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Dalano and Juancho are standing out | Flynn's season to shine | Vegas still sucks at rating the Raptors

Why Achiuwa’s unexpected rise could change the Raptors’ short-term outlook – Sportsnet

As much as the player who started last season was a liability for long stretches, the possibility of Achiuwa morphing into another O.G. Anunoby – a big wing who can guard five positions and shoot well enough to keep defences honest – changes the short-term equation for the Raptors.

Players with Achiuwa’s defensive chops – in the Raptors’ first-round loss to the Philadelphia 76ers he was as capable of standing in against Sixers behemoth Joel Embiid as he was tracking former MVP James Harden on the perimeter – who can shoot 39 per cent from three on nearly four attempts a game (Achiuwa’s post-all-star rates) all while running wild in transition and dominating the paint on defence are rare and valuable.

A team can’t have enough of them in a league where so much of the offensive load is carried by superstars who have guard skills in power forward frames. And if your organization happens to have a surplus of them, the possibility of trading for additional talent from a position of strength becomes tantalizing.

But first Achiuwa has to prove that the final three months of last season weren’t an aberration.

He’s confident that’s not the case.

“I mean every part of my game, in my opinion, has been getting better,” Achiuwa said Wednesday. “That was a big emphasis of mine and still is, just trying to get better all-around when it comes to my game.

“…The second half of the season really made me understand what I’m capable of doing and how much more I could do,” he added. “Just gotta keep doing the same thing, having the same approach to the game, and I took that to my workouts as well. It’s kinda like a vision, you take it and run with it.”

Increasingly, the Raptors are believing in it. Head coach Nick Nurse demurred when asked about the possibility of moving Achiuwa into the starting lineup, likely in place of Gary Trent Jr. and alongside VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Anunoby and Barnes, but he’s as encouraged about what continued growth from the young big man could mean as anyone else.

“I think that he’s improving all the time. I think he had a great especially last half. I’ve already talked about I think he had a great spring, summer, fall so far, and he’s looked really good during the first three practices,” said Nurse. “So you know, I think a good step forward for him is expected by him, first and foremost, which is the most important, and by all of us, yeah.”

The Raptors need size, rim protection and outside shooting if they are going to improve on last season’s surprising surge from the lottery. Achiuwa can offer them all three qualities, and maybe much more.

Can the Raptors’ Achiuwa play himself into a starting role? | The Star

Even given the predictable inconsistencies of his first season in Toronto and his first as a regular rotation player on a good team, Achiuwa gave Nurse and team management enough to think they had hit on another young gem to develop.

Playing about half of each of the 73 games he appeared in, Achiuwa averaged 9.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting almost 36 per cent from three-point range.

Once he figured out where he fit in the Raptors scheme of things — and once he figured out he didn’t have to do too much or try too hard — he blossomed.

“Night and day as (far as) who I saw for the first time last year in the gym to who he is today,” Fred VanVleet said after Toronto worked out at the University of Victoria. “You’ve got to give credit to Precious and his work, his work ethic and his dedication, too, to continuing to get better. He’s found more touch around the rim, which is great to see. I was most impressed with his one-on-one defence on the perimeter.”

The second half of the season was eye-opening to coaches and teammates, and the ever-confident Achiuwa sees it now as a step.

“Every part of my game, in my opinion, has been getting better,” Achiuwa said. “That was a big emphasis of mine and still is, just trying to get better all around when it comes to my game.

“The second half of the season really made me understand what I’m capable of doing and how much more I could do. Just got to keep doing the same thing, having the same approach to the game, and I took that to my workouts as well. It’s kind of like a vision, you take it and run with it.”

Where Achiuwa precisely fits with Toronto this year is a question that will vex fans and challenge Nurse. There is something to be said for Toronto starting a somewhat conventional group of VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scotties Barnes, O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, but the idea of swapping Achiuwa for Trent is alluring.

Raptors’ Fred VanVleet hopes to be more mindful with his body: ‘I paid the cost’ – The Athletic

As VanVleet pointed out, before the Charlotte game, the Raptors were in seventh place, two games behind Boston for what was the last automatic playoff spot. Ultimately, the Raptors finished fifth, with help from a diminished but still effective VanVleet. However, a hip injury forced him out of Game 4 of the Raptors’ first-round series against the 76ers, and he didn’t return for either of the last two games, either. It’s clear VanVleet feels he pushed his body too far and the hip injury was caused, at least in part, by compensating for his injured knee.

Nobody wants a repeat of last season, when VanVleet led the league in minutes per game, with his body ultimately giving out. To that end, the Raptors are hoping a combination of things helps ease the load on him, from the younger depth behind him in the backcourt (Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton) to the plan to put the ball in the hands of other starters (Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr.) a bit more often. None of that will keep VanVleet from being one of the best players on the roster, however.

“It’s not easy — when you have got a super-competitive guy who’s playing great, and he wants to play, too — to rest him. Just to say: ‘Sorry, it’s your rest time. We don’t care what’s happening on the floor right now. It’s your rest time.’ It’s hard to do,” coach Nick Nurse said. “I think we learned a lot about how we can shift our team around without him in there. I think that we’re going to need to be able to do that. … I think the hard part about it, too, is when we all sit down in chairs and in an office, it seems easy. Talking to (the media), you guys said, ‘Hey, why don’t you do it?’ Well, it’s not the same as when the ball’s up and you’re in a tough game. It’s a one-point game and you got three minutes to go, and you’re saying: ‘Oh, jeez, he’s at 38 minutes. If we don’t take him out, now he’s gonna go to 41.’ And we’re on the road. And it’s a one-point game in Miami.”

Which is to say, it’s easier said than done and everyone has to do their best to keep the big picture in mind. Nurse and his coaches have to insist on lightening VanVleet’s load on most nights; other players have to grow in ways that make it easier for Nurse to do that; the medical team has to keep on top of VanVleet to make sure it understands where he is at physically; and, most crucially, VanVleet has to be honest with himself and others about how his body is holding up.

VanVleet would not get into specifics about what he did in the offseason to better prepare himself for his second year as the full-time lead guard for the Raptors, other than to say it was a holistic approach. He altered all facets, including the nature of his strength training, conditioning and diet. He has not gone meatless, though.

“Not quite,” VanVleet said. “If I can get a percentage (ownership) of a plant-based company, I might.”

He chatted with former teammate Kyle Lowry, who underwent a similar transformation in 2015, at a similar point in his career. He spoke to other players and industry experts, as well.

All of that should help. However, he is too relatively small (6-foot-1, 197 pounds) and plays too physical of a style to stay fully healthy all year long. VanVleet acknowledged that, in theory, having a deeper team means the Raptors have to rely on their stars a bit less throughout the regular season. There will be moments that test his and the Raptors’ resolve, though.

Raptors Praise Malachi Flynn After Stellar Summer Outings – Sports Illustrated

“I’ve noticed from him just in the times that we did see him this summer, is a guy carrying himself with a little more confidence. I think the way he played and scored in some of those leagues just gave him a feel and that’s what summer league can do,” Nurse said. “He was really outstanding today in practice, he was making shots and hitting floaters, and his team was having a lot of success out there today. So it was good, really good to see.”

Nurse’s message to Flynn has been clear throughout. He wants more grittiness from the 6-foot-1, 175-pound guard. He wants more pressure defenses, getting on the floor for loose balls, getting up in transition offensively, pushing the pace, and, of course, shot making.

“He’s going to have to be a shot maker like he comes off in a certain coverage and he’s open, he’s going to have to be able to knock them down,” Nurse said of Flynn when last season ended. “I think that is one area he has to get better.”

So far Flynn hasn’t been able to do that. He’s shot just 32.6% from three-point range through two seasons. For him, with his size and physical limitations, that’s not good enough.

This season is going to be a make-or-break year for Flynn. At times he’s shown glimpses of being a valuable rotation player. Other times, it hasn’t been there at all. Entering Year 3, with newfound confidence, Flynn looks ready to finally find his footing.

Raptors Praise Dalano Banton, Juancho Hernangomez at Camp – Sports Illustrated

“Dalano was as good as anyone on the floor out there today. He was as good as anyone there was at practice today,” Nurse told reporters in Victoria, B.C. “He’s in great shape because of (playing with Team Canada) right now. He, again, not to get carried away from one day of practice but he was as good as anyone out there today. He’s probably ahead of everybody just because of the rhythm he got spending three weeks with the team.”

With Hernangomez, Nurse has been impressed with the size and floor spacing skills of the 6-foot-9 Spaniard who has been a 35% three-point shooter for his career.

“He, to me, still a similar size guy you can switch with defensively but he’s going to be one of the guys who plays a little more on the perimeter spacing,” Nurse said of Hernangomez. “He can catch and shoot the ball and I’m anxious to see how he fits in.”

Banton and Hernandomez will likely start the season just out of the rotation behind Chris Boucher, Precious Achiuwa, and Otto Porter Jr, but if the past few seasons have taught the Raptors anything, depth just outside the rotation has become more important than ever.

Vegas seems to be undervaluing Raptors, once again | Toronto Sun

No fewer than seven teams in the Eastern Conference, according to betting line win totals for the year, have a higher total than the 45 ½ Vegas insiders peg Toronto’s expected performance at.

The Boston Celtics, favourites to win the East, have a betting line total of 53.5, tops in the entire league.

In descending order in the East the next most wins belong to Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Miami, Cleveland, Atlanta and then Toronto.

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