End of Season Grades: Part II

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The second installment of our end of season report card.

We continue with our three-part end of year grades, evaluating six more Raptors on the basis on their regular and post-season play.

Dwight Buycks: Incomplete

Off the back of a strong Summer League showing, the undrafted Dwight Buycks was signed in the off-season to give the Raptors some insurance at the point-guard position. And with D.J. Augustin -- the pre-Bulls version -- backing up Kyle Lowry, boy did the Raps need some insurance. But with Greivis Vasquez coming to town as part of the Rudy Gay trade, Buycks saw minimal playing time. To be honest, the last time I paid attention to the 'misfit toys' of the roster, Julyan Stone was ahead of him in the point-guard pecking order.

Buycks played in 14 games this season, averaging just 10 minutes on the court in those contests. When Buycks was on the floor, he simply didn't look like an NBA-calibre player. It's likely that the Raptors will waive Buycks pretty soon, and he'll be back in Vegas looking to get another NBA opportunity.

Steve Novak: C+

When Steve Novak got the chance, he did what he did exactly what he gets paid to do: he made three-pointers. However, Novak's numbers -- 42 per cent from 3 -- need to be tempered with a heavy 'small sample size alert' caveat. He did not make enough 3s to qualify in ESPN's 3-point shooting rankings, as players who weren't on pace to make 82 three-pointers failed to make the cut.

Novak averaged around 20 minutes per game in his two seasons as a New York Knick, but he only played 10 minutes a game in just 54 games this season. When he did get on the floor, Casey primarily used him as a small-ball 4, which gave the Raps an interesting dynamic offensively, but it was like playing with fire defensively. The other problem -- and this is the coaching staff's fault, not Novak's -- was that oftentimes there didn't seem to be much effort to take advantage of Novak's presence on the floor. Novak will always be dangerous simply as a decoy, but it also makes sense to try and run plays to get him open.

Ultimately Novak did what he could when called upon -- he even worked hard defensively when matched up with legitimate power-forwards. He has zero off-the-dribble game, and if he's chased off the 3-point line, his effectiveness is completely nullified. But it's on the team to take advantage of his presence on the floor.

John Salmons: D-

Hey, we can't say that we weren't warned about John Salmons. Most fans in Sacramento could not have been happier to part ways with a player who most people euphemistically described as 'past his best'. Salmons' season stats -- 5 points per game, on 36 per cent shooting -- definitely reflect the reality that this once decent scorer is, like that whale in Newfoundland, entirely washed up.

For a few weeks after he arrived in Toronto, Salmons was effective -- I even favourably (and extremely convolutedly) compared him to the movie JCVD in our half-way point evaluations. For a team without a bench, Salmons initially offered the Raps some extra shooting, ball-handling, and solid perimeter defense. And then things fell off the proverbial cliff.

Salmons' shooting got worse as the season progressed, and his defense fell off to the point where it became extremely hard to justify Casey giving him minutes that could've gone to Terrence RossLandry Fields was apparently assigned the night shift at the Playstation Vita factory. Incidentally, no one has done more to create a positive perception of Fields' very limited game than John Salmons.

Part of Salmons' decline was age-related. As Raptors Republic's William Lou has written, Salmons performed better with a couple days rest between games. However, he was awful in the Nets series, and there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs. Casey stubbornly persevered with Salmons anyway, as he tends to do with veterans, much to the chagrin of most of the fan-base. If it's any consolation, however, it's unlikely that he'll be in a Raptors uniform next season. The Raps will surely exercise the $1 million buy-out clause on his contract.

Greivis Vasquez: B

Okay, first let's get the negatives out of the way: Greivis Vasquez is a sieve at the defensive end. He's slow and doesn't move well laterally; consequently he's consistently beaten off the dribble by any point-guard with a pulse. Vasquez got exposed on that end countless times in the Nets series, and during the regular season I recall a game where he made Kirk Hinrich look like Damian Lillard.

That said, it's no exaggeration to say that Vasquez was a vital part of the Raptors' post-December 8th turnaround. He gave the team big production off the bench, at the offensive end -- production that they simply did not have with Augustin backing up Kyle Lowry. Vasquez ran the pick-n-roll to great effect, particularly with Amir Johnson; although not enough for many people's liking. He kept the ball moving, and he was sneakily effective in the lane with that hideous floater.

Most impressive was Vasquez's shooting from deep. Not known as a good shooter prior to his arrival in Toronto, Vasquez shot 38% from beyond the arc this season as a Raptor. Just as importantly, he was fearless. Granted, that quality could get frustrating at times -- he had a tendency to fall in love with his shot -- but for a team not exactly blessed with great shooting, his unswerving confidence was crucial. He was, as Bill Simmons would say, the Raps' 'irrational confidence guy'.

Vasquez's value to the team was underlined further in the playoffs, where at times he became the third scoring option after DeRozan and Lowry. With Ross struggling, Casey gave Vasquez heavy minutes with Lowry in the backcourt, with DeRozan shifted down to the 3. Vasquez, as he often did during the regular season, allowed Lowry to play off the ball and take advantage of his catch-and-shoot abilities.

Vasquez will be an RFA this summer, and unless some team extends an outrageous offer sheet, Ujiri will surely re-sign the Venezuelan point-guard.

DeMar DeRozan: B+

DeMar DeRozan just had his best season in the NBA, and arguably one of the best seasons a Toronto Raptor has ever had. Regardless of the state of the Eastern Conference, DeRozan was an All-Star this season, and deservedly so -- he earned that accolade.

It's also undeniable that DeMar made tangible improvements in his game this year -- his statistical output was not simply the result of more playing time and more field-goal attempts. DeRozan became a willing and able passer this season. While at times he develops tunnel-vision when double-teamed, for the first time in his career DeRozan was able to find teammates off the dribble with consistency. His decision-making, when you assess the season as a whole, was sharper than it's ever been. An increase from 2.5 assists per game in 2012-13, to 4 assists per game in the season just gone, is a testament to the fact that DeRozan was seeing the floor better than ever.

The biggest improvement to DeRozan's game this season, however, was his ability to get to the free-throw line. DeMar finished 7th in the NBA in free-throws attempted with 8 per game, a huge increase from his average of 5.2 the previous season. DeRozan's ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the basket (despite a still-shaky handle) was even more impressive considering the fact that defenders don't bother to chase him off the 3-point line.

But the player that DeRozan is -- very good -- will always clash with the player that Raptors fans want him to be; a DeMar DeRozan that is great. DeRozan is not, and might never be, great.

Few players straddle the line between amazing and infuriating quite like DeRozan, and while he grew leaps and bounds this season, it's unlikely that he'll ever been the transcendent player that Raptors fans hope him to be.

DeRozan's remains infatuated with the mid-range game. According to Basketball Reference, DeRozan took the majority of his shots this season (36%) in the 16-23 foot range, but only made 39% of those attempts. Dirk Nowitzki or LaMarcus Aldridge, he is not. DeMar still has no 3-point game; his percentage from 3 improved this season, but he'd still rather take a semi-consteted 18-footer, than a wide open corner 3. That's a problem.

Defensively DeRozan struggled this season too, and especially in the Nets series. Joe Johnson was able to brutalize him in the post, and most larger wings are able to push him around. DeRozan also had issues fighting through screens which led to his man getting open numerous times in games this year -- Gerald Henderson had made a career losing DeRozan around screens.

The shaky handle, the bad shots in isolation, and the sub-par defense may always be there. But DeRozan improved drastically this season in other facets of his game, and on the balance of the season he was excellent. If he can maintain this level for the next few years, while remaining the second best player on the team, as he was this season, the Raptors have a bright future.

Kyle Lowry: A

Kyle Lowry began the 2013-14 season at a crossroads -- a talented, enigmatic, but ultimately underachieving player who had yet to put his considerable skill-set to use in an entire NBA season.

Kyle Lowry finished the 2013-14 season as one of the best point-guards in the NBA.

DeMar DeRozan took most of the plaudits from the casual fan, and those outside of the Toronto media and Raptors fan-base, but anyone who's followed the team closely this season knows that Kyle Lowry was the Raptors' best, and most valuable player -- it's not even close. He's the engine that drives the train, the fuel the drives the engine; the entire train, even.

The stats were there for Lowry this season; 17 points, 7 assists, and 4 rebounds per game -- all career highs -- to go along with career highs in 3-point shooting percentage and PER. Those numbers should've been good enough to earn him a place on the Eastern Conference All-Star team -- they weren't, because of Lowry's bad reputation/the head coaches outsource their votes to Joe Johnson fans -- but they should earn him 3rd team All-NBA honours.

Lowry's impact on the Raptors this season cannot simply be reflected in the box-score, however. Defensively, he became of the best guards in the league this season. Whereas last season he gambled for steals, this year he stayed disciplined within Casey's defensive scheme, harrying his opposite number on the ball, and playing some of the best help defense you're ever likely to see from someone who's just 6 feet tall. The charges that Lowry drew under the basket, time and time again this season, aren't reflected in the conventional box-score, but were a huge reason why the Raptors were a top-10 team in defensive efficiency.

Kyle Lowry also became a great leader this year, a quality that is often overlooked in this age of advanced metrics, but one that is vital to the health of a basketball team. He led the Raptors by example, whether it was driving to the basket in traffic when the Raptors' offense stagnated (this happened often, by the way) and they needed points, or drawing a charge underneath the basket to swing the momentum in a tight game. The Raps were never out of games this season, and many of the team's furious comebacks, or near comebacks, were initiated by their point-guard.

It's hard to see Lowry not back in a Raptors uniform next season. He just enjoyed the best season of his career, and has developed a great relationship with both Dwane Casey (despite a rocky start) and Masai Ujiri. More will be written on this soon enough, but expect Lowry to sign for somewhere in the range of $12 million per year. And if he continues to perform at the level we just witnessed, that'll be a bargain.

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