Masai Ujiri is a smart guy.
No matter which conference your team is in, you’re either stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out the Warriors, or you’re stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out LeBron James. For Ujiri’s Raptors, the latter is the elephant in the room. So when the offseason came, the club had some decisions to make that would indicate the direction of the franchise’s future, both immediate and long-term.
Ujiri and Toronto GM Bobby Webster were somehow able to re-sign Kyle Lowry for a three-year deal instead of the five years that Lowry desired, and then managed the same with Serge Ibaka. This effectively put the Raptors on a three-year timeline until the next big shift in the franchise. For these upcoming three years, the Raps will stay competitive with their tried-and-tested core, and they will simultaneously cultivate young talent around their stars.
It’s a great formula. LeBron is going to be 33 years old this December, and by the time Lowry and Ibaka’s contracts are up, he will be entering the twilight stage of his career. Suddenly, the East could be wide open again. Ujiri knows it, and he wants to be ready for it.
But what about the present? The Raptors lost a couple of their veteran role players this summer in the re-signing of their core, including Patrick Patterson (an advanced analytics darling), and P.J. Tucker (a terrific perimeter defender). The team also traded away DeMarre Carroll—who was never able to return to his Atlanta peak—to Brooklyn in order to shed his contract, as well as Cory Joseph to Indiana, who snagged them sharpshooter C.J. Miles—swiftly signed to a three-year deal, no less—as a return.
These changes have left the Raps with a squad that, outside of the starting lineup, is quite young. None of their bench players have played more than three seasons in the NBA, and their total average age is about 23 years old. A number of them have yet to see significant minutes, with Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, and newcomer K.J. McDaniels being the exceptions.
The regular season is a marathon, not a sprint, and the keys to racking up wins in order to put yourself in a good position come playoff time are chemistry and consistency à la the Spurs. If the Raptors are to continue their regular season success of the last few years, then they’ll need their young guns to step into formerly veteran roles and rise to the challenge.
Thankfully, a few of them already seem prepared to break out and have impactful seasons. Both Powell and Wright gave the team some fantastic minutes last year, especially in the playoffs. Norm in particular was a standout, putting the league on notice with his athleticism and tough defensive play. He was part of the best lineup the Raptors had in the postseason (a +5.3), and the team’s offensive rating shot up from 101.7 to 107.9 when he was on the floor compared to when he wasn’t.
In the first round against the Bucks, Powell went for 55/91/92 per cent shooting, averaging 12.4 points per game and torching his opponents. He was a key cog in helping the Raptors win that series and fully earned Dwane Casey’s trust, which is not an easy thing to do for a young player.
Wright didn’t get quite as much time to shine with CoJo being the primary backup point guard, but when he was on the floor he scrapped defensively and showed in flashes that he was able to run the team. His length and effort have been the two most noticeable qualities when watching him so far, and his nose-to-the-grindstone mentality is one that Casey must love.
Siakam is another high-energy guy, and good for a few minutes a game, although playing him for a substantial amount of time isn’t a great idea since he’s undersized and a below-average rebounder. Jakob Poeltl should get more run, and like Wright—though less frequently—he showed instances of strong play, both on the boards and around the basket.
Perhaps the two most interesting youngsters are the newcomers: Raptors 2017 draft pick OG Anunoby and K.J. McDaniels. Anunoby has been touted as an excellent defender, a grinder, and he already has an NBA body that should allow him to guard multiple positions on the floor. Unfortunately, he’s recovering from an ACL tear and therefore it’s possible he doesn’t even play this season. Still, this is the kind of player you get excited for as a fan and as a coach—he’ll likely be impactful right away, at least in one aspect.
As for McDaniels, he’s spent time bouncing around the league during his three seasons. He’s already played for Philadelphia, Houston, and Brooklyn, and has never had a chance to get comfortable. He’s another player with defensive potential—he’s got some pretty sweet block highlights—but has yet to find any sort of consistent shooting. If he can’t show Toronto something this season, he may be on the move again.
And finally, as we ask every year, is this the season when Bruno Caboclo breaks loose and starts going Brazilian Kevin Durant on the rest of the league? My answer: Unlikely. It may be hard to believe, but Bruno is still one of the youngest guys on the team at 21 years old. His time in the D-League—now the G League—can only be good for him, but his scoring dropped off significantly last season compared to the year prior, when he was putting up double-figure numbers almost every game. There’s still a lot of time left for Bruno to prove himself, and as such it’s tough to imagine that time being this season.
It’s difficult—though intriguing—trying to judge a group of players who don’t have an extensive NBA resume as of yet (I feel for you, Philly fans). Even if one has seen a player be productive in spurts, it’s impossible to know whether or not they’ll be capable of handling a bigger role long-term without actually seeing it. For the Raptors in particular, Powell is probably the only young player that the team has a good grasp on.
So let the experiment begin. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
And remember: It’s all part of the three-year plan.