After the Toronto Raptors’ latest loss this past weekend, All-Star Chris Bosh expressed his frustration concerning his club’s inability to close out games.
"I think we hesitate too much and think about it too much. We just have to play basketball down the stretch because we don't worry about it in the first three quarters, so why worry about it in the fourth?"
While this may have been a newsworthy outburst to some, for all of us regulars at the HQ, the lack of a scoring option besides CB4 is nothing new. In fact it was early last season that Howland asked the question "who is the second best player on this team?"
Almost two years later, that question has yet to be answered.
And as a result, we now find Toronto mired in a slump, playing some very good teams, and watching their competition pass them by in the playoff race.
The unthinkable has occurred as not only has Toronto lost major ground to clubs like Cleveland and Washington, but a preseason pick as "lottery option 1A," the Philadelphia 76ers, suddenly have shot past them as well.
The same team that Toronto throttled most of last season and this as well, and whose lone win over the Raps was one of the "we let that one get away" games of the season for the Dinos?
Yes…and suddenly Philadelphia does not look like anything like a lottery club, but a team that no one wants to play in the playoffs! Last night they took care of the league-leading Boston Celtics with quiet efficiency and have recently strung together an impressive winning streak taking down clubs like Detroit and Phoenix in the process.
I watched most of last night’s Philly/Boston match-up between NIT coverage, and while Rogers kept up their incredibly inept service (cutting the final minute of a six point game off to switch to a Portland-Seattle match that wasn’t even on the Rogers’ schedule), the game itself was a revelation of sorts.
Philly’s young guns have grown up and the team now features a deadly mix of athleticism, scoring, defense and toughness. Thaddeus Young might end up being the steal of his draft in retrospect and paired with the back-court savvy of Andre Miller, speed of Louis Williams, the toughness of Reggie Evans, shot-blocking and excellent post-play of Samuel Dalembert, and of course "do-it-all" ability of Andre Iguodala (who surely will be re-signed this off-season now,) we’re looking at a team that just dares their opponents to overlook them…not unlike last year’s version of the Raptors in fact.
Turning back to the Dinos, Toronto of late has been looking much more like a lottery-bound club than playoff contender and it’s obvious that the team needs to make some major decisions this off-season, from point guard to how best to utilize the enigmatic Andrea Bargnani.
And unfortunately, Bryan Colangelo is about a year away from having much financial room to move in terms of facilitating some of these choices.
So perhaps the best way will be to look towards the draft. While Billy King was probably one of the worst GM’s of all time in terms of free-agent decisions, like Isiah Thomas, his draft picks have worked out quite well. Williams, Iguodala, Young and even players like Rodney Carney have helped the 76ers get younger, deeper and most importantly, more athletic.
Toronto could certainly use a dose of the same medicine.
With the first four days of March Madness now complete, I’ve decided to highlight three categories of players for discussion in terms of the upcoming draft; those who the Raptors should take if available, those who Toronto should take a long look at depending on where the players fall, and those who the Raptors should avoid altogether.
Of course none of this is final as players’ stocks will rise and fall as the tournament continues, and as we get into pre-draft camps and workouts.
But for now, here are some preliminary thoughts:
5 To Draft:
Michael Beasley. Hey, if Isiah Thomas gets the first pick, maybe swapping him for Maceo Baston would work? Ok, in all seriousness, moving on…
Chris Douglas-Roberts. CDR has been my top choice for Toronto this season and so far the tournament hasn’t done anything to change it. He’s lead his team in scoring, has been aggressive getting to the line (he’s 11 for 14 in two games), and has shown his prowess for decision making and rebounding as well averaging six rebounds and four assists. While his club looks like the weakest of the number one seeds, I think CDR will make the jump if team-mates Derrick Rose and Joey Dorsey declare regardless of how far Memphis makes it. His size (6-7) and style of play could be just what the doctor ordered for a Raptors team lacking players who can get to the rim and create their own shot.
Jerel McNeal. Of all the players in this year’s tourney, McNeal jumped out at me the most. Thanks to the pro-Big East coverage from Rogers’ Sports Pack, I’d seen Marquette play quite a bit and while I liked McNeal’s athleticism, I didn’t know how he’d fare on the big stage. Well for those who saw Marquette come inches away from taking down Stanford, now you know. For the season McNeal averaged almost 15 points and five rebounds but in his first two matches against Kentucky and Stanford he upped those averages to 25 points, 6.5 rebounds and added a block and a steal per game for good measure. More importantly from a Raptors’ perspective, this was a player who grabbed the limelight in crunch time and used his athletic ability to create separation and get his own shot. He doesn’t get to the free-throw line as well as the aforementioned Douglas-Roberts, and at 6-3 he's a shooting guard and not a small forward, but if I’m BC right now, I put him at option 1B behind CDR.
Kevin Love. I’m not sure Love will be around anymore when the Raptors make their pick. Love initially looked like a late lottery pick to a mid-first round choice but probably got a huge stock boost with his game-saving performance in UCLA’s win over Texas A&M this past weekend. As clichéd as this may sound, Love did show the heart of a champion refusing to let his club lose. With great post defense on A&M’s three giants in the paint, a sweet scoring touch from inside and out, and his usual solid rebounding, Love set the tone for his team which took over with the game on the line.
Love might not be the second coming of Darryl Dawkins, but as we’ve seen from the likes of Paul Millsap and Jason Maxiel, players who are great rebounders at the college level usually translate well to the NBA. Love would give this Raptor team another winner, the toughness it’s been missing since Oak went back South of the border, and a nice complimentary skill-set to Chris Bosh in the paint.
Tyler Smith. Like Love, Smith has been on our favourites list all season. And the more I watch him, the more I understand the comparisons to Josh Howard coming out of Wake Forest; both are long and athletic slashers who love to get to the rim, strong rebounders and both can lock down opponents with their defence. Tennessee doesn’t look like the strongest bet to make the Final Four and how far his club gets may be a major factor in T. Smith’s decision to declare. But should Toronto find Smith on the board when their pick comes around, I think BC would find this wing player a perfect fit and finally someone who could be the slashing threat the team needs.
Joey Dorsey. Dorsey was a one-man block party for Memphis in their last game (six blocks) and like Love, his toughness and rebounding ability is something Toronto could desperately use. The caveat however is that Dorsey has nowhere near the upside or offensive skill-set that Love possess and would not be my choice for a mid first round pick. However it’s not out of the question that Dorsey slips into the late first round or early second and if that’s the case, I think that Colangelo should definitely make a strong play for his services. He’s been compared to Ben Wallace but I think he’s realistically somewhere more between a Reggie Evans and Wallace; a better shot-blocker and defender than Evans, but not the rebounding force that Wallace was in his prime. However considering Toronto’s needs up front in the areas Dorsey is strongest in, this is a player definitely worth taking a flyer on.
5 To Think Hard About:
Bill Walker. As most of you are aware, Walker was one of my favourite players in college this past season. His college career however may have come to an end as he and team-mate Michael Beasley were eliminated by Wisconsin in the second round of the tourney. It’s not a lock that he’ll declare, but he may take a look at his supporting cast sans Beasley next year and decide to take the leap.
Up front let me say that I love Walker’s game. He’s a terrific rebounder who can play numerous positions and would give Toronto that toughness they lack. However he’s no thug, Walker has great touch around the basket, has great quickness and athleticism, and while he’ll probably need to "de-bulk" a bit to play the 3 in the NBA (he played a lot of 4 for K State), should be able to do so without much problem as he’s a solid ball handler.
The problem is, I’m not sure he’s a great fit for Toronto. He reminds me a bit of Bonzi Wells with Portland, a fiery 3 with the size and skill to play some 4, but who let his emotions get the best of him much too often. I watched Walker more than almost any prospect this year and as many times as I saw him hit a big 3 or grab a big rebound for his club, I saw him get an untimely foul or take an ill-advised shot simply because he got carried away emotionally. If Raptors’ fans think that TJ has a chip on his shoulder, wait till they see the brick on Walker’s.
Hasheem Thabeet. Thabeet is another player who I’ve seen extensively this year and for me, the jury is still out. If he’s around when Toronto drafts, can they afford to pass on such a potential defensive gem? Or are you willing to take a pass if you’re Colangelo, not wanting to wait three years for him to develop other areas of his game?
For those who saw UConn’s upset loss in the tournament, you saw the good and bad of Thabeet. Good shot-blocker, terrible fundamental defender who would give Sam Mitchell a ticket to the loony-bin trying to stop pick-and-rolls. Thabeet should probably stay another year with coach Calhoun but the lure of a first-round promise might be too strong having passed on it last year. He’s no Saer Sene, but if Thabeet is drafted this summer by Toronto, fans shouldn’t expect anything for a long time.
Courtney Lee. So far this tournament has been a huge boost in terms of exposure for Lee. He’s had two solid games and especially in the second of Western Kentucky’s wins, we saw why scouts are so high on him. Lee is as smooth as they come and possesses a nice mix of inside and outside game. However he’s not the greatest athlete and watching him reminds me a lot of Anthony Parker…who we already have. His next play through the rest of the tourney and his individual workouts should go a long way in deciding where he falls on draft day.
Russell Westbrook. Late in the season many started jumping on the Westbrook bandwagon and perhaps he’ll now be a lottery pick outside of Toronto’s range. Right now, I’m not even sure that’s a bad thing. Westbrook has had two decent games for UCLA, but hasn’t been the dominant slashing force I expected. He did leave a lasting impression with his game-ending dunk to seal Texas A&M’s fate on Saturday night, but for a team feeling the effect of Josh Shipp’s offensive struggles, I’ve been left wanting more from Westbrook. In a sense then he’s been the opposite of Lee, great athletic ability but not enough fundamental offensive abilities shown. Toronto could use his athleticism but I think this is another player fans would have to show patience with for a while.
Sonny Weems. We touched on Weems after the conference championships and he stepped things up a notch during the early rounds of the Big Dance. A 6-6 senior, Weems destroyed the much more highly touted freshman Eric Gordon in Arkansas’ first-round match with Indiana, holding him to eight points on three for 15 shooting. He’s one of the most athletic players in college and his style at times has reminded me of another former Razorback - Ronny Brewer. Weems wasn’t as successful in round two against North Carolina, and there are concerns about his upside due to lack of fundamentals, but this is another player Toronto could take a long look at if he’s still available for cheap late in the first round or early in the second.
5 To Avoid:
Roy Hibbert. Six points and one rebound in 16 foul-plagued minutes in his final game of the tourney? Um…no thanks. Hibbert didn’t impress me last year and has done even less this year. He’s got size, and there’s probably some truth to theory that the Georgetown system did a poor job of taking full advantage of Hibbert's talents...but Roy to me at present looks like Rasho part II; a bit more offensively talented but not as savvy a defender. Toronto needs either a terrific rebounder and defensive presence or flat-out low-post scorer if they draft a 5 and Hibbert is neither. Pass.
Chase Budinger. Budinger actually lead his team in scoring in Zona’s first round loss to West Virginia. However he did little to show me that he’s going to be an effective slasher at the next level for all of his athleticism. I think Chase might be a nice complimentary piece for a team, but I still hope Toronto stays far away on draft day.
Joe Alexander. No, I didn’t put him on this list because his squad knocked out my Blue Devils. And it’s not that I don’t think Alexander isn't talented, or won’t become a Keith Van Horn clone at the next level. It's just that he simply isn’t what Toronto needs right now no matter how much hype he might have should he declare.
Darrell Arthur. Kansas is a tough team to scout. They are so deep that their players don’t perhaps get enough time on the court to really shine through. They have some nice pieces in terms of NBA potential, but the one I don’t want any part of as a Raptor fan is Darrel Arthur. Arthur put in a solid first game of the tournament (17 points and seven rebounds) but it was against a sixteenth ranked Portland State club. Against UNLV, he was almost invisible. That’s been Arthur’s season in a nutshell, up and down and right now I’m stamping him with the "buyer beware" label. Add to the fact that Toronto hardly needs another 6-9 power forward project, and I say pass.
Josh Shipp. Word now out of UCLA is that Shipp’s disappearing act is partly due to strep throat which he’s attempting to recover from. That’s all fine and dandy and I hope he gets better soon but Shipp hasn’t had strep all season. For a player who I thought would be a nice late first-round pick, similar to his predecessor Aaron Afflalo, Shipp looks to be playing himself out of perhaps the first and second round with his play this year.