Morning Coffee – Fri, Oct 21

Kol

10 Things: Raptors complete exciting comeback on opening night – Sportsnet

Two: The Raptors made all the little plays in the fourth quarter to secure the win. There was Fred VanVleet, the smallest player on the floor wrestling 7-footer Jarrett Allen to the deck for a loose rebound, which created a fast-break dunk. VanVleet also fought diligently through a screen in the final minute and took the hit in exchange for a moving screen foul on Cedi Osman. In the final minute, when the Raptors needed to inbound safely in a two-point game, Gary Trent Jr. smartly cut to the backcourt to receive the pass while the Cavaliers were caught napping. Then, after failing to hit both to put the game away, O.G. Anunoby alertly took an intentional foul to prevent the Cavaliers from getting a look from three with no timeouts left. To cap it off, Scottie Barnes made a hard cut to give VanVleet a target on the ensuing inbound, then pushed the ball ahead before Cleveland could foul him so Precious Achiuwa could ice the game with a dunk. None of those may have been highlight-worthy plays, but it’s absolutely vital to play smart in close games.

‘Committed to winning’: Can Scottie Barnes take the next step toward superstardom? – Sportsnet.ca

B arnes’ willingness to do the work only captures one part of what makes those familiar with him so excited about where all of this can lead. At the Raptors’ training camp in Victoria, one of head coach Nick Nurse’s guests was former University of Victoria and Canadian men’s team head coach Ken Shields. Now 76, Shields is one of the most accomplished coaches Canada has ever produced, in any sport. He won seven straight titles with UVic, had several players represent Canada internationally, was pivotal in the early development of a promising local kid named Steve Nash and was a sought-out clinician and consultant for years after his retirement. He suffers no fools and sees everything on and off the court through the prism of how it affects team success.

After four days of watching the Raptors practice behind closed doors on the floor that bears his name at the university’s athletic centre, Shields shared his thoughts on Barnes and, tellingly, it wasn’t Barnes’ size or athleticism or skill that impressed. Instead, it was the harder-to-measure attributes that are so crucial to elite performance. “Sometimes talent gets in its own way,” Shields told me. “It’s not getting in Scottie’s way. He’s devoted to learning. You can see his concentration is very, very high in practice. His mind’s not drifting. He’s attentive. He tries to do what the coaches are asking him to do. He’s committed. That’s what I think is so important: his work rate, his concentration. He’s taking charge of his own talent by the quality of his effort. He wants to excel, and with his talent, the universe is open to him. It’s beautiful to see.”

Like so many things with Barnes, his focus and attention to detail seem to have come naturally. “He’s always had this ability to see something or be told something and replicate it out on the basketball court,” says Macon. “I think that’s a special talent that he has.” But that doesn’t mean he takes his abilities for granted. Barnes is intentional about fine-tuning even what comes easily. “I take pride in trying to get better every time I step on the floor,” he tells me from the chair in front of his locker. “I’m always trying to find those little things I really need to work on, like my pick-ups off the dribble or trying to get to certain spots or working on certain moves from those spots. I really try to get very detailed and get right the things my coaches or trainers are trying to teach me, because those go a long way in the process of trying to get better. I try to focus on those things because it’s going to help me in the long run, but it’s a process.”

The early returns were evident even before the Raptors met in Victoria. The first hint came in intra-squad scrimmages the Raptors held in Las Vegas around Summer League. It was a glimpse of Barnes’ expanding game and confidence provided by the man himself as he enlisted a videographer to capture his off-season, then packaged it in a two-episode series titled, The Life of Scottie Barnes. In the first episode, “Summer League Edition,” Barnes narrated his own highlight package, to the delight of 146,000 viewers (and counting). “Breaking the defender down. Giving him a little bump. Go finish at the rim,” he says of a play in which he scored on 10-year NBA veteran and Canadian national team star Kelly Olynyk, who helped fill out the Raptors scrimmages. Over a shot of him putting teammate Precious Achiuwa on skates before pulling up for a triple: “Going downhill to a step back. Trey ball. Stick the follow through.” It’s not everyone who can pull off doing their own play-by-play and somehow make it fun or funny, rather than borderline obnoxious, but the genuine delight Barnes exudes watching himself put his newly honed skills to the test is infectious. You can’t help but root for Barnes rooting for himself.

As light-hearted as the videos are, the hope can only be that the improvement they showcase is just an appetizer. “He’s a strong kid and he’s got a good body. A lot times with young guys it’s, ‘He’ll be all right once he gets a little stronger,’ but he’s already there,” said Olynyk of his experience scrimmaging against Summer Scottie. “But I think what struck me the most is how ambidextrous he is. He’s got jump hooks with both hands, finishes with both hands, dribbles with both hands. You cut him off, he can go the other way with one strong dribble. … When he can start knocking down shots, he’s going to be a huge problem in this league. Everyone with the Raptors, with the national team, are so high on him, and you can see why. He loves basketball, loves to compete and he enjoys it. There’s not much more you can ask from a 21-year-old.”

Raptors Insider: First-round exit could mean blowing up team | The Star

So how are the Raptors going to do this season?

Even the highest of higher-ups in the organization aren’t sure and they won’t dare put a number of wins or a place in the final standings out there.

That makes entire sense because even in private moments, they talk about just wanting the team to play hard every night — and that’s a skill not every team in the league possesses — and then they’ll see where it lands them.

They do know, or expect, that consistent hard play might steal them five or six or seven games over the course of a season. That might mean the difference in finishing ninth or fourth in what is expected to be a tightly bunched Eastern Conference.

Two things that did emerge from various conversations from Victoria to Edmonton to Toronto and Montreal:
A first-round playoff elimination for the second successive season is likely going to mean a lot of roster churn in the summer of 2023. That’s not pressure, that’s just expectations from the top; they set a high bar because mediocrity is not acceptable and while Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster are patient, they’re not that patient. They may never say it out loud but, privately, the second round in the standard.

They’re too good to go entirely in the tank for France’s teen phenom Victor Wembanyama — get that out of your heads right now — but a first-round failure is going to force some moves come summertime.

The second thing is this: They are going to give this team 20 or 25 or so games to find out what it is; no panic trades, no bold moves, no major rotation switches.

But, as one top official said, they might have all kinds of options to play with at February’s trade deadline. Big contracts, small contracts, young players, established players.

Might be an explosive time and team officials are already thinking about it.

Christian Koloko is already altering how the Raptors look, if ever so slightly – The Athletic

Speaking of VanVleet, his locker room stall at Scotiabank Arena has not moved since the pandemic, as Pascal Siakam’s did. Siakam took a spot next to the entrance to the showers and tubs to give himself a little extra room, but VanVleet remains in the middle of everything — and notably, to the immediate right of Koloko’s stall. Not many second-round picks are going to attract media attention in October of their rookie years, but VanVleet had the misfortune to be sitting next to one of them, jokingly grumbling about his temporarily restricted space to get changed with media members allowed back in the locker rooms for the first time since the pandemic began.

On Wednesday night after his regular-season debut in a win over Cleveland, Koloko took it all in, but didn’t seem overwhelmed. It was more like he was taking notes. If Wednesday night was overwhelming, he had snapped back into reality by the second quarter. Cavaliers big man Jarrett Allen made sure of that.

“When I got blocked, I didn’t think it was gonna happen because I didn’t think (Allen) was going to jump because he was kind of far,” Koloko said. “But it happened. Maybe that’s my welcome to the NBA moment.

“It was really nice. He’s one of the best shot blockers out there. He showed it (Wednesday). He showed it. He played his role. He doesn’t try to do too much. Sometimes I watch video of him playing. He does what big men should do. It was really nice going against him, and also Evan Mobley.”

Allen’s production is a good aspirational target for the Raptors rookie. Fortunately, Koloko had already had some positive moments by the time Allen snuffed out his dunk attempt, so he did not have much reason to be shell-shocked. Pressed into duty at least partially because of the injuries to Khem Birch and Chris Boucher, and partly because the Cavaliers are one of the rare teams that have two 7-footers who have to be accounted for offensively, Koloko played 15 minutes in his debut. The Raptors won those minutes by three points.

That, combined with his three points, six rebounds and a block, might not sound like much. After a season in which the Raptors pushed their starters to minutes thresholds far beyond their peers, any sign of competence from a reserve is important, especially up front, where the Raptors have no other true shot-blocking, rim-running threat. Heading into the season, Koloko is probably no higher than fourth among the Raptors’ players who you could call centres if you squint hard enough.

Rookie Christian Koloko takes advantage of opportunity in Toronto Raptors’ opening night win – TSN.ca

Koloko gives the Raptors something they haven’t had in a while. He’s their first seven-footer since Alex Len’s brief tenure came to unceremonious end early in the 2020-21 season. He protects the bucket. He can rim run and be a pick and roll partner for VanVleet, and others.

What the team loves about him is that he can do a lot of the things they’ve been lacking from that position, while also fitting into their system. He runs the floor well, and while they would prefer to have him hang back and defend the rim, he’s quick enough to move his feet and guard smaller players on the perimeter.

It’s not just that he knows the game, but he also knows himself. He’s got such a keen understanding of what his strengths and weaknesses are at this stage of his career. That’s a rare quality for a young player and a good one to have as a rookie trying to carve out a role in this league.

The thing that keeps coming up about Koloko, from his teammates and coaches alike, is that he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes on the floor. That’s not something you typically hear about young big men, let alone late bloomers.

Koloko, who mainly played soccer growing up, didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 11. Initially, it was just a hobby, something he did for fun once every couple weeks. He didn’t start taking it seriously until he was 16 and he wasn’t playing competitively until he came to the United States and attended high school in California.

In college, he went from barely seeing the court during his first two seasons at Arizona to breaking out as a junior, averaging 12.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks for the Wildcats. He’s come a long way in a short period of time, which is a credit to his work ethic and natural feel for the game.

“He doesn’t really seem like a rookie with anything he does,” said Gary Trent Jr. “The way he carries himself, he’s poised on the court [and] off the court, walking around the city, all types of stuff. He’s super mature, ready, focused. He’s been a good pro so far.”

“I fell like that’s just who I am in life, in general,” Koloko said. “I kind of take everything seriously. If I’m on the court, I’m going to make the [fewest] mistakes possible. Even in life, when I was in school and was doing an assignment, I would try to get the best grade possible. So I’m just trying to be the best version of myself.”

Christian Koloko quickly winning over Raptors brass, teammates … Nets Tip-off | Toronto Sun

Beyond that, the 7-foot-1, 230-pound Koloko is the only true centre on a team that admittedly struggled at times without that kind of length.

Now that the Raptors have it and see it can work for them, what is to say they won’t reach for it again?

In his 14 minutes on the floor in the season-opening win over Cleveland on Wednesday night, Koloko gave neither Raptors management nor his teammates any reason to begrudge him getting those minutes.

Pascal Siakam, who hails from the same village in Cameroon as Koloko, is understandably pulling for his countryman. But winning is always paramount with Siakam and he won’t let any national bias get in the way of what he feels is best for the team.

Asked post-game what Koloko brings to the club, Siakam spoke for many when he answered simply: “Someone tall.
“I think we played a lot of teams last year and they just have tall people down there,” Siakam said. “Like today, (Cleveland) they’re just tall. Like, you get out there and it doesn’t feel the same if he isn’t out there. So, you know how important that is and he brings that for us. I think he’s going to be important for us and I think that, yeah, he’s just got to keep his focus and understand what we want from him.”

What the Raptors want from him — and what they’re getting from him without the kind of mistakes normally expected in a rookie — is an ability to not just hold his own within the Raptors’ defensive schemes, but make those schemes better when he’s out there. Part of it is because of that length but the other part is a nice mix of basketball IQ and a devotion to playing hard and playing physical that more than makes up for any lack of NBA experience.

“He’s not one of those bigs that can’t move, or things like that,” Siakam said. “So, he can move his feet and he understands the gameplan too. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. I mean, obviously he’s going to make mistakes, he’s a rookie. But he’s pretty smart and, yeah, he’s going to help us, I think.”

Raptors See Welcomed Addition in Christian Koloko – Sports Illustrated

Having Koloko gives the Raptors a helpful predictability on offense. Unlike last season when an opposing center could be guarding any of two or three different players on most possessions, Toronto knows Koloko will almost always be paired up against an opposing big. For switching and shot-creation purposes, that’s mismatch gold.

“There’s a little bit of just rhythm I think that helps,” Nurse said of Koloko and VanVleet. “He’s a good screener. I know point guards really appreciate that and he’s gonna come along as a roller finisher. I think he’s not quite there yet but he’s showing signs of it and I think he will come along and get some strength, get some feel and be able to put some pressure on the front of the rim.”

So far, the reviews on Koloko from his teammates have been nothing but praise. Even as a relatively new basketball player, having picked up the sport in his teens, the former Arizona Wildcat has a knack for limiting mistakes and making the right plays.

“He doesn’t really seem like a rookie at all with the way he carries himself, the way he’s poised on the court, off the court,” said Gary Trent Jr. “He’s super mature, ready, focused. Been a good pro so far.”

“He’s extremely bright,” Nurse added. “He’s got a pretty big motor, which enables him to make an effort, right? It’s like, again, playing hard and making an effort still goes a long way in contributing to a team’s success.”

Those characteristics also go a long way to sticking around in the NBA. Koloko will still need time to develop as a big, especially in terms of his strength. He finished his NBA debut just 1-for-4, missing three dunks that a stronger big likely would have finished. But that will come with time. So far Koloko has shown a willingness to learn and a work ethic to get him there. As VanVleet said Wednesday, “the sky’s the limit.”

Toronto Raptors 2022-23 Player Preview: Precious Achiuwa, ready to turn heads – Raptors HQ

Shutdown defense
In Nick Nurse’s switching defensive schemes, where any one opposing player can have a different tall human in front of them at any given time, the demand is high on players like Achiuwa.

As Jay Rosales pointed out in his player review over the summer, Achiuwa spent almost equal amounts of time guarding guards and forwards last season and was effective against each. While his initial assignment can be some of the league’s premiere names — Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James — there’s very little reason to talk about one-on-one defense when it comes to anyone on the Raptors. The proof is in how you recover, how you can move side-to-side when put on an island, and the space you can extinguish when helping.

Precious has done it all extremely well.

Coming into this year, Precious has clearly set high expectations for himself. In preseason interviews, he’s touted his ability to defend and wants to improve.

We have seen what his toolkit is and it has All-Defense written all over it. In 2021-22, Achiuwa carried an individual defensive rating 106.7, second to Chris Boucher among rotation players. He gobbled up a defensive rebound percentage of 18.8 and was part of a beastly duo of offensive rebounders besides Boucher, marking an offensive rebound percentage of 7.5. In the preseason, he’s led the team in rebounding overall with 6.4 boards per game.

This is the foundational skill of Precious Achiuwa and one we should expect to see every game throughout 2022-23. If Gary Trent Jr. is indeed the fifth starter for the Raptors, Achiuwa will be asked first to be a utility defender off the bench, sizing up Toronto’s lineups and guarding anyone on the floor.

There’s more on the table, though.

Raptors Praised by Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen – Sports Illustrated

The Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star guard was toying with Toronto, beating almost every defensive scheme the Raptors could come up with. Finally, the Raptors got creative. Instead of using some traditional pick-and-roll coverage, either switching or dropping, Toronto decided to start blitzing Mitchell. When Jarrett Allen set a screen on VanVleet, the Raptors decided to ignore the Cavaliers’ big and send both Anunoby and VanVleet at Mitchell.

“That’s not the typical defensive principle but that’s how they do it,” Mitchell said. “They have the size, they have the length, they switch, they drop, they’re in blitz, they’re in box and one, like, you never know what’s coming.”

That’s what makes Toronto so special, Mitchell said. It’s why the Raptors were a playoff team last year and are expected to be back in the mix this season.

“The randomness of their defense, they’re very good at that,” Mitchell added. “Nick Nurse is very good at that. He’s always been like that. I heard even since the G league days.”

Even Allen, the Cavaliers’ All-Defense caliber center couldn’t help but praise Toronto for the way the Raptors defend. He spent all night getting beat up in the paint as the Raptors swarmed him when he got the ball in deep.

“They’re a physical team,” he said. “Every time you go into paint, you know you’re gonna get hit and every time you know things aren’t going to be easy. You have to go in with the mindset that it’s gonna be a rough game. It’s going to be a lot of hands in the lane, hands everywhere, and just got to be ready for it.”

Toronto fans embrace ‘hate’ when cheering local teams on road | The Star

A good rivalry makes it even more thrilling. During the peak of Lebronto, a period when LeBron James dominated the Raptors franchise, Lawton found himself in Cleveland during the 2018 post-season. He was at Game 3 when James hit the buzzer-beater off the glass for the win in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

For fans at home, it was an absolutely crushing defeat. In the Cleveland arena, the defeat was palpable for Raptors fans. But for those in the comfort of their living rooms there’s a limiter to the pain, the remote control.

In the midst of the swarm on the road, there’s no off button. The acrimony can become overwhelming and it helps to have a witty remark when things get heated.

“So you get that kind of crowd mentality that kind of builds up and nothing out of line really. Just like trash talk, you know?,” Lawton said. “Like you’re walking around and everybody’s yelling at you and lipping you off and all I could clap back with is the fact that everybody in that arena is wearing a LeBron James jersey. (So, I respond) ‘where are you going to be next year when LeBron leaves?’ ”

Eventually it might be worth it to admit defeat when you’re outnumbered, especially in a flashbulb moment like James’s bank shot.

“It’s the summer, so I have the (Raptors) jersey and the hat and everything else. I took it off at a certain point. I just got tired of being singled out,” Lawton said. “Have the ability to kind of blend in the crowd just in case. But I think that for the most part, that’s the exception to the rule.”

Opposing fans are just that, opposing. The pomp and circumstance is for the home team. But there’s something special about being the spoiler.

Toronto’s Laura Whitney has cheered for the Blue Jays in 27 of the 30 MLB stadiums, a point of pride in her baseball journey. For her, feeding into the local negativity is part of the overall experience.

“I don’t sit there and be timid because you’re surrounded by a million Yankee fans,” Whitney said. “The second they see you in Blue Jay gear, they’re going to hate you. You might as well live up to their hate.”

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