The Raptors are trying to swing

The outskirts of a training camp roster are filled with forgotten journeymen, and young guys who are desperately trying to break into the NBA via the back door. All comers are trying to show that they can translate what they do well to the NBA level, and that they can ameliorate what they do poorly. A pairing like Mad Max and Furiosa, searching for redemption and a new start.

Josh Jackson’s exhibit-9 deal (training camp, no guaranteed money) was a handy, risk-free flyer on a player who had shown a couple different NBA-level skills, but remains a player that offers less flash and less impact than most NBA teams are looking for. The result? He’s fighting for an NBA spot with no guarantees. Headed into his 6th season, and as a 4th overall draft pick, that’s less than ideal. As a point of reference, Juancho Hernangomez, and Svi Mykhailiuk both have guaranteed money on the Raptors books this year.

The major consensus for Jackson is that if he starts to shoot the 3-ball well, other aspects of his game will benefit, his teammates will benefit, and that one skill will help bring about a renaissance in his career. If his presence on the floor doesn’t tank the offense, perhaps the Raptors can find time to weaponize his plus athleticism and always above average block and steal rates on the defensive side of things. Maybe there’s a rotation player in there somewhere. In the biz, this is called a swing skill. That’s right. This article isn’t about Masai’s mad dash to try and trade up for Giannis Antetokounmpo, or their drafting of Bruno Caboclo, or any type of home run at bat. Swing skills.

Many players arrive at this moment in their careers.

Dalano Banton, despite the interesting size, handle, and smidge of passing flair will come up against this very thing. All those things remain locked behind a door called advantage. If Banton isn’t already operating from a point of advantage on the floor, nothing that he does well is allowed to flourish. If he develops a meaningful catch and shoot jumper? Well, that means he can draw hard closeouts, and put the ball on the floor with that size, handle, and flair that will inevitably create good looks for himself and others. For now? He faces stagnant defenses that concede the jumper to him and keep his possessions frozen above the break.

Justin Champagnie unloading north of six 3-pointers a game with the 905 (and hitting 40-percent) isn’t done on a whim. He has an uncanny ability to rebound the basketball, has exceptional timing as a cutter, and is an ambidextrous finisher. If he shoots the ball well at the NBA level he immediately gets access to a new game of cat & mouse wherein his defender has to float out to the perimeter to defend him, track back against cuts, locate him in more space for box outs, and that means more 3’s, layups, and ORBS for him. Not to mention, a cutter of his caliber will drag defenders in and out of pockets of help-defense when his teammates need lanes for driving. The utility is there. So, he’s launching away.

Every morning, I’ve got to get there at 8:30, do my little, you know, pregame– not pregame, but like pre-practice warm-up. And then I get on the court at 9:00, and I shoot 200 3s– just corner 3s– 200 corner 3s every day. And I’ve been sticking to that for the past couple of weeks. And you know, it’s paying off. So I’m going to continue to do it and continue to knock them down for the team.

Justin Champagnie, January 2022

Thad Young is a man with a successful late career swing. The mobility and explosion that powered his tweener style through the early 2010’s had slowed considerably and he turned to his reads of the floor and the passes that followed to power his game. Thagic Johnson was born, as he became one of the premier short-rollers leaguewide, and a tremendous trigger man in delay actions, DHO packages, and some split-action work.

The Bulls were -5.2 points per 100 possessions worse on offense with Young on the floor in 2018-19 (Raptors champs, nice). The next year? His assist-rate nearly tripled, and he was 5x less likely to attempt a 3 while he was out there. The Bulls were 11.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. One of the largest swings in the NBA that year. The passing suddenly made his live-dribble dangerous again. Sure, he wasn’t threatening the rim like he used to, but he was transporting himself to places where new passing angles were presented. It’s never a bad thing to be a better shooter, but sometimes there’s better ways to utilize a skillset. Young serves as a great reminder of that.

The aforementioned Hernangomez has rarely struggled with his offensive utility. There’s a reasonable stroke from 3 (6 straight threes in the EuroBasket final was no joke), a keen awareness for opportunity, and the size to fit in as a screener. Maybe you think you can be the first team to get him to buy into rebounding since he left Denver? Maybe you think there’s some latent skill with his handle? Or, maybe you really liked his movie? None of that matters if he doesn’t improve somewhat on defense.

A hard and fast rule of running Hernangomez out onto the floor during his career is that your defense will suffer. Too slow at the point of attack to hang with anyone who has pop off the dribble, and too small to deal with bigger, stronger players. His place on the Raptors is their most daring bet on length so far. In the Raptors scheme you don’t necessarily have to stay in front of quick players or hang with strong ones – you have to be a thoughtful and proactive member of the horde. If Hernangomez does this, he may be able to mimic some of the impact that Boucher found last year on defense, and the Raptors might be able to dig into more of what has made Bo Cruz’s offense so interesting.

Paired with the Raptors developmental team, who knows what success these players might find? The Raptors championship squad likely featured 3 Hall of Fame players (Leonard, Gasol, Lowry), but much of the teams success came from a slew of players who had less apparent roads to success. The shooting of Norm Powell and Fred VanVleet were major and minor developments from college, but VanVleet’s unique pathway to elite defender status wasn’t a given in the slightest. Pascal Siakam’s on-ball growth was far from a given.

The rise of the Raptors stars from G-League stints to All-Star status doesn’t guarantee that outcome for those who follow the path, but it does illustrate the Raptors as one of the premier homes of development in the NBA.

Have a blessed day.

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