The following is part of Raptors Republic’s series of pieces reviewing the season for the Toronto Raptors. You can find all the pieces in the series here.
Masai Ujiri said so much of significance in his press conference with assembled media that what he said about Dalano Banton could easily have slipped under the radar.
“I don’t think you could tell what Pascal was going to be after one year, two years,” Ujiri began. “I don’t think we can tell what Koloko is going to be yet. I don’t know that we can tell what Dalano is going to be yet. That’s an incredible young talent, just hasn’t panned out on the court.”
His praise was somewhat less effusive for the other young guns: “Malachi, up and down,” was all he said.
But during the almost-hour-long back and forth, Banton earned some of Ujiri’s fondest words. And he does have an enormous amount of talent. His strengths are tantalizing. He is an elite cutter with great feel for soft pockets and opening lanes. Largely because he’s a good cutter, he also ends up in great spots for offensive rebounds. (Boosting Toronto’s offensive rebounding is the only area of the game in which Banton has had positive on/offs in both of his seasons.) He can make quick decisions inside the arc, and he has dexterous passing touch, particularly for his size. He’s long, and he improved from a miserable finisher in his rookie year to a great one this past season, adding more touch and strength around the rim.
When those skills are unearthed, Banton can look great. With other ballhandlers around him on a spaced floor, he can stampede cut to get into the lane and spray the ball around the court to punish rotations. He is a great cutter, particularly from the wings extended on 45 cuts. He injects the team with pace, forces it into transition, and adds extra possessions. He’s never been as poor a defender as people make him out to be, and though he makes mistakes, he adds value with blocks, steals, and rebounds.
Banton offers much the same value — in more of a game of chance and obviously lesser quantities — as players like Scottie Barnes or Precious Achiuwa. But as with those players, the team isn’t doing him any favours.
It hurts that the Raptors weren’t really able to put the required context around Banton. Toronto doesn’t have a whole lot of spacing — or players who really force rotations. There isn’t enough pace in the rest of the roster to create situations where his cutting and movement do much. (Basically, a second-round project in his sophomore year isn’t going to fix Toronto’s entire structural flaw of pace.) The team defense wasn’t good enough to make up for his mistakes early in the season when he had a shot at the rotation, and he didn’t have a shot at the rotation later when the defense was better.
His strengths did show up at times in 2022-23. At the very least, Banton had some small moments of brilliance as he weaponized his cutting and passing to look for stretches like the best offensive player on the court. That those moments were mostly limited to just one game against the Detroit Pistons is just as telling: There are few contexts in which Banton can use his strengths to impact the game.
And that’s where Banton’s own issues hurt his ability to crack the rotation. Even though his jumper looked significantly improved in terms of aesthetics, his accuracy jumped from 25.5 to 29.4 percent. Neither of those marks are obviously going to cut it, and Banton just doesn’t do enough to play minutes when he’s actively hurting Toronto’s already-disastrous spacing. Barnes and Achiuwa have so many other subtle skills that they can hurt the team’s spacing and still win their minutes. Banton just can’t. Shooting is, unfortunately, a make-or-break situation for him. If he can get up to league average, the skills can pop. (That he shot 3-of-7 from deep in that Pistons game in November made all the difference.)
Banton isn’t helped by Toronto’s context (much like every other Raptor), but he also hurt Toronto’s own situation with his weaknesses. Shooting is just one of those issues.
There are other, smaller things. Banton’s handle isn’t tight enough to be a point guard, and he can’t really beat his primary defender without a head start or an advantage. He can still get bumped off his driving lines, though he did get stronger there this past season. He can’t score anywhere but at the rim.
As a result of those issues, Banton had few chances this past season. He bounced in and out of the rotation for most of 2022, including scoring five the game after dropping 27 against the Pistons, and then not dressing in the next two contests. He had plenty of chances with 10-to-20 minutes played, but he couldn’t fix Toronto’s weaknesses, and in some ways exacerbated them. By the middle of December, he sat for 20 straight. He only played in nine games for the rest of the season, and most of those were in garbage time. He ended up playing fewer than half of the minutes he played in his rookie year.
The thing is, Banton is an incredible young talent. Ujiri was right about that. But he duplicates a number of strengths already on Toronto’s roster (only one person can grab an offensive rebound) without shooting or creating for himself. In many ways, Banton reflected the Raptors’ season, strengths and weaknesses both. Until the team context shifts around him, it is unlikely he can become a fixture in the rotation.
Or he can become an at least passable shooter, tighten his handle, and be able to play a little point guard. He needs to be more than an incredible young talent, or Toronto needs to be a team that can take advantage of him. Until one or both of those happen, his seasons will be limited to small explosions in context-friendly games, followed by weeks of sitting on the bench.