The Toronto Raptors were a very good team last season, bouncing back from an adversity-filled 2020/21 season and returning to playoff form. What will it take for this talented young team to take the step in their development?
A Return To Form In
The Raptors bounced back from an injury-riddled, COVID-ravaged 2020/21 campaign that saw them limp to a 27-45 record, and returned to their winning form. The young squad, in their first full post-Kyle Lowry season, improved to a 48-34 record, good for fifth place in a competitive Eastern Conference.
Toronto ultimately fell in six games to Joel Embiid, James Harden, and the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. Not their ideal finish, but still a huge step in the right direction for a team moving into a new era without their GOAT point guard and coming off a brutal prior season.
The Raptors, with an extremely talented young core led by Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., and Rookie of The Year Scottie Barnes, are poised to make even greater strides in the 2022/23 season. VanVleet and Siakam have been All Stars, and the other youngsters are all right on the cusp of achieving that status. With a few key improvements from last season, this team could shock the world and make a deep playoff run.
Let’s take a closer look at the three keys for the Toronto Raptors to take the next step in 2022/23:
1. A Young Backup Point Guard Must Step Up
The Raptors have a franchise point guard in Fred VanVleet, who made his first All-Star appearance in 2021/22 while averaging 20.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists, and 1.7 steals per game. However, behind VanVleet on the depth chart is a bit of a question mark.
The Raptors have an extremely flexible lineup, with Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes, while primarily a power forward at the NBA level thus far, a former college point guard capable of running an offense. That said, Barnes is a starting frontcourt player at this time, so he isn’t in a position to split duty as a go-to backup point guard (though we very well may see him spend more time at the point next season).
Beyond Barnes and VanVleet, are a pair of very different young players in Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton.
Flynn was the team’s 2020 first-round draft pick and has had an up-and-down start to his career in Toronto. He had a promising rookie campaign as a third-string point guard behind Lowry and VanVleet, earning 14 starts and averaging 7.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.9 assists. He seemed to perfectly fit the mold of the Lowry-esque point guard, undersized (6’1″ and 175 lbs.) but quick and aggressive.
However, Flynn saw his playing time decrease last season, particularly as he and Banton competed for minutes. His minutes per game dropped from almost 20 in his rookie campaign to 12 last season and his individual numbers (of course) fell across the board.
Fortunately for Flynn, he has been turning heads during the offseason with some incredible individual feats. He exploded for 73 points at Jamal Crawford’s CrawsOver Pro-Am and nailed eight three-pointers in a 52-point performance in the Drew League. Granted, these are far different levels of competition than regular season NBA basketball, but the potential is there for Flynn to be a game-changing player.
Banton, the team’s 2021 second-round draft pick, is a dream fit for the team’s “position-less” lineup of lanky two-way players capable of covering multiple positions on the floor. He is a 6’7″ point guard (though some sites list him closer to 6’9″) who showed flashes during his rookie season, even finding a place in the rotation early in the season. However, as the season progressed, he saw his playing time virtually disappear.
Banton has a ton of growing up to do on the court, prone to reckless play and errant turnovers. He is a poor shooter for the position, finishing the season by hitting just 41.1% from the field, 25.5% from three, and 59.1% from the free throw line. This made him a liability on the court, and he absolutely must improve his shot and his on-court composure to become a consistent part of the team’s rotation moving forward.
Ultimately, for the Raptors to become a deeper, more dangerous team this season, it is up to Malachi Flynn to seize the backup point guard position and show the franchise and the fans that he can consistently produce at a high level. Flynn is a far better shooter and a far more stable floor general than Banton at this point. Banton may very well have a higher ceiling and a bright future in Toronto, but Malachi Flynn’s time is now. If he can run the team’s second unit as effectively as Fred VanVleet did as Kyle Lowry’s protege, the Raptors will be a much more dangerous team on the court for 48 minutes.
2. A Legitimate Starting Center Must Emerge
As noted, the five most talented players on this Raptors squad are VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby, Trent Jr., and Barnes. While Siakam has dabbled as a small-ball center and is a strong, athletic forward, he is just 6’9″, 225 lbs. (and plays like it) and can’t be expected to bang down low with the top centers of the league. For the Raptors to have their postseason revenge in 2022/23 and take down Joel Embiid, they need one of their young bigs to evolve into a consistently reliable starting center.
Fortunately, there is a chance that they have that player on their roster already, though he will need to continue to improve and evolve his game. Precious Achiuwa isn’t much bigger than Siakam, also in the 6’8″ to 6’9″ range, but he is freakishly strong and a beast in the low block. He has proven to be a solid addition to the squad after coming over from Miami in the Kyle Lowry trade.
He started 28 games for Toronto in 2021/22, averaging 9.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. He even developed a reasonably threatening three-point shot in his sophomore campaign, hitting almost 36% from long range. He is a strong, aggressive defender who appeared capable of challenging the opposing team’s biggest players while stabilizing Toronto’s frontcourt rotation.
However, he was concerningly inefficient at times. He saw his field goal percentage fall to just 43.9%, unacceptably low for a post player. While he improved slightly, he was still a liability at the free throw line, hitting less than 60% of his attempts. Early on in the season, Achiuwa could be frustrating to watch, as his decision-making on the offensive end was inconsistent, to say the least. However, he seemed to gradually find his footing after the All-Star break.
Beyond Achiuwa at the center position is Khem Birch, also undersized but a proven, capable backup, with some starting experience, and Chris Boucher, an electric shot-blocker but far too frail to match up with legitimate centers at just 6’9″ and 200 lbs.
While Siakam may even get the bulk of the starts at the five to keep the team’s best players on the floor together, it is imperative that the Raptors have a big man with the strength, tenacity, and skill to match up against the elite 7’0″ players in the league. Barring any further offseason trades for the squad, that person will have to be Precious Achiuwa.
Can he overcome his height disadvantage? Can he maintain the momentum he showed in the second half of last year? If so, the Raptors have their man. If not, they will be at a major disadvantage in the playoffs once again.
3. Scottie Barnes Must Show Number One Option Potential
One of the most unique characteristics of the Toronto Raptors in their continued success since Kawhi Leonard’s departure is their ability to consistently be competitive despite the absence of a true superstar player. Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are both one-time All-Star selections, but no one else on the team has achieved All-Star status to this point.
Siakam showed he could be a legitimate number-two option on a championship squad after playing Robin to Kawhi’s Batman in 2018/19. Fred VanVleet showed he is a legitimate All-Star quality guard in his first season out from under Kyle Lowry’s shadow. O.G. Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. are young and still developing but are certainly legitimate NBA starters.
However, none of these guys appear to be superstar-level talents, capable of putting a team on their back and willing them through a deep playoff run. For the Raptors to take the next step and be better than a first or second-round playoff squad, they need someone to pick up where Kawhi Leonard left off and be Canada’s NBA superstar.
Enter Scottie Barnes. Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster shocked the NBA world when they took Scottie Barnes, an over-sized, raw freshman point guard out of Florida State, with the fourth pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. While he was expected to go in the early-to-mid first round, few expected him to be picked ahead of seemingly sure-fire picks like Jalen Suggs. Boy were they wrong.
Barnes came out and had an outstanding rookie campaign, winning NBA ROTY honors while averaging 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.1 steals per game as the team’s starting power forward. Barnes can do it all. He is a great passer, an aggressive rebounder, and a strong finisher. He is also an outstanding defender, capable of guarding virtually any position on the floor.
He has the confidence of a superstar already, but he will need to improve his jump shot to truly get there. He shot just 30% from three-point range during his rookie campaign, and to become a truly elite wing player he will need to bump up that percentage to the mid-to-high thirties to become a legitimate long-range threat. That said, he has a few other red flags in his game. He will, of course, continue to adjust to the speed of the professional level and will need to improve his awareness on both ends of the court, but this is nothing unusual for a second-year player.
With those few improvements, Barnes could already be poised to challenge Siakam and VanVleet for the role of number-one option. If he can get close to that level and put up All-Star-caliber numbers (which seems like a reasonable expectation given the solid production of his rookie campaign), the Raptors could already be constructed to be legitimate contenders in the NBA.
More to come from Toronto…