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Koloko in the spotlight | Barnes' development is key

Scottie Barnes’ evolution may be gradual, but it is essential for Raptors – The Athletic

The tricky part is that Barnes’ rate of growth will impact so much about the Raptors’ ability to go from good to great. There are other ways for the team to get better: Siakam elevating like he thinks he can, VanVleet and Anunoby staying healthier, Precious Achiuwa reigning in his freelancing on offence while keeping his aggressive instincts, Christian Koloko giving the Raptors a less stressful way to play defence in the regular season, depth protecting the starters from overuse in the regular season, and on and on.

Barnes is the biggest, and most likely, swing piece, though. The quicker he hits stardom, the more time he will have to intersect with the primes of Siakam and VanVleet. The sooner he locks into his potential as a transcendent playmaker, backline defender and rebounding beast, the more time he has to act as an enhancer of his teammates’ best qualities.

“I’m not sure what kind of player Scottie he can become,” said Utah head coach Will Hardy, who saw Barnes up close as an assistant for Boston last year. “I think that’s mostly because he seems to have a really high ceiling. And the thing that stands out, first and foremost is his physical presence at his age. His strength and athleticism really shows on both ends of the floor, which is unique for somebody in their first year in the NBA.”

“Last year was a fill-out process. Now he understands the game,” teammate Thaddeus Young added. “He understands the flow of the game, how the pace is going to be. He can dictate the pace to (the point when) sometimes he’ll be the guy we’re depending on, we’re leaning on to get our energy going, get our focus going, get our mindset going. I just think that’s the biggest difference right now. As he continually plays, the progress will come, we’ll continue to see a lot of things we didn’t expect to see at the beginning of the year.”

Still, it’s a lot of pressure for a guy who just turned 21, and a prospect who was considered a question mark on offence 16 months ago when he was drafted. The reports that the Raptors wouldn’t consider trading him for Kevin Durant in the offseason — it would have been a complicated deal, since Barnes’ low salary would have all but necessitated the Raptors also include Gary Trent Jr. and Anunoby in the same trade — will only put a finer point on that.

Barnes carries himself as if he is impervious to that kind of pressure, but the second game of the regular season is in Brooklyn. If you think New York reporters won’t remind him of his untouchable status in those trade talks, and what it means in the larger context for the Raptors, you haven’t been paying attention to the NBA news cycle. That’s on top of the focus that comes with being the lone recent high-lottery pick on a competitive team that has designs on something more.

“We need to just tell him, ‘Continue to follow the path that’s guided you here. Continue to work,’” Young said. “There’s always going to be a lot on your shoulders, especially when you have these expectations that you have to live up to or people want you to live up to. But it’s about living up to your own expectations. You set goals and you try to accomplish and achieve your goals. And you put that task on your shoulders as opposed to everyone else’s achievements they want you to do. Be comfortable in your own skin. Just know who you are and what you do as a player. But you have guys like me, Fred, (Otto Porter Jr.), Pascal, guys that can help groom you into what you’re supposed to be, or what you’re going to be in the future as well as the organization and the coaching staff. Everyone’s putting their right foot forward to make sure he develops the right way and that development continues.”
It’s the right point to make. However, there is some urgency in making sure the development comes along at a quick rate if the Raptors are going to take a leap in the next few years.

Thankfully, there is the runway of the regular season to ease Barnes into a gradually bigger role.

“It was really a perfect fit, to be honest,” Barnes said. “Me being as versatile as I am, being able to go out there on the floor helps on defence when I can switch. They allowed me to be who I am, … allowed me to play freely on the defensive end as well as the offensive end. Being able to go and attack and them giving me that confidence, like I said, I think it was a perfect fit here and I’m just blessed to be in this position.”
Accepting pressure as a gift, and not a curse, should go a long way. That’s the idea, anyway.

Toronto Raptors preview: Predictions and analysis for the 2022-23 NBA season – The Athletic

In particular, the upcoming free agencies of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. would seem to weigh heavily on this team’s present-day planning. VanVleet, after making the All-Star team in 2022, is likely desirable enough to blow off an extension offer (and decline his player option next summer) and hit unrestricted free agency. The maximum the Raptors can give VanVleet on an extension is a starting salary of $25.5 million for 2023-24; he can almost certainly do better than that (and get more years) if he plays it out.

The Raptors can always bring him back with Bird rights, of course — they’ve already done this twice — but unrestricted free agency always presents risks. (The same scenario applies, incidentally, to O.G. Anunoby, who can opt out of his $19.9 million salary in 2024 and presumably command a significant raise.)

Ditto for Trent Jr., who on one hand is only 23 years old and is the best shooter on the team, but on the other fits uneasily within the reset of this concept as a not-all-that-switchable 6-foot-4 guard (not to mention an overly thirsty shot hunter). Trent’s contract with Toronto seemed slightly bizarre even at the time — a three-year deal with a player option, a contract that seemed to punt on much of the upside of signing a then-22-year-old in the first place and isn’t extendable until after the option date.

Cap-wise, keeping both Trent Jr. and VanVleet while avoiding the luxury tax seems, if not impossible, certainly challenging. On the flip side, however, the Raptors also have all of their own future first-round picks, a boatload of potential 2024 cap room (when Scottie Barnes and Chris Boucher are the only players with guaranteed deals right now) and possess a multitude of tradeable contacts. It just feels like something is about to give.

In the meantime, Raptors fans can once again enjoy one of the most unique teams in the league, one that may be paving the way for what the future of the league looks like. Jokes about “’Vision 6-9” aside, it’s quite amazing how many similar-sized, switchable players the Raptors have acquired over the past three years … and how few centers.

Of the 15 players most likely to make the opening day roster, only rookie center Koloko is taller than 6-9 … but nine players stand either 6-8 or 6-9, and the 6-7 Anunoby plays big enough to effectively make it 10. The Raptors often started groups with no center and brought three off the bench at the same time (Thaddeus Young, Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa), and somehow Nick Nurse made it all work.

Amazingly, they added two more players in the same size category. Porter is a classic glue guy, a knockdown 3-point shooter who can make the right pass and mostly hold his own defending forwards. He’s guaranteed to miss time with assorted nicks and strains, but the Raptors should be able to manage him through the year. Meanwhile, Hernangomez comes off a strong EuroBasket tournament and could be a factor in the playing rotation after wallowing at the end of three teams benches last season.

The Raptors are unique in other respects. Despite not playing a real big man, they were phenomenal on the offensive boards, finishing second in offensive rebound rate. It was a widely distributed performance, the result of a schematic decision to send multiple players to the boards and gamble that their impressive overall team speed could stem the tide in transition. Toronto seemed to win that bet: While they were sixth in opponent transition frequency, the Raptors had the sixth-best transition defense on a per-play basis.

Raptors’ Dalano Banton enjoying support of fans across Canada | The Star

Shields, who got to know Raptors coach Nick Nurse when both worked with the British women’s and men’s teams at the 2012 London Olympics, was a constant presence at Toronto practices at the University of Victoria. He’d developed an affinity for the 22-year-old Banton and took one last opportunity to impart some of his considerable knowledge to the intriguing six-foot-nine youngster.

Be active, defend with aggression, play with pace, stay true to your skills and not try to do too much, the words poured out. Be long and wide in a defensive stance and, always, keep up a work ethic that shows respect for your team and the game.

Banton listened without saying a word, nodding when Shields demonstrated the kind of defensive stance he should employ, smiling a bit when Shields heaped praise on him.

It’s got to be special to be a young Canadian and second-year NBAer knowing that there are fans and coaches nationwide who want nothing but the best for the humble, friendly young man.

“They just continue to push me in the right direction so it’s pretty easy for me to trust, easy to build when I see results happening,” Banton said Sunday, reflecting on the chat before the Raptors opened their pre-season by routing the Utah Jazz in Edmonton.

“They’re going to keep continuing to push me … it’s going to be good.”

It’s hard to find anyone cheering against Banton because he’s a good kid with a good story and a solid, if still raw, professional game.

He flies around the court with abandon, 100 kilometres an hour, always pushing a frenetic pace. It’s fun to watch and his teammates and coaches think that once he grasps the nuances of the NBA game, when to slow down a bit, when to go full tilt, he might be something to behold.

Dalano Banton of the Toronto Raptors spoke to fans before an exhibition game Sunday night in Edmonton.

“There’s a progression to the game slowing down for guys as they gain experience and you can see that with him,” Fred VanVleet said after Banton had nine points, three rebounds, three assists and a couple of steals against the Jazz.

“Picking his spots, knowing where to attack, getting stronger and being able to finish at the rim.

“Last year he came in with amazing pace and that height at 6-9 but for him to really read the floor and know the system and kind of run the team a bit, I think that’s where he’s probably grown most and will continue to grow.”

Raptors Praise Christian Koloko as Defensive Menace – Sports Illustrated

For a 22-year-old second-round pick, Koloko actually looked pretty stellar defensively Sunday night. He was communicating, calling out switches, and in position more often than not. When one of his teammates got beat on the perimeter, it was Koloko who slid over, deterring the shot, and forcing the kickout pass, allowing the Raptors to recover.

“Just being down there, it’s a difference having a seven-footer … versus when we play small,” Fred VanVleet said of Koloko. “Sometimes you just gotta be there to scare people and he definitely has the ability to do that.”

It’s the shots that don’t happen that Koloko deserves credit for. When Clarkson beat Jeff Dowtin Jr. in the third quarter, Koloko stepped over, walling off what would have been an easy layup, and forcing a kick-out pass to Collin Sexton. 

“He’s making some plays. Doesn’t really make a lot of mistakes,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse told reporters in Edmonton. “(He) has a good understanding of what he’s doing and one of the things I like about him is he’s got a pretty good engine for work each day and that’s really important. I know I say that a lot, but not everybody has that capacity to work that hard and he does. If you have that, that almost always equals getting better quickly.”

The Raptors aren’t going to ask a lot of Koloko this season. He’s still limited offensively and he’s going to have to get stronger before the league’s best players are shying away from attacking him inside. That being said, Koloko gives Toronto a look it didn’t have last season. Now the Raptors can really get aggressive defensively knowing opposing teams have to think twice when they begin to pound the paint.

Raptors 905 add Pascal Siakam’s Brother to Coaching Staff – Sports Illustrated

Christian, Siakam’s second oldest brother, joins the organization after having worked closely with the Raptors 905 last season. It’s the first official coaching experience for Christian who previously played professional basketball in Bahrain and Malaysia.

Kissi returns to the 905, having previously coached under Jama Mahlalela in 2018. Last season, Kissi was an assistant coach for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in the G League while also leading the Guelf Night Hawks as head coach and general manager in the Canadian Elite Basketball League.

Nichols, a former standout collegiate player at Syracuse, will join the staff after spending last season coaching at his alma mater. He joined the Raptors first as a coach for the Summer League team before taking on his new role as an assistant coach for the 905.

Lewis joins the organization after earning the Wayne and Theresa Embry fellowship in 2021-22. He spent the last season with the Raptors working in coaching and player development and will now transition into a full-time assistant coaching position in the G League.

Gray, a Mississauga native, spent last season as a video coordinator for the Boston College men’s basketball team. He previously worked as a graduate assistant at Baylor University and a student manager on the University of Waterloo men’s basketball team.

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