With the exception of their win Sunday night over the Celtics, the Toronto Raptors were having some serious issues closing out recent games. In many of them, the opposing team was simply playing with superior talent and making the clutch plays needed down the stretch to obtain the win. However another key factor in many of these close losses, was the Raptors inability to get key rebounds, box out and score points in the paint, instead settling for jump shots.
With Antonio Davis in his last tour of duty, Loren Woods and Rafael Araujo probably on their way out of the league and Pape Sow still not ready for prime time minutes, it's obvious that once again this summer, Raptors will be shopping for someone to man the centre position.
While there are some free agents of interest who could help the Raptors (Joel Przybilla, Nazr Mohammad, Nene) there are also some options available through the draft. Perhaps none of those options has as much potential however, purely from a center standpoint, than Tiago Splitter.
Splitter first appeared on the draft scene a few years ago. As a 17-year-old Splitter made the Brazilian National team becoming the youngest player in its history and competed in the 2002 World Championships. Tiago was named to the 2002 Junior Pan-American All-Star team along with future NCAA stars Carmello Anthony and Juan Jose Bareas and was the tourney's leading scorer.
But it was Splitter's play for TAU Ceramica in the past few seasons that really turned scouts' heads. In limited action for a stacked TAU squad he's still been able to put up decent numbers (averaging around 10 points and 5 rebounds) and lately has played an even more prominent role for the club. With starter Luis Scola out with plantar fasciitis, (side note - what's with Spurs players or prospects with fasciitis?) Splitter has stepped into the starting role and responded. Playing against players with much more experience he led his team in scoring with 18 points and seven rebounds in his last match.
Tiago's scoring has been an especially pleasant surprise as it's always been the one area of his game which could use some work. An athletic player for his height (a legitimate seven-footer) with a tremendous wingspan, Splitter's rebounding and defensive presence have always been his calling card although lately his low post game has shown great improvement. If Splitter had an effective mid-range game, something truly lacking right now in his arsenal, he would be a strong candidate for the first overall pick in this coming summer's draft.
In fact his current game is eerily reminiscent to that of former possible first overall pick Emeka Okafor. With his shot blocking, rebounding and defensive abilities, Splitter has drawn comparisons to the former UConn star but he has also been compared to some of the league's other tremendous defensive players such as PJ Brown. At 21 Tiago is still young and continues to improve but he also has the benefit of several years experience playing against upper echelon talent, the kind not always present in the NCAA for big men. This will serve him well once he enters the league and much like Manu Ginobili and other foreign players who stayed in Europe for seasoning, he should be able to come in and contribute right away.
On top of this, Splitter has a reputation as being a tireless worker and by all accounts would thrive under Sam Mitchell giving the Raptors not only a huge presence defensively, but also offensively giving Chris Bosh more room to operate in his natural power forward position.
There are a few problems however with drafting Splitter, the first of these being contractual in nature. As of now, Tiago is under contract with TAU until 2008 and does not look to have an NBA buyout clause. This will definitely scare off some teams in this year's draft and for a team like the Raptors needing help now, it may not make sense for them to take the risk in selecting Splitter.
This is especially true after the draft-folly of the Orlando Magic last year. The Magic went with the best big-man available in the draft to help out rookie sensation Dwight Howard and shore up their frontcourt for the future. However the player they selected, Fran Vasquez, opted to stay in Europe and in fact it's possible that Orlando may never get him to play on this side of the pond. With the popularity of European basketball on the rise and therefore an increase in players' salaries, many players are opting to do just that. Under NBA rules the maximum amount a team can pay towards the buy-out of a player under foreign contract is $500,000 and therefore the rest of the buyout money has to come from the player's own salary. Therefore staying in Europe is now making more and more sense as a player would be guaranteed a great salary, a prominent role with his club and all the fame and fortune associated with it. In addition, the player would be able to stay in his home environment and not have to go through the language and cultural barriers associated with moving to North America.
For these reasons and others, Tiago has actually entered and withdrawn from the last two drafts while trying to "test the waters." In each case, when he realized that it was possible he wouldn't be a lottery pick, he withdrew.
Another possible issue with Splitter is his position as some scouts wonder if he really is a true center. While he's shown no fear of banging in the paint, he is of slender build and may be better suited at the power forward position. With Chris Bosh already manning the spot for years to come the last thing Toronto needs is another reason for Steven A. Smith to start screaming about drafting the same position.
In addition, Splitter may not be the type of player new GM Bryan Colangelo wants for this club. If he's looking to employ more of a "run-and-gun" style, than the Raptors may look to add a different type of frontcourt player. And can Raptors' fans really endure another "Brazilian Beast" project? We've already gone through one and it's hardly been a smashing success.
That being said, Splitter looks to be about the most "sure-fire" prospect in this year's draft. Having played on the international scene for almost five years now, he's proven what he can do and his defensive intangibles would be a huge boost for this club.
For the upcoming draft therefore I'd try and get Splitter in for a workout against the following players:
Shelden Williams - Duke
Hilton Armstrong - UConn
Aaron Gray - Pitt
If we could throw possible top picks Andrea Bargnani and LaMarcus Aldridge in there too that would be great. The main thing the Raptors brass will have to ascertain is just what type of player Splitter could be for the Raptors. Does he have the strength to defend the bullishness of a Shelden Williams? Can he contend with the sheer size of an Aaron Gray? Can he score against an athletic shot blocker like a Hilton Armstrong? And in turn can he guard a silky smooth inside presence like Aldridge or an outside threat like Bargnani?
Speaking of which, Splitter and Bargnani have already faced each other in Euroleague action with Splitter getting the upper hand. If Splitter continues to get minutes in Scola's absence he may indeed see his draft stock soar to the point where teams simply can't afford to pass on his skill set.
For the Raptors however, the possibility of selecting Splitter probably depends entirely on Colangelo's vision for this club going forward. Will he try and incorporate a more West Coast style offence? Will he look to bring in solid half-court defenders? Will he give Rafael Araujo a contract extension so that he can take over for the current Raptor mascot?
In any event, Toronto will probably take a long hard look at Tiago as the draft draws near however his selection, much like almost everything else associated with this club going into the summer, is definitely up in the air.