Raptors Young Core is Already One of the NBA's Best

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The conversation usually starts with the Celtics, or Sixers or sometimes the Lakers. Each of which have promising young players that were drafted in the lottery. However, lost in the shuffle of the best young cores in the NBA are the Toronto Raptors. Together, they form one of the most fearsome bench line-ups in the league as the Raptors rank first in net rating amongst all bench units. They developed chemistry together playing in the Las Vegas Summer League and won a G-League championship with the Raptors 905. That continuity has been a recipe for success at each level, and now the Raptors rely heavily on their youth to win ball games.

The Raptors are in great shape considering that they’re the first-place team in the Eastern Conference all while sporting the eighth youngest roster in the NBA. Somehow, they’ve walked the fine line of developing and winning now. Seven players on a guaranteed contract for the 2018/2019 season will be 26 and younger so is it realistic to believe this team is just getting started? A scary thought for Eastern Conference rivals. The Raptors have yet to reach their peak, so it is entirely possible they can be much better than they are now. We saw the youngsters make drastic leaps this season, laying the breadcrumbs for what they might become. Players like Pascal Siakam, who has improved his ball handling; can he become the next premiere point-forward? Delon Wright launched a career high in three pointers attempted; can he be a consistent in-and-out threat? Add another young prospect through the draft as they own the rights to the Orlando Magic’s 2018 2nd round pick and combine that with the current talent, the coming years seems promising. Let’s look at the Raptors future and what we might expect from each player 26 and under in the next few years.

OG Anunoby, 20 - $2.7M/3 years

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Since inserting OG Anunoby into the starting line-up, the Raptors have a 41-17 record. No slight to Norman Powell, but the key difference of having Anunoby in the starting line-up is his sheer size. He stands at 6’8, 232 lbs, has a 7'6 wingspan, and more closely resembles the physique of PJ Tucker than that of DeMarre Carroll. The Raptors haven’t had an effective 3-and-D wingman to fit alongside DeMar DeRozan since the “We the North” era took off and it’s no coincidence that he’s been one of the league leaders in net rating since the conception of the season. His defensive instincts are reminiscent of a 5-year veteran; he lunges for steals the way a viper attacks its prey a la Scottie Pippen.

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A career like Pippen, with no where near the offensive production would be the best-case scenario for Anunoby; filling out as a perennial All-Defensive Team member. His defensive ability alone has earned him playing time, but he will ultimately be judged on his offensive production. The poor guy hasn’t played in the 4th quarter for more than 3 minutes total since February 2nd. Dwane Casey trusts him to start but does it really matter if none of those minutes are played in the most meaningful portion of the game? The struggles should be expected with any young player, but he will have to be more consistent with his effort going both ways. He has shown encouraging signs in his role as a spot-up shooter improving from a .311 3P% in college to a respectable .355 3P% in his rookie season. We all remember him shooting 6/7 from three against the Hornets back in December but since then he has hit a major decline in production. Call it the rookie wall if you will. It hurts the team when he’s not he’s not getting to the rim, making shots or occasionally making slick passes to the big men. He has virtually no in-between game; floaters or pull-up jumpers which further limits his value. Nonetheless, he still has a place with Donavan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma as the biggest steals of the draft. Very few expected him to perform this well after being only one year removed from tearing his ACL, so it’ll take time and consistency to look like the elite athlete he was in Indiana.

Lucas Noguiera, 25 – Restricted Free Agent

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Masai Ujiri faces the decision of what to do with Bebe’s expiring contract. Do you keep a player if you can sign for somewhere near $3-4M annually only to be the third string Center? Or do you let him walk while knowing he hasn’t fully reached his potential? It’s an interesting dilemma though it’s tough to see his role changing much. Though would it surprise you if Bebe took less money to re-sign with the Raptors and play for a winning team? He has a happy-go-lucky nature which is infectious in the locker room and stays ready when he is called upon. He brings a balance and joy to the roster the way the fun-loving Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye did with the 2016 Cavaliers. All he needs to do is start a podcast. Beyond that, his skillset is still desirable in today’s game. He is a decent passer on the short-roll and an above average rim protector. In his best game of the season, he carved up the Blazers defense rolling to the rim and blocking 5 shots with his incredibly long limbs. Give him an opportunity and he could be surprisingly effective. The question remains, could he be anything more than a back-up center? In all likeliness, he won’t find many minutes playing behind JV and Poeltl so the probability of him staying with the Raptors is highly unlikely.

Jakob Poeltl, 22 - $3.5M/2 years

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Not many big men are wired like Jakob Poeltl. The way he plays, you would think that when he was a kid, a coach told him to do everything a classic big man does: crash the boards, challenge every shot, move his feet, roll hard, and be in the right position at all times. He does those things relentlessly with the discipline of a navy seal. He is not your modern NBA big man in the sense that he’s an above the rim guy or elite shot blocker, though he does those things reasonably well too. He takes 94% of his shots within 10 feet of the rim. He’s far from a stretch-5 that many teams covet today but who needs a unicorn to protect the rim and shoot threes when he does everything else well? Jakob Poeltl has a chance to have a very long NBA career because he’s mobile enough to guard the perimeter and too big when teams go small. Brute centers like Dwight Howard seem to take advantage of his wiry frame but those type of players are fading from the NBA very quickly. Plus, that's what Valanciunas is for. It is not mentioned enough just how well he moves his feet and how good his hands are around the rim, which is what makes him so special. When teams play small, have fun boxing this guy out. When they go big, he sucks his defender out of the paint by setting screens at the arc and rolling hard to the rim. Poeltl finishes well in traffic so when defenses collapse on him, he is more than capable of hitting the open guy for a spot-up three.

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He can read the defense at an advanced level and almost always makes the right play. Most importantly, he’s a chemistry guy, the type of guy that does the dirty work so long as it comes with team success. If you’re wondering what a locker room guy looks like, he’s the embodiment of it. Poeltl will likely never become an All-Star but he is a sure bet to have a valuable role for a very long time.

Norman Powell, 24 - $10.5M/4 years

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Are we ready to write off Norman Powell so soon? His newly signed contract hasn’t even kicked in yet but some fans are already griping about how he is overpaid and needs to be traded. This was supposed to be the year his opportunity had come and Raptors fans expected much more out of the 3-year pro. Instead he has relinquished his role as the all-important third best player to Fred VanVleet, not that it matters. He was a starter for only 12 games before suffering a minor hip injury, and then he saw his role reduced significantly. Anunoby fit better alongside DeRozan and a lot of his decline in production just had to do with Fred VanVleet being better. VanVleet took on his minutes then excelled in crunch time whereas Powell struggled to find success with DeRozan. Of the Raptors 2-man combinations, Powell and DeRozan were -0.6 points (per 100 possessions) compared to Anunoby’s and DeRozan’s +11.4. Even though Powell played well in the 2017 playoffs, he was not ready to be acclimated as a full-time starter. He had to exert much of his energy on the defensive end, having to guard the better and (most times) bigger wing player. Offensively, there just wasn’t enough on-ball possessions for all three of Powell, Lowry and DeRozan so naturally, he was the odd one out. This doesn’t mean he’s a bad player. He’s bound to get better with the type of work ethic he has training all summer long with the NBA’s best. This year was a minor setback for what could range from a solid NBA career to at-best an NBA All-Star. Powell still possesses elite athleticism and a dog-like demeanor on the defensive end. But his struggles this year are more so psychological than they are related to his skill. When he was in the starting line-up, he struggled with finding his spots, when to take shots, and when to attack off the dribble. Much of that is due to Powell and DeRozan occupying the same space on the court. When he came off the bench, it seemed as though he was trying to prove himself as a starter, rather than let the game come naturally. Bad shots and miscues bled into his game, thus a poor defensive showing. It’s much too early to suggest that Powell lost his edge just because he had already signed his extension. Bet on Powell to improve, even he knows he has to better. 

Malachi Richardson, 22 - $2.0M/2 years

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While he’s only played in 17 more NBA games than Bruno Caboclo, he too has yet to make a meaningful impact in the league. The Raptors cut Bruno loose, only to take on another project in Richardson. It’s a low-risk-medium-reward move by opting towards developing him with two years remaining on his contract rather than extend Caboclo. So, what might Richardson become? His offense isn’t so much of an issue as his defense. He’s very thin and shies away from physicality. He’s at best an offensive weapon in the sixth man role. The Raptors need more shooters since altering their system, so Richardson could provide value in that regard. He attacks quickly whether it be off the dribble or releasing his smooth jump shot. That type of quick decision making could thrive under the new system. Though at this point, he is more of a Masai Ujiri guy than Dwayne Casey, and the Raptors have already gone through that experiment with Terrance Ross. Don’t expect much from Richardson until Casey can rely on him to bring the same type of effort he provides offensively, on the defensive end. 

Pascal Siakam, 24 - $1.9M/3 years

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Picture a kid being let out for recess after a long morning being pent up in class. The kid bounces around the play yard like the balls in a game of Hungry, Hungry Hippo. Now imagine that kid after drinking four cans of Red Bull. That’s Pascal Siakam. He’s got an undying motor that Raptor fans are beginning to fall in love with. And they've had a history with these type. The list of energy players over the years is a long one – remember J.Y.D? Amir Johnson? None are quite like Siakam and of all the Raptors youth, he’s got the highest ceiling. He’s still so raw since he started playing later than most NBA’ers yet he plays like he's a natural athlete. He’s adding a handle, a drive-and-dish game and is steadily improving his jumper. How is it that he is able to average 7.3 points per game without a reliable jump shot or handle? It’s pure energy. Once or twice a game, he catches a defender slowly strolling back in which, he turns on the burners and outraces them, leaking out for an easy bucket.

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That’s a skill you either have it or you don’t, and man he’s got plenty of it. Teams give him tons of space along the three-point line, but that just gives him more of a running start to charge the lane. Eventually teams will pack in the lane so much so that he’ll have to start letting the shots fly and be aware, the confidence is coming. It seems like all the Raptors are letting it fly from three in this new offense so Siakam will have to get comfortable taking open threes. He’s already at the point in his career where he’s being relied upon heavily to guard the opponent’s best player. What’s more impressive is how he switches onto everyone. He denies the best scorer the ball, then switches onto a guard in pick and roll coverage, then finds himself negating shots at the rim. Against the Thunder, we saw him guard everyone from Raymond Felton to Carmelo Anthony. He’s not strong enough yet to guard the herculean Steven Adams, and that’s just fine. He is still a work in progress having to strengthen his body and refine his game. There’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to Siakam and at this point, is there a more exciting player in the Raptors future?

Jonas Valanciunas, 25 - $17.0M/2 years

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When Valanciunas was drafted, he was projected to be the Raptors next eventual All-Star. Six years later, would you believe that Valanciunas is still only 25? No Raptor has been as consistent as JV as he has averaged 12 points and 9 rebounds for the last 5 seasons. Take a look at his traditional statistics and he’s the same old JV. But this year is different. He’s touching the ball way more, a jump from being 9th in Usage in 2017 to being 2nd in 2018. Gone are the days where he gets his customary first touch of the game and then never looked at again. In fact, all the Raptors big men are regularly touching the ball more as part of the change in play. He has career highs in net rating, assist percentage, and three-pointers made. Is that enough improvement to believe he will be significantly better than he is right now? Perhaps and even if his potential is tapped out, he’s still a nightly double-double threat and you know what? That’s okay. Many big men have had long careers putting up similar numbers. Basketball Reference has his career outlook most closely resembling Andre Drummond’s (two-time All-Star), and Andrew Bynum (two-time NBA champion), who’ve both had solid NBA careers and there's nothing wrong with solid! The age of the slow-footed big man has supposedly come to its end. But big men are adapting by shooting better from the perimeter and teams are being more selective with the switches on the defensive end. With floor spacing at an all-time premium, Valanciunas has surpassed his career total in three-pointers attempted by a mile with 71 attempted in one season. He’s shot well at .433% when given at least 6 feet of space. The advance stats have also been kind. He leads the team in defensive rating amongst players who have played more than 1000 minutes. However, you watch the game and you’ll see his decision making isn't very good yet. Throughout any given game, you'll see him constantly being thrown into pick-and-rolls and he’s forced to drop back to protect the paint. It has worked well forcing teams into mid-range shots but specialists like Bradley Beal have feasted on the Raptors whenever Valanciunas dropped back. It can be a tough proposition for the Raptors perimeter defenders as Valanciunas puts a lot of pressure on the guards to stay as much as possible in front of their man. It will be interesting to see if he can survive the one million pick-and-rolls he’ll be forced to cover in the playoffs. Though, Valanciunas is unlikely to get the bulk of the 4th quarter minutes anyway. We’ve seen Poeltl and Ibaka close games at the five and depending on the playoff match ups that likely won’t change. One must wonder just how much longer the traditional big man will survive. Maybe Valanciunas develops a knockdown three-point shot the way Sam Perkins did over his career, or a reliable pick-and-pop game like Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Nonetheless, even members of the JV Hive must admit that his chances to ever become an All-Star are slimmer than ever.

Fred VanVleet, 24 – Restricted Free Agent

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What is the magic number that would ensure Fred VanVleet re-signs with the Raptors? If Lou Williams’s extension was any indication for a player with a similar role - provide bench scoring, then roughly $8M a year might be the number. Paying him more than that might be a little pricey for the Raptors, but you never know what offers the Raptors would have to match on the open market. The Raptors should do everything they can to keep him, but the feeling needs to be mutual. This is important to mention because trying to read VanVleet is like trying to read an android. His stoic demeanor would make even Kawhi Leonard jealous! Would he be happy with his current role, as a sixth man, playing alongside Lowry and DeRozan in the fourth quarters? Or would he seek an opportunity where he can have a major role? It would be unwise to bet against VanVleet at this point, who’s been successful in every facet of the game. Starting point guard, Kyle Lowry will be 33 by the time he becomes a free agent in two years. If Lowry leaves, VanVleet could be his successor. The lure of playing for a winning team is a factor too. He’s the primary driving force behind the bench play but even more importantly, in closing out games. He is one of the league leaders in net rating, a rare feat for a second year player, and even more extraordinary for a bench player. What more could you ask of Steady Freddy? He shoots well from three, penetrates the defense, makes the right play, shares the ball and is lockdown defensively. He doesn’t shy away from competition either. He would defend the full length of the court whether you are Tomas Satoransky, Chris Paul, or quite honestly his own mother. He welcomes the pressure and consistently rises to the occasion. Is there anyone you could trust more in the big moment? He’s shown the composure to take and make the big shots the way a certain Lakers point guard did throughout the 2000's. The Raptors have their very own version of the five time champion, Derek Fisher. Recall the 0.4 second shot against the Spurs or the go ahead threes versus the Magic in 2009 - the man is clutch. So, forget the individual stats or accolades because without Fisher, Kobe Bryant would not have won all five titles. That’s the type of impact VanVleet has. In a game against the Nets, 11 minutes left in the 4th quarter, a ball was set loose after ricocheting against the rim. A scramble for the rebound ensued and VanVleet, the smallest player on the court, got a hand on it and tapped the ball to himself. He tapped it just a little too far ahead and Quincy Acy almost took possession but not before VanVleet dove head first to spring the ball up to Delon Wright who was leaking out for an easy dunk. VanVleet possessed the hustle to get to the ball and the intelligence to tap it up ahead, and Delon Wright got a easy dunk. A small moment in the game, yet massively impactful for the legend of Fred VanVleet.

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Those are the type of plays that win championships. His size will always be a reason to nitpick and rightly so. It takes a fraction more of his energy with every inch he wasn’t gifted, to finish in the lane. He hits the deck just as much as Lowry does whenever he pinballs through defenders. That’s a concern. That type of physical play shortened the careers of a number of smaller guards. In the darkest of moments, you might wonder what the careers of Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose might have looked like if not for the injuries. It's like he's missed tons of games but the hits he takes adds up. Health will have to be his primary goal moving forward. The skill level is already there so now it’s just about getting better, more efficient, and more tenacious with everything that he already does so well.

Delon Wright, 25 - $2.5M/1 year

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Extension talks will be a heavy source of discussion this coming off-season. If the Raptors decide to wait until next year to re-sign, they risk him walking. He might be a trade chip if they do not reach their lofty goals of winning the Eastern Conference. If they extend both he and VanVleet, then they have three quality point guards on contract through the 2019-2020 season. That formula has been successful most contests, and on the rare occasion, all three manage to share the court. Each point guard averages at least 19 minutes per game, which only further highlights their depth. When Casey plays all three, they survive on both ends because of their defensive versatility and playmaking. But having three point guards on the team while paying Lowry the max and VanVleet a significant raise, would bring up the question: what is left for Wright? Well in what was his first full season as the primary back-up, Wright made vast improvements. He’s stayed healthy and even more noticeably, he’s shooting the three more. Way more. He's attempted 144 3PA's this year compared to only 43 times over the first two years of his career. It's keeping defenders honest and freeing up his dribble drive game. Wright constantly puts pressure on the defense with his penetration ability where he either finishes with a devastating euro-step or sets up his teammates for open looks. There are few players with a prettier euro-step than him. Watch the highlights – there was none more satisfying than the euro-step on The Don of Euro-Steps, Manu Ginobilli.

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The way he slithers into the lane is as elusive as an octopus fitting into a tube the size of a quarter. His passing has a chance to be elite. Guys like Westbrook, Harden, James, and Wall have mastered the cross-court skip pass which catches the defense just slightly out of position and finds the open man right in the shooting pocket. Wright has his moments where he zips passes like the best in the league and he's only getting better to consistently find shooters for spot up threes. With the increased role off the bench this year, he’s proved worthy of an extension. He’s a strong defender who is second on the team in deflections and works hard to get through picks. Many nights he looks like one of the best defensive point guards in the league. Like when he checked into a game against the Sixers on December 21, where the Raptors were down by 13 at the half. At that point, Ben Simmons had 10 points and was a +6. After Wright had gotten into him in the second half, Simmons finished the game a -7 with 7 turnovers. Wright sets the tone for the 2nd unit when he raises the intensity level. It’s no surprise that he finishes the game too. He leads the team in 4th quarter minutes because he’s so damn dependable defensively and as a ball handler. Gauging his projected value is no simple task for the Raptors front office. One on hand, you have a very complete player just three years into his career. On the other, paying him too much may hamper the cap flexibility for at least until the Ibaka and Lowry contracts are off the books. But at this point, losing Wright would mean the Raptors would be giving up their best two-way player.


It would be unwise to count out the Raptors youth when discussing the best young cores across the League. The development system has turned a few late first-rounders, second rounders, and even the undrafted into meaningful role players. Imagine what they could do with more lottery talent. The team is winning right now and are at the same time building habits towards championship contention. Many teams have young players to build around, but only few are winning now. The Raptors young core just might be the best in the league already.

 

Sources: basketball-reference.com, hoposhype.com, nba.com, nba.com/raptors