Nurse was non-committal Monday about whether the line-up he started with against Dallas — Scottie Barnes also came off the bench for the first regular season game in his Raptors career — would be in place when Toronto visits the New Orleans Pelicans Wednesday night.
Trent Jr. says he’s willing to roll with whatever. “I’m not sure [what will happen],” he said. “We got the win. I’m just going to continue to go with the season, continue to work on my craft, work on my shot, get my shots up after practice, before practice, earlier in the day.”
But no one has more at stake than Trent Jr. himself in getting his season back on track. On paper he profiles as someone in line for a lucrative payday this summer. Shooting guards of a similar profile have been cashing in. Jordan Poole, Tyler Herro and Anfernee Simons all signed deals recently ranging from $100 million to $140 million in value.
Given the Raptors’ upcoming cap crunch — Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, and Scottie Barnes are all eligible for big-money extensions either this summer or next — there is no guarantee they will be able to sign Trent Jr. in any case. But as a pending free agent (he has a player option which he is almost certain to decline) you want all the demand in the marketplace you can possibly get. Having the Raptors decide they can live without him in the summer, or trade him before the deadline because they judge that he can’t help them now, would not be the preferred look.
But to Trent Jr.’s credit, he outwardly seems unphased by a lineup shuffle, by having his coach call him out or being brought off the bench.
He knows one way to deal with a slump, and that’s to keep working. After the game Monday night he immediately went up to the warm-up court on the upper level of Scotiabank Arena with his dad, nine-year NBA veteran Gary Trent, and Raptors player development coach Rico Hines.
“All you got to do is dive into your work, and even overtime, or triple time. More and more and more,” said Trent Jr. “I just got from the gym now. I just continue to make it part of my routine: I got two workouts in before I even went on the court today.”
“I gotta do [it],” he adds. “Even for your own peace of mind, whether your shots are falling or not, you know you was in the gym. But if you’re like, ‘ah I should have went back this time’ or ‘I could have went’ — that’s when know you were [BS-ing] and not doing your job to the best of your abilities. So for your own peace of mind and your own sake, continue to work and everything will be okay.”
The Raptors would love it if that’s how it shakes out. A strong outing against the high-powered Pelicans would suit everyone’s timing. A potential game-breaker and floor stretcher who can disrupt defensively would fit in nicely, either starting or coming off the bench.
Trent Jr. has been that player before and continues to work so he can be again, sooner rather than later, ideally.
Before Gary Trent Jr. buried a couple of three-pointers in a game for just the third time this month, snapping a rough streak of poor shooting, I was starting to wonder something that would have been laughable on media day: Is it possible that Trent might have to opt in to his contract with the Raptors for a bit north of $18 million. Trent had been coming off a career season when camp began and it seemed an ironclad certainty he’d opt-out to become an unrestricted free agent. Even a repeat of his 2021-22 would have been enough to guarantee a multi-year deal likely worth well over $20 million a year.
But the worst shooting month since Trent became a regular and a major step back defensively at least made it a tiny bit plausible that he could wait a year before cashing in, betting on a bounce-back.
Trent’s been much better defensively lately and his seven steals over two games before he located his jump shot in Monday’s win over Cleveland indicated he’s getting back to being the player he was last year.
We’re only approaching the 25% mark of the season, so Trent’s decision is a long way off. Much can and will happen before he makes the call.
The hope for the Raptors is the Trent we’ve seen this past week is the one they’ll get the rest of the way. Even if that costs them some money and flexibility, should he re-sign.
It was interesting to see Nick Nurse bring Trent (and Scottie Barnes) off the bench. Barnes will be back with the first group soon, but we’ve argued here since training camp Trent should be the sixth man. He’d be great in that role and with so many forward options on his bench and so few viable guards, it would make Nurse’s life a lot easier. Especially when Precious Achiuwa returns. Once Otto Porter is back he makes sense because of his shooting. Both he and fill-in starter Thad Young are excellent on the boards, but Porter brings more to the table offensively because he’s a great shooter (though Young is a better passer).
If it’s time for a big-picture check at the 20-game mark of this Raptors season, there are more than a few reasons for optimism. They have won two games in a row. Pascal Siakam is healthy again. Toronto’s defence, led by shutdown specialist OG Anunoby, is looking dangerously disruptive. Despite some grim injury luck, the Raptors, at 11-9, are holding their own in a beefed-up East.
But if there’s reason for pause when considering their ultimate upside, maybe it’s this: Only one of Toronto’s 10 most-used players is shooting better than 36 per cent from three-point range.
Thirty-six per cent was the league average for three-point accuracy heading into Tuesday’s games, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Which is to say, of the 10 Raptors who have seen the court the most this season, only Fred VanVleet, who’s drilling his usual 38 per cent from deep, can call himself an above-average NBA three-point shooter. Anunoby and Scottie Barnes, both shooting 35 per cent, are close. So is Siakam, at 34 per cent.
Still, the Raptors, as a collective, are shooting just 33 per cent from three-point range, which ranks 23rd in the league. That’s on pace to be the franchise’s worst performance from behind the arc since 2010-11, when the Raptors made 32 per cent of their threes and won all of 22 games. If you look at Toronto’s overall marksmanship through the lens of the advanced stat known as true shooting percentage, which takes into account a team’s accuracy from both the field and the free-throw line, the picture is even uglier. Toronto ranks 29th in the 30-team NBA. They finished 27th in true shooting percentage a season ago and managed to make the playoffs.
“Look at the tape, get in the gym, shoot better,” VanVleet said recently, speaking of the in-house recipe for in-season improvement. “That’s kind of the formula, you know what I mean? … You can’t get too up or too down.”
Indeed, shooting runs hot and cold by nature. Twenty-game samples are far from definitive. But for a team that takes considerable pride in its skill-development machinery, much of which goes into the daily honing of individual shooting strokes, the early returns from three-point range have to qualify as disappointing.
Not that Toronto head coach Nick Nurse, who wrote a cult-classic handbook on the art and science of the jump shot, is ready to entertain the notion that a cold-handed start is anything more than a temporary state of affairs.
“First of all, I think we are a good shooting team,” Nurse said last week. “I think we are generating a lot of a really good shots from three. I think we are a little heavy on the non-paint two, long paint shots, right now. That, we will probably clean up as we go here a little bit.
“But as far as generating catch-and-shoot threes for the guys we want to have them, we are doing a pretty good job of that.”
Nurse got momentary confirmation of that last assertion in Monday’s convincing win over Cleveland, in which the Raptors went 12-for-28 from three-point range, including a blistering 10-for-16 on catch-and-shoot three-point attempts. In the six games before Monday, mind you, the Raptors had made no more than eight three-pointers of any variety in any outing.
“Whatever they want to do, it doesn’t really matter to me,” Barnes said. “We know what we can do as a team. It worked out for us (Monday), whatever goes, it goes. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Trent Jr. hasn’t been shooting the ball as well as he’s capable for more than three weeks now and he wasn’t about to fuss over the decision.
“It is what it is,” Trent Jr. said after returning from a post-game shooting session with his father and assistant coach Rico Hines.
“In the game, day in and day out, whatever coach’s game plan is we are going to follow, going to be with him 100%, back him, and try to execute it to the best of our abilities and that’s what we did tonight,” Trent Jr. said.
Both Barnes and Trent Jr. still played 26 minutes in the game, and both produced with Barnes scoring 11, assisting on five others and Trent Jr. hitting two of his five threes in a 14-point performance that also included seven rebounds.
Nurse was not tipping his hand when asked if this rotation was one he could see sticking with for a while.
“I don’t know,” Nurse said. “I think I’ll probably have to look at the lineup that we’re going to be facing in the next game. And then just try to figure it out. It could be totally different.”
Nurse suggested his choice of starters Monday night had more to do with the odd circumstances the team found itself in having to re-introduce a number of players all at once with Siakam, Barnes, Dalano Banton, and even Justin Champagnie (although he did not play) into the mix all at once.
“Well, I think that it was more of a case of not throwing a whole bunch of guys out there at the same time that are out of rhythm, haven’t played, maybe played one game, etc. just trying to keep some balance with some guys that have been kind of logging some minutes etc., so that’s the way we decided to do it,” Nurse said of the sudden shake-up.
“I think we got caught on that one time a year ago or maybe two where we had a whole bunch of guys kind of coming back at once and we threw them all out there and we just got smacked, so we just tried to learn from that a little bit, and we just tried to keep some guys with some rhythm together and it seemed to be pretty good,” Nurse said.
Nurse, though, could very well be looking at this as an opportunity to address the offensive shortcomings his bench has been playing with for much of the year.
“You see him doing amazing things, score the ball at a higher level, being efficient, rebounding, pushing the ball, the things that he brings to the game, it’s amazing to see,” Barnes said of Siakam. “Watching Pascal play is like, wow, damn. Every move he makes, the stepbacks, the spin moves, double spin moves, you know it’s coming but still, bang. It’s great to have him back out there on the floor.”
No matter what the Cavaliers tried to do in the first half, Cleveland had no answer for Siakam who didn’t miss a beat in his first game back from a 10-game absence due to a right adductor strain. While so many other Raptors players have struggled in the mid-range this season, Siakam has found a home there, connecting on six of 12 shots outside the restricted area on Monday.
“[It’s] amazing to see him out there on the floor the way he scores the ball. Stepbacks, spin moves, be able to reject, all these different things. It’s just like, wow. The way he scores is amazing to watch,” Barnes added.
For Barnes, those shots are all areas of development. He’s just 13-for-58 this season on fadeaways, stepbacks, pull-ups, and turnaround jumpers this year.
Are those skills Barnes wants to get in the gym and learn from Siakam, a reporter asked the sophomore forward Monday night.
“Low key. Low key,” he said smiling. “I need to work on my step back.”
The Raptors dictate the identity of their games
Having an identity is one thing, but being able to actually force that identity onto your opponent and dictate the style of games on a night-to-night basis is another. And that is what the Raptors have been able to do this season, injecting a sense of fast-paced chaos into the games with their tall and lengthy roster, which helped them go 5-5 with Siakam and others out of the lineup.
For the third season in a row, the Raptors are forcing the highest amount of turnovers in the league while rarely turning it over themselves. They are also grabbing the third highest percentage of offensive rebounds in the league and ranking in the middle of the pack on the defensive glass, giving them a historically high number of possessions to play with — and their opponents a historically low amount. In fact, the Raptors are averaging 8.5 extra scoring chances per game than their opponent, which is 4.5 more than the No. 2 team and the same difference between the second team and the 18th team. Get that many extra possessions and the Raptors can live with having an effective field goal percentage of 50.4 compared to their opponents shooting 55.2 percent.
“We’re getting there, I think, defensively,” Nick Nurse said about the team’s identity coming into shape. “I just know that that’ll get you out of some nights when we don’t shoot it well or don’t offensive rebound it or whatever, that’ll get you in games. And I just think that we can grab and seize momentum based on our defense in a lot of games right and just knowing that it’s going to be hard to score [against us], I think has a bigger overall effect on the game.”