Did the team get better?
The Raptors got slightly better. Nothing too dramatic. The pickup of Porter is going to just add to their versatility. Ujiri definitely has a type when he’s targeting players, and he got that in Porter. Bringing back Boucher and Young on good contracts showed a strength in the Raptors’ culture and players buying in to stay there. I do have some concerns over the reports and rumours about Anunoby, but I don’t mind a player wanting a bigger responsibility on offence as long as it doesn’t detract from the team execution. The Raptors made some minor improvements, but they’re banking that the final two-thirds of last season are the real them.
What does it mean for next season?
As you might have heard, the East is a gauntlet. It’s like that final course of the old “American Gladiators” show, except they’ve also included that awesome course where the one gladiator shoots tennis balls at you and you’re just looking for some gas-powered Nerf gun to propel something awkwardly at their target. Toronto could drop down to the Play-In Tournament this season, and I don’t know if we could look at it as a step backward. The Raptors are firmly in that second tier of East teams for me. Boston, Milwaukee, Miami and Philadelphia are in the first tier, and then teams such as Toronto, Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland and Brooklyn (because of the drama) are somewhere scattered in that second tier. If you noticed, I just named nine teams, and there are only eight playoff spots.
The key for the Raptors is going to be consistency all season long. Teams probably can’t afford any slow starts or extended stretches. Barnes in Year 2 could be pretty special, and it might only be a matter of time (seasons … months?) until he’s unequivocally the best player on the roster. The Raptors need to improve their outside shooting to keep things moving on offence. They weren’t good at making 3-pointers last season, and they didn’t take a whole lot of them. They shouldn’t chuck 3-pointers just to shoot them, but they need to find ways to generate some easier shots. That’s the biggest concern going into this season.
Barnes is 21 years old. Banton is 22. Achiuwa is 23. Anunoby is 25. They have every excuse to spend their summers partying or relaxing or simply thinking about themselves — I know I did at that age. Plus, they are rich athletes with all the excuses and resources in the world to fall into the dangerous vices that come with young-adult celebrity and fame. Instead, they did meaningful work in their communities because that’s the kind of people they are and because the Raptors provided them with the resources to execute on their visions.
“It’s a commitment, its culture, it’s how we grow. We see the amount of time they spent in L.A. or when they are playing pickup basketball, or Fred or Pascal being committed to their communities, or OG and Precious going back and doing basketball camps in Africa. These are meaningful things that make a difference and it keeps them busy and it keeps them occupied with things that are joyful to them,” Ujiri says.
The Raptors also inspire by doing work of their own. In August, they hosted their first inaugural Youth Summit, bringing together 100 youths and several important civic leaders in order to learn about what Canadian youth want out of their leaders. Throughout the summer, the Raptors had a visible presence at the March Against Gun Violence, the Pride festival in Toronto, and at the Toronto Carnival Festival.
In September, they announced that they built two brand new basketball courts in London, ON following the islamophobic truck attack in 2021, giving the Muslim community a place to come together and play. This should come as no surprise given that the Raptors leader, Ujiri, and his non-profit, Giants of Africa, is responsible for building 20 courts and counting in his native continent of Africa, with the goal of eventually building 100 courts.
“I think for us, we wanted to lead by example, given the racial reckoning in 2020, and we’ve continued to do that. It’s a focus of my team and the focus of our guys to kind of not let the issues [go away]; To remain consistent in the community and understanding this summer was the first time we were back home in Canada without restrictions. So yeah, you saw a lot of things coming out of us, but that’s always been our core value. It’s always been a part of who we are,” John Wiggins, Vice President of Organizational Culture and Inclusion for the Raptors, told Yahoo Sports Canada.
“It is very important… I think what you do is you build that credibility, and you build that consistency on: here’s who we really are and here’s the actions that we take with intention to really show that we’re trying to make a difference in this world. And I think we’re just going to continue to lead with our actions.”
As our society is increasingly drawn towards outrage through the news we watch and the algorithms that guide us, it’s our responsibility to seek out and celebrate the positives; it’s our job to give the leaders and role models who are doing good in our communities the love and admiration they deserve in order to encourage them to continue — especially when it’s not just lip service and empty gestures but actually comes from the heart.
While Young and Porter have more in common, physically, with the likes of Pascal Siakam and Anunoby, they should also help get VanVleet some more rest. Porter shot 37 percent from 3 last year and is at 39.8 percent for his career, giving the Raptors a bench shooter they simply did not have last year. Young’s vision, meanwhile, should at least get the ball moving a bit more. And while Young and Porter probably wouldn’t be Raptors if not for their defensive profiles, they might make more of a difference offensively.
The Raptors scored just 105.5 points per 100 possessions when Siakam was not on the floor last year, 6.6 points below their season mark and 8.5 behind their production with Siakam on the floor. That initial rating would have put them ahead of just the two worst offences in the league this year. Without Gary Trent Jr., that number was at just 107.2, better than only three teams. Three players, VanVleet, Trent and Anunoby, accounted for 57.8 percent of the Raptors’ 979 3-pointers last year. Adding Porter along with even incremental growth from the likes of Precious Achiuwa, Scottie Barnes and, yes, Siakam, from deep should allow the Raptors to stay afloat without those guys. That’s the idea, at least.
“Me and Otto are guys that are like stabilizing forces, guys who can come in and keep everything stable from what the first unit is doing,” Young said. “Make sure that we’re facilitating and not giving up leads, but building on to leads or keeping leads where they are and just not letting the game get out of hand.”
Porter added that playing next to Stephen Curry and Draymond Green on the Warriors emphasized the importance of not just ball movement on offence, but player movement too. The Raptors had a bad combination last year, ranking in the 93rd percentile in terms of playing in isolation, but scoring in isolation with just a 20th-percentile efficiency, according to Synergy Sports. Those numbers were nearly reversed for the Warriors (20th and 80th percentile).
Of course, there is only one Curry, and there aren’t many facsimiles for what Green does as a playmaking forward either. (Although, if the Raptors wanted to really change things up, VanVleet and Barnes wouldn’t be bad stand-ins. We won’t see anything quite that drastic.) Obviously, a team’s offensive style is largely dictated by a team’s best players and coaching staff. However, if you have role players who are at least familiar with playing differently, and those players have voices that will be heard and respected, it is easier to nudge things toward a more balanced approach.
“We have a bunch of young guys that are hungry,” Porter said. “They’re ready to do whatever it takes. … They’re already picking our brains, first day. They want to get to that elite level, and it’s our job to pass on information that I got from Golden State or from my previous years playing.”
In many cases, showing will trump telling.
After playing together for parts of two seasons in Chicago from 2019 to 2021, the veteran forwards have been reunited with the Raptors. Fresh off winning a championship as a key member of the Golden State Warriors, Porter agreed to a two-year, $12.4 million deal with Toronto in early July. Young, also a free agent, had re-signed with the club a week before.
His decision was an easy one. While the details of his new contract needed to be worked out, the 34-year-old knew where he wanted to be.
“In my mind, it was always to try to get back here,” Young said following his team’s morning session on the first day of training camp in Victoria, B.C. “Even when I spoke to [general manager] Bobby [Webster] and [president and vice chairman] Masai [Ujiri] on the phone when the trade was actually going down, the first thing they said was, look, we don’t want this to just be a one year thing, we want this to be something that lasts beyond this year, and I was completely fine with that.”
Acquired from San Antonio for the expiring contract of Goran Dragic and a first-round pick, Young appeared in 26 regular season games for the Raptors and, despite sustaining a thumb injury early in their first-round series with Philadelphia, he performed well in the playoffs.
Last year was a whirlwind for Young, who only played sparingly with the Spurs and had to relocate his family to a new country mid-season. Naturally, it took him some time to find his rhythm and get comfortable in his new surroundings, but once he did, he fit right in. It didn’t take long for him to make his veteran presence felt on one of the league’s youngest teams. Now that he’s had a full off-season to get settled and is with his new team from Day 1, he’s excited about what he can bring, and so are they.
“To me, he’s almost like a new addition this year as well,” head coach Nick Nurse said of Young. “We know who he is, what he can bring and we like him a lot, and he likes us, but it’s almost like having another new guy because he’s totally in a new position than he was a year ago, starting [the season] with us now.”
“[It feels] 10-times different,” said Young. “I’m coming into training camp and coming into the season with a fresh mind, mentally prepared and focused. Last year when I got here, like, I was fine but that’s because I’m a tough individual. But I was mentally burned out, just for the simple fact that I didn’t play the first half of the season and I spent a lot of time conditioning myself and burning myself out trying to be ready for the second half of the season. And then I think when I got here I wasn’t able to really play to my full potential and my full reach. So now I get a fresh mind, a fresh start.”
Together, Young and Porter come with 24 years of NBA experience, more than Toronto’s five starters combined. After just one day of camp and a few summer workouts, Porter says the young guys are already picking his brain, the same way many of them would lean on Young and his wisdom late last season.
For a growing team looking to take that next step, having a pair of good vets around – both on the court, where they’ll play important roles with the second unit, and in the locker room – should be invaluable.
“It’s always super helpful,” Nurse said. “Their experience, their wisdom, their composure, advice, all of the things that they can do because of their experience… I think it was needed for our roster.”
‘I think that the addition of Otto is a big one,” said Nurse. “He’s a multi-faceted player. Multi-positional-type guy that we like. He is legit 6-8 and can shoot the ball — Otto’s a really good just basketball player. He does the right things; he’s in the right spots. The ball gets swung around and kicked to him, he makes the three … I mean that’s pretty valuable but he just, you can just see the composure and experience and the pace with which he plays … (It) all fits in really good so yeah, he’s good he’s a good player.
If there is one player whose minutes the Raptors are determined to dial down, it’s VanVleet. The seven-year veteran was a different player after the all-star break as he struggled with a knee problem and eventually had to shut down during Toronto’s first-round loss to the Philadelphia 76ers with a bruised hip.
It’s easier said than done, Nurse acknowledges.
“I hope we can get it done. I think the hard part about it, too, is when we all sit down in chairs in an office, it seems easy,’ he said. “… It’s not the same as when the ball’s up and you’re in a tough game. And you know, it’s a one-point game, and you got three minutes to go, and you’re saying, ‘Oh, jeez (VanVleet is) at 38 minutes and if we don’t take him out, now he’s gonna go to 41’.
“(But) we’re on the road. And it’s a one-point game in Miami … that’s kind of the real life. That’s different than never all standing here without the heat of the battle or sitting in our offices without the heat of the battle. But the point (cutting back on VanVleet’s minutes) has been brought to my attention.”
The Raptors will be doing it by committee, as the one obvious path to trimming back VanVleet’s minutes — acquiring a proven point guard to back him up — was a path Toronto didn’t go down. Instead, it will likely play out with Siakam, Anunoby and Barnes initiating the offence more and giving VanVleet more reps off the ball – where he excels as a catch-and-shoot three-point threat – and more games off or more time on the bench.
But even minor adjustments to the starters’ minutes should have a trickle-down effect throughout the lineup. How it takes shape is hardly set in stone and will inevitably evolve as the season wears on and injuries and rest force the issue.
“What I’m hoping is the six through 10 guys are capable enough to replace the starters, and those other guys are capable when we need them. And we’re gonna need them,” said Nurse. “That to me is real depth. It’s modern depth. There just seem to be a lot more guys that hit the floor and need to produce in more situations than in the olden days. It’s not just getting to eight or nine. It’s getting to 13 or 14 and those guys making sure they’re ready. Because they will get their chance.”
It remains to be seen just how much either the 34-year-old Young or the 29-year-old Porter plays for Toronto but that’s almost beside the point.
Each can still play — Porter started in last season’s NBA Finals, Young seemed rejuvenated after joining the Raptors in a February trade — but their voices are almost as important as their shots.
“Like Thad said, we have a bunch of young guys that are hungry, they’re ready to do whatever it takes, and by having the extra vet to help Thad out with the guys, they’re already picking our brains the first day,” Porter said Tuesday. “They want to get to that elite level and it’s our job to pass on information that I got from Golden State or from my previous years playing, definitely want to share that with the younger generation.”
Porter said he sought Young’s counsel when he was weighing free-agent offers in the summer and considering the role he’d be playing and the kind of roster he’d be joining. The presence of another veteran swayed him to sign a two-year, $12.3-million (U.S.) deal.
The two give Raptors coach Nick Nurse more options.
“To me, (Young is) almost a new addition this year as well,” Nurse said. “We know who he is, what he can be and we like him a lot and he likes us. All that stuff is important. (But) it’s almost like having another new guy because he’s totally in a new position than he was a year ago … Obviously, Otto just came off an unbelievable year. I think (his signing) was needed for our roster, and it should be helpful.”
Otto Porter Jr. is joining Thad Young to give the Raptors some veteran savvy.
And if there aren’t a ton of minutes or shots every night? The two vets should be able to handle it.
“Some veterans don’t,” Young said. “They don’t know how to accept it but I’m one of those guys that’s always been team first. Otto’s the same way, a team-first guy. It’s one of those things where, when you accept it and you understand what your role is, it helps the team and helps you. When everybody’s eating together and everybody’s winning together, it’s all fun.”
On slow nights, they can sit around and talk about the kids they’re trying to lead.
“At first, Otto was super quiet, and then he kind of just started to be a little more outspoken,” Young said. “But I think I started off like that in my younger years as well, just being quiet, (letting) other guys kind of take the lead and then I started to kind of grow into that role.
“And I think he’s a tremendous leader, I think he’s a great player, obviously, and a guy who’s gonna definitely help us down the stretch.”
For most of last season’s 48-win campaign the Raptors relied heavily on its starting five of Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr. Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam and, when he was healthy, O.G. Anunoby.
Beyond that Nurse had only had Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher for the full season as depth pieces.
Thad Young arrived at the trade deadline and inserted himself into the mix, but in a year where Anunoby only played 48 games due to various injuries and both Siakam and VanVleet were held under 70 for the same reasons, Nurse was in desperate need of some other options and those were very limited.
So, it wasn’t a surprise to see the smile on Nurse’s face on Tuesday as the team convened for the first time at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities.
Not only does Nurse now have options at his disposal but he has numerous options.
The Raptors’ head coach spoke glowingly of the addition of Otto Porter Jr, a guy fresh off starting for an NBA Finals champion.
He pointed to having Thad Young, last year’s late arrival on the scene from Day 1 and what that presence can do over the course of a season.
And on Day 1 he saved probably his biggest praise for Dalano Banton, the Toronto native who burst on the scene a year ago but wasn’t quite experienced enough to provide the kind of depth help the team needed as the season wore on.
“Delano was as good as anybody on the floor today,” Nurse said, pointing to his three weeks with the Canadian National men’s team in Brazil that ended just before he reported to the Raptors. “I mean he was as good as anybody as there was in practice today.
A year ago, Banton and Justin Champagnie were depth pieces in theory, but in reality, were still wet-behind-the-ears rookies in need of some seasoning.
The big change this year is the group in front of them, the Raptors second unit, which is so much more defined and so much larger in number, not to mention size than it was in 2021-22.
Now it’s Precious Achiuwa, Young, newcomer Porter Jr, Chris Boucher, Malachi Flynn and Khem Birch, and another newcomer Juancho Hernangomez all vying for time in that second unit.
Then you get to guys like Banton and Champagnie, rookie centre Christian Koloko and potential glue guys like Josh Jackson or D.J. Wilson to consider.
Who knows who might pop from that group?
Getting past the quarterfinal stage has been an impenetrable roadblock for the Canadian women since they began their ascension through the global rankings a decade ago. They lost in the round of eight to the United States at the 2012 London Olympics, were beaten by Spain in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup and lost to France at the same juncture of the 2016 Rio Games.
This tournament, and the matchup with Puerto Rico at this stage, represents perhaps the best chance to have at least two games to play for one medal.
“Every time we get the chance to represent Canada, we want to do it to the best of our ability and our goals are always high,” Carleton said before the tournament began.” Our goal is always to be on the podium, that’s the standard we set at Canada Basketball.
“The expectations? We expect a lot out of ourselves. Maybe the outside noise isn’t as loud this time but, internally, we expect a lot and want to do the best we can. That includes making it to the semifinals and winning a semifinal.”
The 25-year-old Carleton will be a key to whatever success has against a Puerto Rico team that’s in the World Cup playoffs for the first time.
Kayla Alexander has been dominant at times in the front court and the guard play of Shay Colley and Nirra Fields has been exemplary. But Carleton’s shooting unlocks a whole other dimension of Canada’s offence.
“I love to see the confidence that everyone else now gets to see (in) Bridget Carleton,” Canada’s Natalie Achonwa said after the victory over Mali. “She’s always been explosive. She’s always been a shooter and a scorer, but she’s really embraced this moment and our need for her to fill that role.”
Nurse — along with fellow WNBA stars Natalie Achonwa and Bridget Carleton — as well as Shay Colley, Laeticia Amihere, Nirra Fields, Kayla Alexander, Mael Gilles, Taya Hanson, Sami Hill, Aislinn Konig, and Phillipina Kyei make up the team currently competing in Australia.
Leading the team are Head Coach Victor Lapena, Lead Assistant Coach Noelle Quinn and Assistants Steve Baur and Carly Clarke.
With a new and improved Kia Nurse suited up, Team Canada came out HOT in FIBA World Cup Round Robin competition, winning three of their first four games. They were the second team to clinch a quarter finals spot — shortly after Team USA.
In their first game against Serbia, Canada started out slow but finished with a bang, winning 67-60 thanks to a 13 point performance by Kayla Alexander.
Game two was against France, a team led by defensive powerhouse Gabby Williams. Canada came out on top winning 59-45 against the French. Nirra Fields stepped up with a 17-point, six-rebound game to help Canada.
Next, they faced Japan, who won Silver at last year’s Olympic Games. Canada had their best game yet, winning 70-56 over the Japanese thanks to a 19 point, six rebound game from Bridget Carleton — who plays for the Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA.
Their only loss came in a close 75-72 game against hosts Australia, another team packed with WNBA talent and coached by World Champion Sandy Brondello. As disappointing as the close loss was, keeping up with a team like Australia is just validation that this Team Canada squad is heading in an incredible direction.
Next, they’ll close out Round Robin action against Team Mali — and with their spot in the quarter finals already confirmed, it’ll be a matter of how they come out in the rankings to determine who they will face.