In the come down from the Raptors’ miraculous run to the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s easy to forget selected events from the past season and summer. Some of us are still pretty buzzed.
Toronto spent last season with a full third of its roster tied up in development projects. Now, some of that group played their way into the rotation (hello Norman Powell!), and others played their way out (sad trombone Anthony Bennett). But the baseline effect here was a Raptors team trying to contend and develop at the same time. That this plan worked as well as it did — 56 wins and the ECF run — is, quite frankly, amazing. Basketball teams usually have to pick one path and drive hard.
The off-season then promised something of a choice: would the Raptors continue on this way, dedicating five or more spots on the team to rookies and young players, even as they again tried to drive deeper into the playoffs? Or would they start flipping young assets — including two new draft picks — for established talent, shift the roster into a more “win-now” direction, and try a different approach? On locker clear out day, team president Masai Ujiri chuckled as he acknowledged the team’s coaches may not relish having even more young guys on the squad.
And yet, here are Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam anyway. The ninth and 27th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft have moved to Toronto, hold Canadian visas, and wear Raptors colours. They are on the team, whether the coaches want it or not.
So, what now?
Let’s start with Poeltl. He’s arguably the only top ten pick from his draft class not being discussed in any meaningful (or breathless) way. The other players there — your Makers, your Murrays, even your Chrisses — have some note of mystique or anticipation hovering around them. Not so, sadly, with Poeltl. He is probably what he is: a big man with quick-ish feet, solid hoops IQ, good hands and room (lots of room) to grow. Whether Poeltl puts it all together and becomes something more than he is on paper is, as always, up for debate. The more significant question is what that something more even is. Can Poeltl start in the NBA? Could he play at the power forward spot? Can he defend at the NBA level? The Raptors made a bet on a centre with polish, a player with a high floor (if a lower ceiling) who could, at the very least, grow into becoming a functional NBA player, if not ever a star. There are worse fates.
Fortunately, owing to the team he landed on, Poeltl doesn’t have to prove anything just yet. He’s playing behind one of the more established starting centres in the league, there’s a presumed de facto backup in place, and a cadre of other big men on hand fill out the rest of the frontcourt.
As such, a successful season for Poeltl will be achieved in two ways. First, if he is in fact sent to the D-League (which, to me, feels inevitable), Poeltl should, and probably will, make the most of it. He’ll get big minutes with the 905, get a chance to learn the Raptors’ offensive and defensive schemes, and be a focal point for everything the team is trying to do. The Raptors coaching staff have been quick to praise Poeltl’s ability to learn, so while the level of competition with the 905 is lower, this kind of development time will be huge. (There are also worse things in life than having Jerry Stackhouse, noted NBA tough guy, in your ear.)
Second, if Poeltl does get to play with the Raptors this season — either because Lucas Nogueira flames out or, god forbid, there’s an injury — the role he’ll have will be a narrow one. We’ve seen it already in the handful of pre-season games he’s played in so far; he’s run the floor, mucked it up on the boards, dove in on a pick-and-roll or two. In truth: if Poeltl manages these things with aplomb in his rookie season, regardless of the amount of minutes he gets, it will be a rousing success.
This brings us to the far more intriguing question then: what of Siakam?
Up front, the comparison to Bismack Biyombo is lazy. Both players come from Africa, and both exhibit the same sort of reckless emotive joy on the court, but their skill sets could not be more different. Case in point: Pascal can actually dribble the ball and run at the same time. (And to be fair though, while he’s shown the ability to block a shot or two, Siakam is not on Biz’s level as a terrifying rim protector; the jury is obviously still out on whether he gets there.) There are shades of Biyombo in Siakam’s relentless motor sure, but the end result — the hopeful finished product — tracks as something different.
This is what makes Siakam the more intriguing and exciting prospect. As with any late first or second round pick, the degree of certainty attached to his professional career is roughly proportional to his draft position. That is to say, not super high at the outset. But if a team hits on those late picks (like the Raps have with Powell), the anticipation surrounding that player starts to rise exponentially. We haven’t seen much of Siakam yet, but you better believe the buzz is already building.
To talk about Siakam’s game now — which looks raw and frantic and fun in all the ways you could hope for — after a few frenzied pre-season appearances is moot. He’s shown flashes of talent, and an intuition that belies his inexperience, but there’s still a long way to go. The Raptors have committed to two new young players — one, in Poeltl, who is more of a known quantity, and another, in Siakam, who could be anything. It may be that neither of them plays a minute for the Raptors this season, or both could surprise.
The Raptors are still trying to win and develop at the same time. But as it turns out, maybe that’s not such a bad place to be in after all.