If you were among the fans who were less inclined to wake up at a nonsensical time to watch the Raptors and Rockets square off in Tokyo, you’re forgiven. Yes, it’s just pre-season, however watching our squad play 2 moderately competitive 48-minute basketball games against NBA talent beats watching snippets of Pascal Siakam break down trainers at Rico Hines runs all day. Neither team was in top form, but it’s fun to acknowledge that in the first ever game in which 2 former MVP’s started in the backcourt, they took a loss to the defending NBA Champion Toronto Raptors, in Japan.
Again, we can’t draw much insight or analysis from pre-season basketball, but it was entertaining to see the new guys on the team get integrated, and to witness the improvements of our young vets. Here are some of the key takeaways from what we saw during our first 96 minutes of 2019-2020 Raptors basketball:
Spicy P And Steady Freddy Are Ready
Let’s start with Pascal Siakam: after last year’s breakout season and his ascension to international fame during The Finals, his expectations coming into this year are sky high. If this team has any hopes of making it to the plateau of the basketball world as they did last year, they’ll need Spicy P to take on a similar role to what Kawhi’s was last year, and evolve from a star into a superstar. Through two pre-season games, his work over the summer appears to be paying off. In his first outing on Tuesday, he led the team with 24 points in just over 26 minutes, and pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds. His ability to create for himself in isolation without having to rely completely on his first step has improved tremendously. In addition to his 8 perfect trips to the free throw line, he was playing out of the post, breaking defenders down off the dribble, stroking his shot from deep, and finding his teammates with eyes on the back of his head. In the Raptors’ second round series against the Philadelphia 76ers last season, Siakam’s inability to score while guarded by Joel Embiid put a colossal workload on Kawhi Leonard’s shoulders which nearly cost the Raptors the series, and the eventual championship. A mere 5 months later, Spicy P seems a whole lot spicier.
Fred VanVleet on the other hand, has had far less expectations coming into this season, despite having a Finals MVP vote that Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, nor Kevin Durant could even earn. The formerly undrafted 4th year guard out of Wichita State has improved every year he’s been with the team, and is poised to take another leap this year. By the end of the season, there’s a serious possibility that VanVleet could be the 2nd best player on a top 4 seed hoping to go deep in the playoffs, and he’s already showing that he can play like one. With Kyle Lowry’s lingering injury, Freddy’s been inserted into the starting lineup and has shown up, and showed out. He appears to be a lot quicker than he was last year, and has visibly improved his playmaking ability. His assist percentage through 2 pre-season games is an astounding 40.5%, while his assist-to-turnover ratio is also up slightly from last season. While his assist percentage probably won’t remain so high as the season moves forward, he’s proving that he’s a top-tier point guard, capable of putting his own points on the board while generating open looks for his teammates.
Bench Mob 2.0
There was something special about the five guys who came off the bench for the Raptors squad in the 2017-2018 season, and with the amount of heart they played with every day, it’s no surprise that two members of that core are at the forefront of the Raptors franchise just 2 years later. In a league that was obsessed with the idea of needing at least three star players to win a championship (which ironically, the Raptors disproved last year), the “Bench Mob” was labelled the Raptors’ third star, which was supposed to finally carry them past LeBron James and into The Finals. Obviously, they did not, however the Bench Mob was unquestionably one of the Raptors’ greatest assets that season. Last year, with an older and more experienced roster that had less internal competition, and less freedom for young guys to learn, we saw nothing of the sort. Ultimately, the lack of energy and intensity from secondary players forced Nick Nurse to cut his rotation down to 7 players late in the postseason, which was nearly the downfall of a long year.
As we breathe some fresh air in the locker room now, it seems like our spirits will be back in 2017-2018 form. There are no superstars to carry the load, and roles throughout team are much more fluid. Any of the young guys hoping to play during the season will have to earn their minutes, and we can already see the levels of ferocity with which they are willing to play with. Nurse enjoys experimenting, and through the first couple of games, he’s already given run to 17 of his 19 guys available (excluding Kyle Lowry). Coming into training camp, fans might have thought they had an idea of what the Raptors rotation might look like, however it seems a whole lot less clear now. Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have been underwhelming, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher are making a serious case to be the 8th and 9th guys off the bench, and Patrick McCaw is an early favourite of Nurse’s to possibly even start. Regardless of who lands where in the rotation, each of the aforementioned and others will all be working their butt off to maintain their spot in the league, and seeing the energy that they play with will be refreshing, and hopefully, contagious.
Early Breakout Candidate: Norman Powell
This season might finally gift Norman Powell the opportunity which he has been deprived of for years. Prior to the 2017-2018 season, he was poised to be a top candidate for the Most Improved Player of the year award, but those hopes were quickly derailed after he suffered a hip injury just weeks into the season. A rookie OG Anunoby would fill his starting role, and upon Dwane Casey falling in love with him, Powell would not find his way back into the rotation. Again last season, with the multitude of starpower and experience around Norm on the wings, there was little opportunity to earn minutes. He still had the best and most consistent season of his career, shooting a scorching 40% from deep, and averaging 8.6 points in 18.8 minutes per game, however the questions surrounding his decision making ability prevailed. His shot selection was sloppy, he was incompetent of finding open teammates, and he showed an overall high level of tunnel vision. Finally, it seems as if he’s turned a corner. His blistering shooting from deep seems to have carried over, hitting 7 of his 10 attempts thus far, he’s playing defense like everyone he sees is wearing a Bucks jersey, and his acumen of knowing when to take his shots, and when to defer has elevated exponentially. A reliable and consistent Norman Powell could be scary for the rest of the league, and that’s exactly what we saw this morning as he dropped 22 points in less than as many minutes, while posting a plus-minus of +7 in the loss. If this play carries over into the regular season, and even into the playoffs, Stormin’ Norman will be a crucial piece to unlocking the Raptors’ full potential.
Serge Ibaka Found The Fountain Of Youth
Last season, multiple Raptors players had the best seasons of their careers. Many would argue that Serge Ibaka was among those players. While he wasn’t anywhere close to the league-leading shot blocker and multiple time all-defensive player that he used to be, he thrived playing a different style. Prior to Nick Nurse’s arrival, Ibaka spent most of his time on the Raptors as a power forward next to Jonas Valanciunas, and with JV’s inability to stretch the floor, Serge was forced to rely more on his outside game. With Ibaka’s loss of explosiveness that he used to possess and his shooting inconsistencies, his play was shaky to say the least. Upon shifting into a centre role, he thrived, posting his highest true shooting percentage since the 2012-2013 season, and playing at a career high pace of 100.38 possessions per game.
Through the Japan games, he appears to be taking another step forward in developing his game. Unequivocally it’s a small sample size, however it’s not by accident that he has a defensive rating of 122.3, a true shooting percentage of 72.3%, and is playing at a pace of 111.55 (which is a testament to the whole Raptors team). The clip below of Serge’s offensive development is one to marvel at: Hakeem-esque, one might say, as he puts Clint Capela in the spin cycle down low.
100% Pure pic.twitter.com/0RNyy2jutQ
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 10, 2019
Serge is not expected to pick up much of the offensive load left behind by Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, but if he can expand his game to be a go-to option for the bench mob when the offense gets stagnant, be a threat from outside, and take more efficient shots, that’ll be a huge boost for this team.
Not to overhype the season that we’re in for, but the first 96 minutes we’ve seen have been fascinating. There’s a lot to like about what we’ve seen, and most of what’s been ugly should be sorted out by October 22nd. The Raptors’ next game is at Scotiabank Arena on Sunday evening against the Chicago Bulls; hopefully one that we’ll all be able to watch. We’ll see which bright spots stay shining against a weaker opponent in front of a Canadian crowd, but until then, we’ll hold onto what we’ve seen so far.