Though Anunoby’s raw averages are way up from last season (15.9 points to 20.3), his efficiency is down (60.5 percent true shooting to 52). For Anunoby to make an even bigger leap, he’ll need to start putting the ball in the basket more often. But the fact he’s showing skill as a secondary shot creator while Pascal Siakam is sidelined is a positive development for the Raptors. Anunoby entered the NBA in 2017 as a projected 3-and-D role player who could defend multiple positions and hit spot-up 3s. But doing much of anything off the dribble was an adventure.
At this point, at only age 24, Anunoby can handle the ball enough so that opponents can’t stick slower-footed defenders on him. He’s still not a lead ball handler, but he’s too quick now. And with youth still on his side, there’s plenty more time for him to blossom even more.
Banton has combined with Birch and Chris Boucher — all three Canadians, none of whom were picked in the first round — to stabilize the Raptors’ bench, which started the season wobbly. Even as Boucher is still looking for his form from last year, with the eventual returns of Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes and Yuta Watanabe potentially jeopardizing his minutes, the trio has produced excellent play for the Raptors.
In 61 total minutes, the Raptors are outscoring opponents by a staggering 21 points per 100 possessions when they are on the floor. Their competition has an offensive rating of just 92.9.
Yet, it’s the serviceable offence that is the bigger surprise, and that’s driven by Banton. Turning 22 on Sunday, the rookie from Rexdale has played more minutes than all but two second-rounders: New Orleans’ Herb Jones and New York’s Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. His win shares per 48 minutes (and yes, it’s absurdly early to be relying on any statistics as stable, particularly impact-based stats) are second of any rookie who has played at least 100 total minutes, behind only Scottie Barnes.
“He reminds me of me when I first got here,” Boucher said. “People didn’t expect much. You’re just doing whatever you can with the talent you got. Now he’s just doing a little bit more because he’s in the rotation and there are more expectations because you’re doing things that they didn’t expect you to do. I think he’s doing a good job: passes the ball, comes in and creates energy. … He just goes in and plays.”
Banton’s best single skill offensively is his ability to get into the paint, using his arms to attempt odd-angled layups to draw attention. Sometimes he can get the bucket to fall, and sometimes he’s not. Regardless, he can collapse the defence so much that even if his attempt doesn’t fall, Boucher or Birch has a good chance at following up with a good putback attempt. The Raptors are grabbing 39.7 percent of their misses when the three share the floor, which is a ton.
“We know that when we play with pace and if guys attack to the rim and get to their spots, taking it to the rim with strength, even if you miss that when guys try to collapse on you, we have a good chance at offensive rebounds,” Banton said. “We attack the glass on offence. If we’re drawing the defence and put it up on the backboard, I feel like we have a good chance at getting it, because we have guys who are crashing, like Chris and Khem, using their length to get there.”
Added Raptors coach Nick Nurse: “I think he helps all of them, he helps all of us. I think they come in off the bench together really well with a different look, with a guy running out in front fast, and then a guy bringing the ball fast. Together their pace changes the game. But Dalano is creating some shots for a lot of people.”
So, clearly, what Birch defines as hunting his own shot was an extremely mild case. But a player has his values, and Birch’s are just that: he wants his teammates to eat first, second and last, if necessary.
“Ever since I’ve been playing basketball, I never cared about stats,” said Birch, who is in his fifth NBA season after starting his career in Europe and working his way through the G-League. “I used to watch the Detroit Pistons and how they played defence, and in high school people told me they loved playing with me because I was so unselfish. I remember being ranked high in high school and I never averaged a lot of points or anything. The way I’ve played has got me to where I am right now, so I would never change it.”
He’s got no need to. The Raptors appreciated what he brought to the table at the end of last season and gave him the best contract of his career: $20 million over three years.
“He’s got a really unselfish kind of team mentality,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.
They didn’t pay him to put up numbers, which is a big reason Birch feels so comfortable now.
“What people think doesn’t matter, the organization gave me a good contract this summer, so if anything, that should tell me and other people what they value,” said Birch.
It’s not like Birch is trying to go around the practice facility and not be noticed. He’s got his own brand of confidence, perhaps best shown when he delivered the best line of the season when asked about the noticeable improvement in the defensive output by Gary Trent Jr. – another player who seems settled with a new contract in his pocket and who is among the league leaders in steals and deflections this season:
“Gary is like one of the best players I have ever seen – like, no offence – not play defence and then all of a sudden become a good defender,” said Birch. “It’s crazy. I swear I’ve never seen that before. He can be one of the best two-way players in this league. I think he leads the league in steals. That’s amazing … I told him that.”
But other than a surprisingly good quote, Birch’s contributions are more subtle. He’s averaging just 6.6 points a game and 4.6 shots a game in 23 minutes a night but was plus-10 in 22 minutes off the bench in the Raptors win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday and plus-20 in 31 minutes in Monday’s win over the New York Knicks.
To Nurse, the three-year, $52 million contract allowed Trent to settle in. He’s not looking toward an impending free agency anymore. Instead, he can spend time working with the Raptors to tweak a couple of things, the first and most important being Trent’s defensive intensity. With his buy-in, he’s now leading the league in both deflections and steals with 43 and 25, respectively.
“I think that he’s shown an ability to work really hard and play really hard and be kind of in attack mode,” Nurse said of Trent’s defense.
The next step for Trent will be on the offensive end. He’s always been a tough shot taker and so far this year, a quarter of his shot attempts have been pull-up two-pointers, which he’s nailing at a 39.9% clip. To Nurse, while some of those shots are OK, he’d like to see Trent work a little more in the rhythm of the offense as a catch-and-shoot marksman.
“We know he’s kind of got that one-on-one shake-and-bake game that comes in handy at times, but we also needed some more rhythm shots and things like that,” Nurse said.
Those things will come with time. Both Trent and Birch have shown what Toronto is looking for this season. With almost a year under their belts and a pair of new contracts, they’re finally getting settled in and that comfort level has been reaping rewards for the Raptors.
I’ve seen firsthand over more than a decade what having accessible, successful, committed role models on the senior women’s team has done for the sport and young women in the country, it would be even bigger if there was a WNBA team, which is probably more viable and economically workable than a complete Canadian women’s league, although I hope someone’s working on a business plan for that.
And there are a couple of big “buts” that need to be addressed and I’m going to all wet blanket today and repeat them for the zillionth time.
First, and this is obviously the biggest, is that the league has to decide it even wants to expand. It’s at its highest level of support and awareness of its first 25 years right now but it’s not exactly a bullet-proof business yet. I can’t imagine any franchise is operating as a profitable year-to-year business and they need to be dead sure they’ve got their own house in order before they start looking for new partners. From what I know, commissioner Cathy Engelbert has the league on the right path financially, the owners (Atlanta might be the outlier) seem solid and maybe they just need a season or two more of solid existence before they plunge into expansion.
Then, of course, there’s an issue of local ownership and who they might be. MLSE is the obvious one and I know for fact they’re thinking more seriously about the possibility than they were a couple of years ago but the group did not get to be kabillionaires by being totally philanthropic and they need see that money works before they leap in.
I think they eventually will but they’re certainly not at the point yet and all the hindrances to any other ownership structure are legitimate, and likely crippling.
I don’t think anyone can come in, start a franchise from scratch and have to pay rent on a suitable facility, find sponsorship deals with basketball-targeted companies that aren’t already locked up by the Raptors and make a go of it.
It’s not easy.
Quoted by name in the piece is former Suns’ head coach, now Raptors assistant coach, Earl Watson.
In a statement sent out by the Raptors, Watson said he will not comment further on his thoughts about Sarver.
“I am not interested in engaging in an ongoing battle of fact,” Watson said in the statement. “Instead, I want to applaud the courage of the numerous players, executives, and staffers for fighting toxic environments of racial insensitivity, sexual harassment, and micro-aggressions with their truth. Basketball and 17 years in the NBA has allowed me the financial privilege to speak my truth, but we can’t forget about those who must remain silent for fear of losing their jobs.”
Watson just isn’t ready to rehash the experience at this time.
“This has been a traumatic experience, one that has affected me profoundly, and I am not willing to relive it every day,” he wrote. “But I will not forget it, and I will address it more fulsomely at a point in the future when I feel ready.”
The young Phoenix Suns team had been toiling at the bottom of the NBA’s standings for years, missing the playoffs for six straight seasons while churning through head coaches. Watson was the fourth in as many years. Still, the Suns were playing the eventual NBA champions close, even leading by 13 in the first half. But it didn’t last. The Warriors took control in the fourth quarter and cemented a 106-100 win, dropping the Suns to 0-3.
After the loss, Suns majority owner Robert Sarver entered the coaches locker room, Watson told ESPN.
“You know, why does Draymond Green get to run up the court and say [N-word],” Sarver, who is white, allegedly said, repeating the N-word several times in a row.
“You can’t say that,” Watson, who is Black and Hispanic, told Sarver.
“Why?” Sarver replied. “Draymond Green says [N-word].”
“You can’t f—ing say that,” Watson said again.
The anecdote offers a glimpse into conduct that, sources told ESPN, Sarver has often exhibited since buying the Suns in 2004. Interviews with more than 70 former and current Suns employees throughout Sarver’s 17-year tenure describe a toxic and sometimes hostile workplace under Sarver. Some told ESPN that he has used racially insensitive language repeatedly in the office. Employees recounted conduct they felt was inappropriate and misogynistic, including Sarver once passing around a picture of his wife in a bikini to employees and speaking about times his wife performed oral sex on him. Some said the longtime owner fostered an environment in which employees felt they were his property, even once asking one woman whether he “owned” her to determine whether she worked for the Suns.
“The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale,” one Suns co-owner said about Sarver. “It’s embarrassing as an owner.”