Raptors basketball begins anew on Monday evening with the Toronto Raptors playing host to the melodramatic Philadelphia 76ers at 7:00pm at Scotiabank Arena to open the preseason. It will mark the first time the Raptors play a home game in Toronto since March of 2020, with the stadium at 50 percent capacity until further notice.
The departure of Kyle Lowry and the arrival of Scottie Barnes, Dalano Banton, Precious Achiuwa, Goran Dragic and many others marks a new era of Raptors basketball; A radically transformed team led by Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby that has gotten significantly younger and gone all in on what I’m dubbing "length and strength," with multiple forward-sized players who can handle the ball, pass, (hopefully) shoot, and ultimately make a living on the defensive end of the floor.
From camp battles to starting lineups, there are many fascinating storylines to follow, so here are the five most interesting storylines for the Raptors’ 2021-22 preseason:
1. Camp battles
While preseason is meaningless in a lot of contexts, it means a lot to the players battling for the two or three roster spots still available. Between Yuta Watanabe, Freddie Gillespie, Isaac Bonga, Sam Dekker, Ish Wainwright, and Reggie Perry, the Raptors have six different players on non-guaranteed contracts who are all fighting for a roster spot.
Yuta Watanabe is a shoe-in for one of the spots. He had an impressive end to 2020-21 when he became more aggressive scoring the ball, and followed it up as a featured piece on Team Japan at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As a versatile wing who can defend multiple positions, close out on shooters as good as anyone in the league, and shoot the three at a decent rate (40.0 percent last season), it would be shocking if Watanabe didn’t make the team.
After that, though, the competition gets harder to predict, with each player bringing something different to the team: Dekker is a shooter and slasher who can help on the offensive end. Gillespie is a physical center on a team that doesn’t have many. Bonga is a versatile and athletic wing on a team that craves that archetype. Wainwright is a smart player with a PJ Tucker-like body. Perry is a mobile big who isn’t afraid to crash the boards.
(Of these six players, only Gillespie and Perry are eligible to play with the Raptors' G-League club this season.)
Remember, the NBA is coming off a shortened offseason for the second year in a row. Between players losing that usual rest, injuries and COVID, the end-of-rotation spots are more important than ever.
“Who is going to be really good at bumping in and going from a 13th man to an eighth man? Or, as we have done sometimes in the past, too, if that 13th guy (bumps) right into the starting lineup so we keep that second group together,” head coach Nick Nurse said about the need to fit in adequately helping determine who gets those final roster spots. “Who maybe would fit in for those kinds of roles?”
2. Who starts at shooting guard?
Now we flip to the opposite end of the rotation, trying to sort out who starts for this Raptors team to begin the 2020-21 season.
With Pascal Siakam out for at least the first few weeks of the regular season as he continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery, there are only three sure-fire starters to begin the year: Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Khem Birch (once he returns from health and safety protocols). That leaves two spots for the Raptors to fill until Siakam returns.
At the shooting guard spot, the competition will likely come down to newly signed 22-year-old Gary Trent Jr. (who is questionable against the 76ers with left quad soreness) and ex-Miami Heat veteran Goran Dragic. Each brings something different to the spot, with Trent offering a ton of floor spacing as a deadly three-point shooter who converted on 38.5 percent of his 7.4 attempts per game last season, and Dragic bringing a veteran level of organization along with on-ball creation and creative playmaking, averaging 4.4 assists last season.
Ultimately, though, the decision will likely come down to who fits best next to VanVleet, a skilled but limited playmaker who is at his best when another ball handler is there to take some of the playmaking load and leverage VanVleet’s off-ball shooting, his greatest NBA skill. But considering that the Raptors just handed Trent a 3-year, $54 million deal to be a core part of their team, it also makes sense to start him at shooting guard and allow VanVleet to run the team as the primary ball-handler with increased spacing helping everyone get into the lane.
3. Who starts at power forward until Siakam returns?
The other question when it comes to the starters is just as interesting. Considering Siakam had shoulder surgery in early June, and the expected timeline was approximately five months, he is projected to return to the lineup in early November, when he will slot in as the starting power forward.
Until then, however, Nurse has to maneuver a tricky situation: on one hand, he will want to start the best player possible and the one who knows the system and has done everything in his power over the past couple of years to earn the spot, Chris Boucher.
On the other hand, Nurse has always favoured Boucher coming off the bench, and he might prefer to keep him in that role while allowing him to develop chemistry with the rest of the bench, especially backup point guard Malachi Flynn, since that is ultimately where he will be playing when the team is fully healthy. If Nurse does go in that direction, expect rookie Scottie Barnes to get a look as the starting power forward in preseason (especially if Trent starts at the two), as he is a natural fit to play with the starters as a guy who can take pressure off of VanVleet as a ball-handler and playmaker who should thrive with the added spacing the starters provide.
4. OG Anunoby’s time to shine
Anunoby is a beacon of hope for Raptors fans: a 24-year-old wing that keeps getting better each and every season and is already an All NBA-caliber defender who has been able to maintain his high efficiency with increased reps (he posted a career-high 60.5 true shooting percentage on a career-high 12.1 shots per game last season), leaving fans wondering what he could do with a truly significant offensive load. Well, this season — at least at the start with Siakam sidelined — he will get the opportunity to showcase exactly what he is capable of. GM Bobby Webster said as much on media day:
“Our message to him is: Continue to expand the offensive stuff, but keep the defense at an All-NBA level. And he'll also get a chance here early with Pascal being out here early, so it will be a big chance for him to be in a bigger role.”
“I think his skill set and scoring ability continues to develop,” Nurse said of Anunoby. “I think he’s put in a lot of work on it at both ends, I think there’s starting and ending drives, he’s gotten a little bit craftier, starting to get free and I think he’s gotten stronger and more balanced at the end of them and (has) a different array of ways to finish.”
If Anunoby is able to leverage his overwhelming strength with more balance and a tighter handle while still shooting the ball at the high rate Raptors fans have grown accustomed to, he should have a breakout year. While we know what VanVleet and Siakam are capable of, Anunoby’s ceiling is still unclear, and that is what makes him such an exciting player to watch. But you don’t go from a fourth or fifth option for most of your career to a primary ball-handler in one fell swoop: you need the reps, and Anunoby should take advantage of preseason to get at least some of them.
5. Vibes and on-court chemistry
It’s clear that the vibes on this team are immaculate, with a fresh group of young faces who seem genuinely happy to be back in Toronto, but will that translate to the court?
Of course, the start of preseason is way too early to make any conclusions about the cohesiveness of a team that underwent a lot of turnover in the summer and has spent only one week together in training camp. But for a squad without a top-10 superstar that needs to be greater than the sum of its parts if it wants to compete, the on-court chemistry will be important for the Raptors this season, and the sooner the guys learn the tendencies of their teammates — how they move, where they like the ball, how and when to rotate over and help — the sooner they will be able to coalesce into a real team rather than a group of individuals. Get a jump start on the chemistry side of things, and the Raptors might be able to make up for Siakam’s absence to start the NBA season.
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