It’s hard to believe, but we’re already two weeks deep into the 2021-2022 NBA season, and there is a lot to unpack from around the league. Kyrie Irving still hasn’t suited up for the Brooklyn Nets. The Philadelphia 76ers and Ben Simmons seem to be no nearer to a resolution than they were at their saga’s apex during the summer. The Los Angeles Lakers – for all of the talk about them having the league’s newest superteam – have yet to establish an identity.
Nonetheless, these storylines should not serve as distractions from what’s been happening up North. We’re only eight games in to a fresh season devoid of one Kyle Lowry, yet it still feels like there’s some Raptors magic in the air. On the verge of what is already beginning to feel like another year in which Toronto will be overlooked by the national media and then find themselves at the top of the standings in April, let’s dive into some of the biggest themes we’ve witnessed early on.
Beam Me Up, Scottie
Scottie Barnes – who was chosen fourth overall in the 2021 NBA Draft to the dismay of an overwhelming majority – has been performing to such a high level that if he were a first overall pick, his club would be overjoyed. He came into the league advertised as a zero-level scorer with a broken jump shot, who’s only form of offensive production would come in transition. Much like how one might perceive an rhinoceros to be a giraffe at first-sight, those assessments were embarrassingly incorrect.
Through his first seven games, Barnes is leading all rookies in points per game, rebounds per game, and player impact estimate, posting averages of 18.1 points and 8.9 boards. Still, the most astounding part about these figures is that through 24 college games last year, Barnes never scored more than 21. Already in a league much tougher than the NCAA, where his scoring capabilities were expected to regress, he has tied that output twice and beaten it once.
Again, he has only appeared in seven games thus far.
Coming into this season, the reasonable optimist would have hoped that Scottie could start in place of Pascal Siakam while he was sidelined, and provide some solid defense for his squad while scraping by on the other end. Instead, it would be far from asinine to make either of the following arguments:
- Scottie Barnes has the potential to be an All-Star this season
- He was the team’s best player during their first seven games
Unfortunately, Barnes is listed as day-to-day with a thumb injury that he sustained in the closing seconds of Saturday night’s win over the Indiana Pacers. He’s already been ruled out for Wednesday’s contest against the Washington Wizards, but there is hope that he could return by Friday for a showdown against Evan Mobley and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
OG Anunoby Is Ready For More
Coming into this season, OG was pegged as a favourite by many to win Most Improved Player of The Year. After a rough first two games – where he admits that he was feeling pressure to be more of a force offensively – OG has settled into his new role. Rather than being a ball-stopper and taking contested shots in isolation because he feels the need to, OG is finding ways to put himself in a position to finish plays. He has also become much more aggressive shooting the ball from deep, which is illustrated by his 8.5 long-range attempts per game – trailing only Stephen Curry in that category.
To see the new OG, one would not need to look any further than his career-high performance in Madison Square Garden on Monday night, where he enflamed the New York Knickerbockers for 36 points on 13-27 shooting. Without Barnes to play off of, Anunoby knew that if he didn’t have an outburst on the stat sheet, the Raptors were likely going to fall to the Eastern Conference’s top seed. After a slow first quarter, Anunoby flicked an internal switch and put the Raptors offense on his shoulders. From stepback threes, to turn-around jumpers, to crashing the glass and kicking the ball out to open shooters, Anunoby brought a superstar presence that the Raptors needed. After the game, he told NBA TV’s Dennis Scott that the key to the Raptors breaking the game open was, “Movement. Moving the ball. Knowing we can get whatever shot we want if we attack and stay patient. Don’t rush. Take good shots… That’s what we do in practice.”
As long as OG stays true to that mindset, he’ll find himself in in the mix of a tight race to win the M.I.P. award indeed.
How Deep Is Your Love? The Raptors Are Deeper
Much has been made about who will be booted from the starting lineup upon Siakam’s return from injury, and who will lose their spot in the rotation when Yuta Watanabe is cleared to play again. Without diving into the nuances and my own thoughts, it’s important to point out that these are the types of problem that is exclusive to good teams. Even without two of the top contributors on the roster, Nick Nurse is relying on a rotation that runs nine players deep on most nights. Even then, it has been a struggle to find minutes for Malachi Flynn, whom after last night’s performance, is due for an uptick in opportunities to see the floor.
Once the Raptors are fully healthy, Nurse will meet the challenge of balancing developmental minutes with competitive time, and there’s a chance that his rotation could expand down to the eleventh man. As ridiculous as it sounds, there is no clear-cut candidate to bench until someone plays themselves out of the rotation. Dalano Banton has contributed too greatly to changing the pace of the game when it’s needed, and providing a long defensive presence who can shoulder primary playmaking responsibilities. Flynn, as aforementioned, was promised more minutes by coach Nurse in his post-game press conference last night. Svi Mykhaiuliuk has played an instrumental role in bringing the Raptors to a 5-3 record, averaging 15.5 points and 28 minutes over the past two contests. Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa could both be contenders to have their numbers frozen, but even cutting their minutes to an absolute zero would seem a little bit extreme.
Ultimately, there are profusely more questions than answers at this juncture, but not knowing which high-performing player to sub into the game – and which one to leave on the bench until the time is right – is the type of dilemma that most coaches yearn for.