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'Vision 6-9' isn't the Raptors' problem. 'Vision no shooting' is

It was obvious Toronto needed to add shooting after last year's early playoff exit. Instead, the front office chose to run it back.

Every team needs shooting. That’s the reality of the modern NBA, where 3-point rate has increased exponentially over the last decade as teams have spaced out the court, with good 3-point shooting correlating with success now more than ever. In fact, the Toronto Raptors themselves are 26-4 when shooting 40 percent or better from 3 over the last two seasons.

And yet, the Raptors have only hit that mark 30 times in 133 games, including just eight times in 45 games this season, which goes to show the lack of shooting talent on the team. And while Fred VanVleet (33.4 percent from 3), O.G. Anunoby (35.6 percent), and Gary Trent Jr. (36.3 percent) have taken the brunt of the blame for the Raptors' shooting woes this season for shooting worse than their career-averages, the real problem is they are the only good 3-point shooters on the entire roster.

As we know, the Raptors have prioritized big, long, athletic forwards in favour of more natural shooters over the past few seasons, in part because they believe shooting is a skill that can be developed given a good work ethic and solid mechanics — especially catch-and-shoot 3-point shooting. But that bet is yet to pay off for this iteration of the Raptors, who currently sit dead last in the league in 3-point percentage at 32.9 and fifth-worst in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage at 34.3.

It’s not like the Raptors aren’t generating good looks from behind the arc, either. In fact, the Raptors take an average of 15.1 “wide-open” 3s (6+ feet) and 14.7 “open” 3s (4-6 feet) per game, yet they are shooting just 35.2 percent and 32.3 percent on those looks, respectively — both bottom-five marks in the league.

The Raptors’ problem isn’t vision 6-foot-9. The problem is they have no shooting.

“If you want to stay in basketball, devote yourself to shooting. If you’re already a good shooter, become a better one,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse writes in his book Rapture. “It’s the one skill in the game that nearly anyone can get better at.”

Nurse is right, to an extent. There have been plenty of examples of non-shooters turning into certified 3-point marksmen, including two Raptors during the Masai Ujiri era: Norman Powell and Anunoby. (Siakam also came from college as a non-shooter and turned himself into a prolific mid-range shooter, although he has never been great from 3-point range). Both Powell and Anunoby shot under 32 percent from long distance in their final college seasons and are up above 37 percent on high volume over their NBA careers.

But since those two, the Raptors are yet to turn a non-shooter into a reliable 3-point threat. And more concerningly, they are yet to see impactful 3-point shooting improvement from any of their young players despite how much the organization prioritizes it and all the work the players put in, including night time “shooting schools,” extra practices, and an analytics-heavy operation to work with.

Take Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa, for example, two of the Raptors' best and most important young prospects who they have invested a ton in. Neither were considered shooters at the time Toronto acquired them — with Barnes a 27 percent 3-point shooter in college and Achiuwa only having taken one 3 as a rookie with the Miami Heat — but both have been given free rein to shoot 3s as Raptors. The results haven’t been there, with Barnes at 28.2 percent and Achiuwa at 22.9 percent this season.

Or even look at Malachi Flynn, who is shooting a career-best 38.5 percent from 3 on 2.3 attempts per game, but who was taken over Desmond Bane in the 2020 NBA Draft. Bane was a prolific shooter all throughout his college career and is up to 42.4 percent from long range on 7.5 attempts per game, a big enough difference to solve a lot of the Raptors' problems had they prioritized shooting in that draft and taken him.

And while Flynn over Bane is the most egregious example of the Raptors prioritizing other skill sets over shooting in their roster-building, it is far from the only one, with players like Thad Young (17.4 percent), Chris Boucher (29.4 percent), Christian Koloko (11.1 percent), Dalano Banton (30.2 percent), and Jeff Dowtin (25 percent) rounding out the Raptors roster despite not having a track record of shooting the 3-ball well. (To the Raptors credit, signing Otto Porter Jr. was supposed to help in that regard but a season-ending toe injury has put that hope to bed).

“We need to develop within, we need to continue to grow within," Ujiri said at the end of the 2021-22 season. "That's really important. It's always been important for us to grow within. Players getting better, working on their games, their bodies, their physicals, we have to get better that way.

"We’re thinking the long game here. Yes, there are windows. But when we first came here, we talked about development of our players. I hope we continue to do that at a high level.”

The problem with internal development is that when it comes to a skill like 3-point shooting, it almost never happens linearly, if it ever happens at all. And outlier examples like Anunoby and Powell might have tainted the way Nurse and the Raptors front office view shooting development and therefore roster construction, causing them to get too high on players who are not natural shooters in hopes that they can improve their catch-and-shoot 3s through hard work and mechanical tweeks.

“I think that all kinda just makes sense. I think that just if you looked at raw data and numbers, just almost everybody shoots better on catch-and-shoot,” Nurse said about the ability for a wide range of NBA players to improve that part of their game. “We even try to get even more specific than that and hone in, when guys are coming to us out of college as non-3-point shooters, we hone in specific spots and just work on one spot for a while. I think we got it up to a six-stage process that we try to get through with them.”

“They emphasize a lot on shooting, so eventually you're gonna get better,” Boucher said. “...I think everybody that came to the Raptors, they worked on their shots and usually if they worked enough it looks better every year.

“You just gotta put in work. It's not like a light switch: you can't just become a shooter the next day.”

Of course, these things take time. No one is magically going to turn into a good shooter overnight, especially if they got to the NBA without needing that skill in the first place. It’s possible guys are making improvements behind the scenes and that the process is good even if the results haven’t shown up in the games yet.

However, at the same time, many players acknowledge that shooting is a natural skill that most players who are considered non-shooters can only improve to a limited extent.

“I think most of it is natural,” Anunoby said about shooting. “I think a lot of it's natural. Everyone can always get better at stuff if they work on it. There's just some things that are natural.”

Fred VanVleet is one of only a handful of 3-point threats on the Raptors' roster. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Fred VanVleet is one of only a handful of 3-point threats on the Raptors' roster. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

When I asked Nurse about what he makes of the lack of 3-point improvement from the Raptors' young players, he said “That’s a tricky one. I think that on one level, you've got to be incredibly happy with guys coming into the NBA that weren’t really shooters and that they're getting some success done, and they are in the process of climbing up the ladder.

“And I don't know, I just think that again, some of our biggest drop-offs this year have been with some of our established guys. But I would also say that the year’s not over and there’s a lot of room for those things to even themselves back out.”

But this season is quickly getting out of reach, and the Raptors' patience should be running thin. I wrote at the end of last season when the Philadelphia 76ers had success against the Raptors in the playoffs by taking away the paint and daring them to make 3s that the Raptors couldn’t depend on internal development alone to fix their 3-point shooting problems — that they had to go out and do something about it externally.

Instead, they ran it back with practically the same group plus Koloko and Porter Jr., who hasn’t played, and they are in a similar predicament. Even if their established shooters were shooting it at career-average numbers like Nurse alluded to, the Raptors' offence would still be porous because they have so few shooters on the roster, and all shooters go through slumps. You simply cannot depend on three guys to provide all of your 3-point shooting to be good in the modern NBA.

That last point is even more true for the Raptors, who are built around two offensive fulcrums in Siakam and Barnes, who are non-threats from the outside and who command a lot of attention in the paint, where they are elite playmakers. The Raptors need to surround Siakam and Barnes with the type of shooting that is going to bring the best out of their two most important offensive players moving forward, which includes taller shooters and movement shooters who can play with Barnes in dribble-handoffs.

Ujiri once said about the DeMar DeRozan-era Raptors that “the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again,” which is why he made the trade for Kawhi Leonard. Well, how many non-shooting forwards are the Raptors going to acquire before they realize they are doing the same thing over and over again with very limited success?

To an extent, it seems as though Ujiri understands that not all of the Raptors' shooting improvements can come from within, saying at the end of last season that “I know we're playing a certain way and people talk about playing all these long six-nine guys, but we do look for these other types of players. And sometimes the time frame doesn't match with how you try to build an NBA team.

“And we have to look for those kinds of players that fit how we play. So we'll continue to be aggressive out there and look and see how we can build from there.”

The Raptors undoubtedly have other problems besides 3-point shooting, but if they are building a team around Siakam and Barnes, they need to start prioritizing shooting in every transaction going forward.

The NBA has changed, and 3-point shooting is becoming more and more important every season. The sooner the Raptors accept that, the better off they will be.

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