Fan Duel Toronto Raptors

Toronto finds its guard play against the Nets.

Gary Trent jr. played fantastically against the Nets. Is he the shooting guard of the future?

The Red Hot Chili Peppers spent years toiling as a punk band before eventually exploding into the zeitgeist of international consciousness. Their first two albums didn’t chart. The Uplift Mofo Party Plan hit the charts at 148, but it was the last with the original lineup. Due to a tragic death and then a sober departure, Anthony Kiedis and Flea needed to add two more musicians. John Frusciante and Chad Smith fit the bill. Frusciante mellowed the sound, adding more ‘California’ vibes with his fat telecaster hum, and the next album Mother’s Milk hit 52. It would be the last album from the band that didn’t reach the top 10 of the charts. 

The Raptors too are finding the lineup that best suits them. There is plenty that works; the starters, by and large, have wiped the floor with their opponents. But the team has still been losing games at a rate not seen by this franchise since the doldrums of 2011. There’s nothing as dramatic or tragic as death and drugs, but this is basketball, not music. The lesson remains the same: You have to find the right group of people. 

In the long term, the Raptors do not currently employ the group of players that will coalesce into their next good basketball team. There is so much turnover in the league that that is always true, for every bad team. But there are mainstays who will certainly be around. Scottie Barnes, of course. (His leadership, by the way, has been immaculate in recent games after a few sour performances in the weeks leading up to the All-Star game.) The Raptors are treating Immanuel Quickley as the point guard of the future. RJ Barrett has turned into a devastating driving force

There are others who have uncertain futures with the franchise. Gary Trent jr., for example, is an upcoming unrestricted free agent.

Trent doesn’t need replacing when he plays like he did against the Brooklyn Nets. In the first half, he scored 13 points on four shots, making them all. He drilled his triples and even helped out on the defensive end. At one point, he stood his ground in transition and forced the offensive player to gather the ball early, giving Jakob Poeltl time to gallop over and block the eventual shot.

But eventually, the Raptors will likely look elsewhere at shooting guard. Maybe. They couldn’t come to an agreement on a contract this past offseason, and there’s no reason to think the situation has changed. In fact, context on the team doesn’t help Trent nearly as much as it used to; Gradey Dick is coming for the starting position, and the team has oodles of other guards on the roster in Nwora, Agbaji, and even D.J. Carton

But those shooting guards will need to win minutes if they’re going to take any. I asked Darko Rajakovic what Nwora and Agbaji would need to do to become every-night rotation players. 

“It’s really going to come down to embrac[ing] the role and really improv[ing] on the defensive end,” Rajakovic said. “We challenge both of them to make strides defensively.”

“We think and I think that Jordan has [a] really good offensive game, he can make shots, he can touch the paint, and is a passer. But defensive[ly] is the one [area] he really needs to make progress [in] to make [sure] he can be…in the rotation.”

Rajakovic even said he knew how explosive Nwora was on the offensive end. But defense is what will determine the minutes.

Trent has moments as a defender, particularly at gathering steals. But ultimately, his limitations define his contributions on that end more than his strengths. He is small for a shooting guard and not a vertical athlete. Players can drive past and shoot over him.

While the Raptors bludgeoned the Nets in the first half with Trent on the floor, they did the same in the second half with him on the bench. Toronto blew most of its lead early in the third quarter. And when Dick entered the game for Trent, the Raptors pushed the lead back to a respectable number. Dick didn’t do a whole lot to speak of; it was Quickley dominating inside the arc, driving much better than he has to this point as a Raptor. Barnes was the biggest, strongest, and quickest-thinking player, tossing in layups and grabbing offensive rebounds to whir the ball to shooters. Dick fit in, though. He tossed in a putback. He moved on defense. He hugely outrebounded Trent.

“He competes,” said Quickley of Dick. “He competes.”

Later Agjabi had fantastic defensive stands, including smothering Cam Thomas on one play by moving his feet and doing his best impression of a stone wall with pokey, pokey hands. Then of course in the fourth quarter, the Raptors put the Nets in the ground with Trent on the floor. He hit a late-clock pull-up triple to push the lead to 22. Then a transition catch-and-shoot to push the lead to 25. After being starved of guards for so long, it was a breath of fresh air for the Raptors to have so many guards, doing so much, all on the same night.

The Raptors don’t need a shooting guard to take over possessions, not with this team construction. Like, sure, Donovan Mitchell would be nice. But in an environment with limited cap space and an incredibly punitive collective bargaining agreement, Toronto has plenty of initiation in Barnes, Quickley, and Barrett. Or, it will eventually when those players become peak versions of themselves. The shooting guard spot ideally would take up less of the cap, be a grenadier offensively and an on-the-ball stopper defensively. Trent fulfills the grenadier role. But the Raptors hope to do better, particularly on the defensive end. And cheaper, too.

That’s where Nwora and Agbaji and Dick come in. They are combining to make less money this season than Trent, and the Raptors have to hope that one of them will seize the position and make it his own. Dick is the leading candidate so far. But defense is Toronto’s requirement, and none of the shooting guards currently on the roster have thrived there. If anyone is going to take Trent’s job, it has to be earned. None have done that yet.

Agbaji had an impressive night there against the Nets. Then again, everyone had an impressive night against the Nets. None more so than Trent himself. But not every night will be a carnival of success. The Raptors have much to accomplish over the remainder of this season, but right at the top of the list is evaluating the shooting guard position. Perhaps Trent thrives and keeps the job, earning a long contract from the Raptors in the offseason. Maybe the Raptors hand Dick the job early. Maybe Nwora or Agbaji explode onto the scene and steal it. 

But the Raptors are still searching for their Frusciante. This is not a team that can reach the top 10 of the charts — err, standings. The Raptors need to upgrade their shooting guard defense, one way or another. The win over Brooklyn was a step forward. The rest of the season — and the ensuing offseason — will be in part defined by the team’s ability to keep the momentum moving in a positive direction on that front.