There is perhaps no better feeling than getting ready to head outside of your home — let’s say, on a beautiful, Autumn day — putting on your jacket, and finding a five-dollar bill in your pocket that you had believed empty. Wait, no: Thinking you’re out of beer, heading to the fridge just to check, and finding one more. Or: Thinking your war is over, your people defeated, and when you sally out for death and glory, finding unexpected allies.
It turns out finding something good where you thought there was nothing is a universal joy.
But in an enclosed, zero-sum environment, finding value where you thought it didn’t exist isn’t just a source of joy. It’s also a means to winning.
The Toronto Raptors spent years pulling proverbial rabbits out of proverbial voids. A late-first-round draft pick joining the All-NBA team? Check. An undrafted player becoming an All Star? Yessir. A castaway point guard becoming one of the most important drivers of success in a decade? The foundation of it all. Such events constitute joy for fans and wins for teams.
But watching Toronto’s 2023 (2024?) Summer League team has been an experience shockingly free of rabbits. It’s crucial to note that this is just Summer League. Losing Summer League games is a-ok! Good teams do it all the time. Good players can play poorly. But it’s also hard for players who will eventually be ready to play NBA minutes to not show some elements in Summer League against the sub-NBA-level competition. In that way, Summer League is also a valuable indicator about whether a team has found a free five-dollar bill, or the last beer, or something from nothing. If a team is going to find value where it generally wouldn’t, you should know it in Summer League.
Finding value where there shouldn’t be any has also been a commonality of recent successful teams. During the last five championships, 10 rotation players from the Finals teams were not drafted.
Finding value where other teams can’t is a huge advantage. Or, put another way: Of the three players drafted since 2010 in the second round with the highest Win Shares, all have won championships.
It’s interesting to note that of those 10, only three (VanVleet, Toscano-Anderson, and Robinson) signed their first-career contracts with the teams that eventually took them to the Finals. It’s much more common for unexpected players to need years of seasoning — with multiple franchises — before they contribute to winning basketball. So it’s not a death knell that Toronto’s Summer League roster doesn’t seem to have any outsized contributors yet. But the Raptors also haven’t added anyone to a minimum contract, with its non-rookie free agency signings this year going to veterans like Jakob Poeltl, Dennis Schroder, and Jalen McDaniels. It’s much less common for players who’ve been contributors for long periods of time to suddenly massively outperform their contracts.
(Of course, a crucial caveat is one word: yet. Toronto still has time, money, and roster space available to find a gem from Summer League. Vegas has not yet closed up shop. But with each game that passes, finding unheralded contributors becomes more and more difficult because other teams are watching the same games as Toronto.)
If there’s any chance of an already found player becoming a real contributor, it is Markquis Nowell. He has proven to be one of the most magical passers in basketball right out of the gate. His bag is deep and full of rabbits. He has uncorked no-looks, hook skips, bounce thread-the-needles, and everything in between. He is a sorcerer with the ball, and he could be averaging double-digit assists if his teammates could hit shots. His pick and rolls with Moses Brown have been Toronto’s only offensive weapon.
But Facundo Campazzo has had a lot of trouble hacking it in the NBA. Like Nowell, Campazzo is also a generationally gifted passer, but his inability to impact the game as a scorer combined with his ability to be bullied on the defensive end have given him trouble. And Campazzo, my height, is three inches taller than Nowell.
Like Campazzo, Nowell has had difficulty scoring the basketball in Summer League. His first game was phenomenal, hitting every shot he threw at the rim. But his jumper vanished against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he had great trouble finishing over length. His splashy layups high off glass rimmed out, and his push shots didn’t display the touch needed.
If Nowell is a knockdown shooter, the rest should come. He will open up space for his passing, and his finishing ought to pop because defenders will have to make impossible choices. But he shot 35.3 percent from deep in college (although 86.6 percent from the line, which bodes well). It’s not certain that he’ll be a strong enough scorer to unlock his passing against the length of the NBA. (Campazzo shot 34.0 percent from deep in Europe, as a point of comparison, and 82.2 percent from the line, which he’s basically matched in the NBA. So Nowell could project slightly better there.)
And defensively, he is incredible at stealing the ball, with a top-50 steal rate in college last year. But so too is Campazzo, with a steal rate at or above the 90th percentile every season of his career in the NBA. It will be exceptionally hard in the modern NBA for a player who stands 5-foot-7 to be a defensive positive. If anyone could, it would be Nowell. But I will need to see it to believe it. As it stands, the cards are stacked against him in becoming a rotation player in the NBA, despite his incredible moments in Summer League.
Outside of Nowell, players haven’t popped. There’s been very little passing — which makes some sense, given players are competing for contracts. But there’s also been little scoring, shooting, or self-creation. The shooting specialists haven’t been able to get open enough to hit shots, and the slashers haven’t been able to beat primary defenders. There have been defensive breakdowns, particularly in transition. The result has been difficult-to-watch basketball. Again: That doesn’t really matter. But it does mean the Raptors likely don’t have any diamonds buried in the coal mine at the moment.
Of course, Dick has shown plenty of positives — and he will surely be a rotation player in the NBA. His shooting hasn’t popped, but that doesn’t matter. His passing and rebounding have been great, which are more meaningful to see. He’s much more than just a shooter. His feel for the game is impressive. He will need to become much stronger, as his cuts are frequently getting bumped off his chosen lines by stronger defenders. That will come, but it’s meaningful. For now, Dick is a player meant to complement on-ball stars — on a team without any of them. He will look better with the big club.
But he is supposed to be a rotation player in the NBA. He isn’t found money so much as par for the course for a lottery pick. Toronto needs found money right now, particularly with all of its former found-money stars on (or about to be on) monstrous contracts — or simply on other teams. In a salary-cap environment, having players outperform their contracts is foundational.
If all else holds, it seems like the Raptors will spend another offseason failing to find that advantage. Perhaps Nowell becomes an NBA contributor down the road, but he has much to improve in order for that to happen. And even if he does, it likely won’t be for the Raptors. Toronto is doing exactly what is expected. Most teams don’t find the secret sauce of hidden value. But look at the list of Finals teams with undrafted contributors; most of them hail from only three teams. Finding contributors where other teams don’t is not the purview of most teams, but it is a path to success.
Entering a season with renewed expectations under a new coaching staff, it might be a problem that Toronto is doing what is expected when it comes to magic acts. Normal is the new normal; but to turn the ship around, Toronto might need to find diamonds in the rough once more.