Gary Trent Jr.’s next step isn’t as a scorer

Trent Jr. is set to have his best year as a pro.

Regardless of how you view Pascal Siakam & Fred VanVleet and how they lead offense, they were two of the most often doubled players in the NBA last season. Teams loaded up on the Raptors two offensive leaders without much pause. The reasoning, depending on how you view the Raptors:

  1. The problem was that they didn't have enough creation elsewhere on the roster, caught in the odd years of Scottie Barnes' steps towards All-Star creator status, and the Raptors other tertiary players (Gary Trent Jr. and O.G. Anunoby) not being well rounded enough to drive offense against a wide array of gameplans or for elongated stretches.
  2. There was an improper allocation of possessions and playstyle that negatively affected what would have been otherwise good creators (Barnes, Anunoby etc.), and made them lesser than they should have been. They were made reactionary pieces to Siakam & VanVleet's creation, instead of proactive pieces to create for themselves and others.
  3. A mix of all these things, with emphasis placed wherever you please.

The Raptors have a new coach, Darko Rajakovic, whose ethos on playstyle is more publicly accessible than most coaches you'll see. Be it scholarly articles about the pick n' roll, hours long zoom interviews about player development, long-form interviews on installing an offense, or behind the scenes videos of him working players through drills - he is on wax with his beliefs. Those beliefs, of course, are subject to the rosters he has helped coach. Sure, he's studied the pick n' roll a ridiculous amount, but when he joined both the Suns & the Grizzlies, their pick n' roll frequencies dropped. Why? Well, Devin Booker was better at working in motion and off of hand-offs, and Ja Morant wasn't the most natural pick n' roll engine because of teams going under the screens.

The approach has to change to maximize the roster. The best example across the past 30-40 years of coaching is Gregg Popovich radically altering how the Spurs succeed based on his personnel.

Rajakovic is walking into a coaching job with a team that has been a bottom-5 halfcourt offense the past two seasons and hasn't been in the top half of the league in 4 years. Not only that, but the player who has run the most pick n' rolls for the team, and did so most effectively, left in free agency. Some people think that's bad, some think it's good, it doesn't matter for the point: massive change is coming.

Barnes will get more of the ball, obviously. Anunoby could see an uptick of on-ball responsibilities. It's hard to imagine Siakam taking on even more usage. Hybrid lineups with Poeltl + shooting will run some delay action, yes. Dennis Schroder will get some, sure. One of the Raptors big-sized wings or wing-sized bigs will hopefully make a leap of some sort. An obvious name, though? Trent Jr.

When it comes to the main goal of basketball, scoring the ball, it's easy to make the case for Trent Jr. as the second best player on the team in that regard. As far as shooting off the bounce goes, no one comes close to Trent Jr.'s overall ability on the Raptors. Siakam has developed into a truly talented offensive player, and one who wields his mid-range pull-up against defensive coverages, but Trent Jr. can pull-up from downtown without compare in Toronto, at roughly 32-percent on almost 3 attempts per game over the last two seasons. Those numbers aren't elite, but given the difficulty of the shots and the fact that teams won't usually go under on a guy who shoots north of 29-30-percent on his pull-up threes, it's a legit option to create a defensive response, be it in a pick n' roll or a handoff.

Read Louis Zatzman's comprehensive look at the Raptors possible pick n' roll options here.

With, for now, an offense led by wings who don't shoot from downtown, Rajakovic is obviously going to design interesting concepts that rely on different strengths than regular NBA offense. He still needs to be able to rely on some tried and true, run of the mill possessions, though. That's where Trent Jr. will likely provide a lot of value. Borrowing from Louis Zatzman's terrific piece in the aftermath of Trent Jr. accepting his player option back in June:

Trent Jr.'s handoff partnership with Scottie Barnes was brilliant. Barnes targeted him when he had the ball. The play used both of their strengths — and ameliorate their weaknesses — while leveraging the off-ball strengths of VanVleet, Anunoby, and Siakam. It was one of Toronto’s most efficient high-volume plays, and in fact one of the best handoff partnerships in the league. According to Second Spectrum, among 36 receiver-setter partnerships with at least 100 handoffs between them last season, Trent and Barnes finished sixth in points per chance at 1.13.

Of the five partnerships above them, four included past All Stars, including Luka Doncic, James Harden and Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Darius Garland; Trent and Barnes were dynamic. Or, you could compare that mark to the 36-highest-volume pick-and-roll partnerships, with a minimum of 500 last season, Trent and Barnes’ 1.13 points per chance would have ranked fourth, just ahead of Steph Curry and Kevon Looney. No matter which way you skin the cat, Trent and Barnes had league-leading chemistry. In many ways, Trent is the only teammate with whom Barnes has had that level of partnership. It’s vital that Toronto keeps that.

Regarding the excellent Barnes/Trent Jr. partnership: it isn't built off the strength of Barnes' scoring or Trent Jr.'s playmaking. Last season, Trent Jr. was passing to Barnes for roughly one shot attempt per game and the young wing was only shooting 40-percent on passes from #33. The premise and success of the partnership is: create a look for Trent Jr., one of the better shooters in the NBA. It works. He has a few go-to combos to create his own looks, he's more comfortable than most with a hand in his face or a body nearby. Regardless of his handoff partner, Trent Jr. was an 88th-percentile handoff scorer, and shot 55-percent from the field out of those actions.