before you lose it on me, consider that OG’s development is something we’ve all witnessed as a “beautiful blossoming” of sorts. His on-ball defense is second to no one, but his offensive progression has been a spectacular viewing. I know it’s preseason but he’s added things to his arsenal that weren’t there last season. Although Toronto lost the second of a home-and-home against Philadelphia, his dribble moves, his hesitations, and more importantly, his shot creation were on full display. I’m serious when I say we’re at the point of considering an offense headed by OG.

 

And even though his interviews are sometimes turned into memes because of the simplicity within his answers, he truly is about his business. Remember when he hit that three against the Celtics in the bubble? He expected to make it. I doubt his mentality has shifted since then and when the ball inevitably finds itself in his hands more frequently throughout the year, that mindset of not expecting to miss will be valuable. With a little over seven minutes left in the second quarter against the 76ers on Thursday, OG reset at the top of the three. He then proceeded to put the ball between his legs with a couple of dribble moves, rising over Tobias Harris to nail a three from roughly 25-26 feet out from the net. It happens at the 3:50 mark of the video.

It was kind of like a full-circle moment. Thinking back to the years when he’d get the ball and pass it almost instantly (really only happened in his rookie year and maybe the year after), to come to that moment and see that he’s added a solid jump shot, not to mention on a play that was solely created by him, was what I imagine watching your kid hit their first home run must feel like.

The most sought after players in the league right now are guys who can guard multiple positions and knock down the three from way downtown. OG hasn’t necessarily knocked down a shot from the logo, however he’s one of the teams most reliable three-point scorers. It’s actually crazy that in the NBA.com 2021-22 GM Survey, when asked about who the best perimeter defender in the NBA is, OG didn’t even receive a vote.

Regardless of that, what’s really allowed OG to excel over the years has been his ability to maximize his skillset, in accordance with his frame. A guy that’s six-seven and 232 lbs, with a seven-three wingspan is now a prototype for the NBA. That’s not saying that OG is the typical NBA player, but that guys with his size and length are in demand. They don’t all figure out how to utilize their bodies and not all of them are constantly refining their on ball abilities. But, OG has figured it all out. After attempting only 12.1 shots per game last season, that number should go way up. I’d prefer him to get off at least 16 shots every game.

The only aspect that would make OG’s game complete would be a passing game. He’ll inevitably be double-teamed in the paint and when that happens, seeing him pass the ball out to the open man would nicer to my eyes than my Margot Robbie screensaver.

Fred VanVleet

I don’t know that Fred is a viable option for the go-to scorer. He’s obviously knocked down some big shots and his ability to penetrate the defense and get inside is uncanny. However, his services are probably better used elsewhere. Just as Lowry wasn’t always the number one option, VanVleet will certainly rank within the top three of the scoring hierarchy.

When VanVleet speaks, you listen. It’s simple. This dude went undrafted and scrapped and clawed his way to where he is now. Several of us have determined that this is now Fred’s team. That’s a great thing for both him and the franchise. I don’t know that there’s been a more level-headed player to inherit the keys to the Toronto Raptors or any franchise for that matter. He’s vocal, well-spoken, demanding, pushes his teammates to become better, and he wants to win, always.

The year after the Raps won their chip, Freddy immediately slid into the starting lineup and hasn’t looked back. His shot attempts increased from 9.4 to 14.3, along with his scoring output rising from 11 to 17.6. I won’t lie. I wasn’t expecting that at all, especially from a guy that went undrafted. However, as he always does, Fred proved me wrong.

That increase in shot attempts took place alongside Lowry in the lineup. Now that he’s moved on to Miami, the volume of his shots will undoubtedly go up even more. So, the only question is how Fred orchestrates the offense. I doubt he’ll turn into a pass-first floor general. However, I can see him averaging eight assists this season. Although his three-point shooting is exceptional, hovering at around 38 percent over the last four seasons, his actual field goal percentage hasn’t been pretty, with the highest being at 42.6 percent in the 2018-19 season.

But based on the sample size of Fred we’ve seen in the preseason, it looks like he’s added a floater to his bag, along with the continuation of his mid-range jumper. An increased output of those shots would likely lead him to a higher field goal percentage overall. But it could also put him in prime positions to make shifty passes to his teammates.

However, it’s quotes like this that really give way to just how invaluable VanVleet is to the Raptors. If he needs to score, he will. But his emotional and mental tolerance are better served mentoring his teammates:

On Pascal passing off “the guy” label: “It’s nuance. People couldn’t understand ‘how could you not be the man?’ You got the max contract, you got the ball in your hands every time, Kyle defers to you, Kyle said it was your team. But being the man sometimes is like ‘I’m going to shoot this ball 40 times and nobody better blink. I better not see a face. Coach can’t throw his hands up. The player can’t get mad.’ It’s a clear-cut distinction and I think that what happened was Kyle was such an immovable object and just a force of who he was and his status as a hall-of-famer that it was like a little tit for tat there, even if it was subconsciously. When Kyle wouldn’t play me and Pascal naturally have more flow and more responsibility. When he played we had to find a way to manage the chemistry and it’s not something where it’s like ‘I don’t like this guy or I don’t like this guy or I’m not passing to him.’ It’s a little nuance that you would never understand unless you played at the highest level. So, I think that my interpretation of what he was saying was: ‘Listen. I got paid the max and when I got paid the max, all the fans expected me to become this, this, this, and this, and with that came a lot of responsibility. But, in my way is the greatest guy to ever do this for this franchise’ and it wasn’t a clear-cut distinction.

“Kyle didn’t just back out gracefully. He wouldn’t be Kyle Lowry if he did. He wouldn’t have still become an all-star and got another big contract. He’s not going to just back up and let somebody else do it. I think that for me it was easier because we’re at the guard spot and me and Kyle just had more of a natural chemistry. But, I think for P, I think he’s dealing with the expectations on him versus what’s actually in the game and I think that he dealt with that over time and got more comfortable with it. But, that would be my interpretation of what he was saying. There’s a nuance there that’s hard to explain unless you’re out there. That’s why you see in the NBA, every guy, when somebody gets hurt or somebody goes out, there’s a guy that steps up, that plays out of his mind. You’re like ‘why can’t he do this when such-and-such is playing’ but there’s like a pecking order of basketball chemistry that’s hard to explain.”

By committee

There are no shortage of scorers on Toronto’s roster. That’s not to say that every one of these guys could become the number one option, but Nick Nurse has the personnel he needs in order to initiate the offense of his dreams.

Gary Trent Jr. is a pure shooter through and through. When he came to Toronto at the trade deadline last year, he instantly made an impact as a starter. I don’t know that he’ll be as effective coming off the bench, but that’s the challenge Nurse and his coaching staff will have to overcome. Coaches will also have to help Trent become a more efficient scorer, after registering 39.5 percent from the field and 35.5 percent from the three. He hasn’t shown much of an improvement when attacking the rim or driving into the paint. However, there was one play where Scottie Barnes had the ball out on the wing and he found a wide open GTJ flying into the paint for the nice layup. I’m not sure if that’s something Trent has been working on, but if Barnes can put guys in situations like that, I’d pair those two together more often.

The continual improvement of Chris Boucher has been amazing to watch. He started in the G-League with the 905 and carved out a role for himself in last years rotation. He can knock down the three, averaging 38 percent from downtown on his way to 13.6 points, more than doubling his 6.6 average from the previous season. Boucher also provides energy off the bench for the Raps and his ability to block shots has proven to be invaluable. A three-and-D guy with a six-nine frame, he’s one of two players that averaged 1.5 threes and 1.9 blocks per game during the 2020-21 campaign.

Goran Dragic is more than just a serviceable veteran. He’s made stops in Phoenix, Houston, and Miami, taking part of the 2018 NBA All-Star game as a reserve. He’s capable of filling up the basket and he can make crafty plays when stuck in traffic. There’s no telling if he’ll be sticking around for the entire season, but the Raptors should get the most out of him while they can. Last season, his scoring dipped to its lowest since the 2011-12 campaign, but his 37 percent three point percentage is really the most Toronto needs from him. If his three point stroke can consistently go down, with the occasional layup here and there, that’s probably the best case scenario for both parties.

The fact that Khem Birch is still bringing things out from his bag is baffling to me. I know that in Orlando, big men were favoured so much to the point that the Magic had multiple logjams between the four and the five, but how does their talent go unnoticed? I’m not saying Birch was a scoring machine, but he’s definitely capable of expanding his game. He’s not a one-dimensional player who needs help with his jump shot and he can handle the ball here and there. There’s still more to unlock with him and his game like passing and facilitating an offense. But if there’s a coaching and development staff that can handle it, rest assured he’s in the right place.

In his sophomore season, Malachi Flynn needs more reps. I think I’m still the biggest Flynn stan and that’s cool with me. Considering that he was highly touted for his defense coming out of college, his ability on offense had me wondering how he fell to the Raptors at 28 in the 2020 draft. He really stepped up when Lowry and VanVleet were unable to play. I think he’ll probably spend time with the 905 this year since Canada has opened the borders again and like I said… he needs reps. Fred even went as far to say that Flynn is more of a shotmaker right now, than VanVleet was when he was in Flynn’s position.

The young guys will undoubtedly end up with the ball in their hands in multiple situations. Svi Mykhailiuk, who reportedly received interest from multiple teams including contenders, has been a lights out shooter from deep. Scottie Barnes is best suited with making runs in the transition offense based on his length, speed and court awareness. He’s well equipped to find the open man on the fast break or he can muscle his way to the rack for a ferocious jam. The first step in helping him build confidence is giving him the green light to shoot. After he’s become familiar and comfortable with a rhythm, the sky is the limit for him.

Conclusion

I have no concrete conclusion. I think it comes down to how Siakam returns from shoulder surgery and whether OG is just too hot at the start of the season that it becomes incredibly difficult to take the ball out of his hands. I think the both of them have advantages over the other depending on who Toronto is playing. If a team is weak on the inside, I’d give the ball to OG and let him pound with the behemoths. To that point, Siakam may be favourable if he’s out on the wing against a slower defender, with an inferior interior presence. But, if making the playoffs is the goal, whoever is the most reliable shotmaker will end up with the ball. Nurse has 82 games to figure out how he can put his roster in successful positions and learn who’s capable of scoring the ball when it matters the most.

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