We’re only a week in, but I’d like to make a couple revisions to some Raptors predictions I made, both in writing and in my head, before the season began. The Raptors are off to a strong start. However, considering their schedule, this was expected. Two easy wins against considerably weaker opponents, combined with two close losses against two of the best teams in the league, sounds par for the course for the Raptors.
That said, the manner of how those results were met are different than what many, including myself, expected.
Does an Inexperienced Bench Spell Trouble?
First, I found myself pondering before the season began: is the bench too young to handle serious minutes? Summer League is not necessarily a great indication of any sort of progress, so I had no inclination as to whether the youngsters would be ready to take the next step. Thankfully, the bench has shined so far.
Delon Wright is quickly turning into the brightest young star on the roster. Some had doubts about whether Delon was ready to step into the limelight, taking the reins of the Raptors’ second unit. Swiftly, Wright quieted those critics with stellar defense, a lack of nerves, and creativity on offense — out of all players averaging at least 20 minutes per game, he is third on the roster in assists, trailing just Kyle Lowry and a pass-happy DeMar DeRozan. While he may not be making his shots, it’s encouraging to see him taking 3.5 three-point attempts per game. With time, we can expect his three-point percentage to increase substantially (it’s currently at, uh, 7 percent).
Meanwhile, some made claims that Jakob Poeltl, with soft hands under the basket, had little else to offer Toronto. So far however, he has been turning heads with his underrated athleticism and high basketball IQ. Poeltl has been averaging 4.2 offensive rebounds per game in limited minutes, showcasing his hustle on the offensive glass.
Likewise, rookie OG Anunoby has shown flashes of brilliance on both ends of the floor, and looks to improve as his rehab continues. When OG gets his bounce back, be afraid — the kid is a monster.
The Starters Will Perform, Right?
So, the bench has been much better than expected. Unfortunately, this comes with something of a regression from the starters. On the bright side, DeMar DeRozan has had a great start to the season, shooting 49 percent from the field. While he injured himself against the Spurs, he rebounded nicely against the Warriors, nabbing six steals, dishing out six assists and scoring 24 points.
Similarly Jonas Valanciunas was playing well, showing off increased awareness and making the right passes (1.6 assists per 36 minutes — a 60% increase from last season). But, of course, he hurt his ankle and will be out for the short term.
Kyle Lowry has been a disappointment so far, struggling to shoot from three-point land (at only 27 percent). The good news however, is that the season just started, and there’s tons of time left to improve. Often, a player just takes time to adjust to the tempo of the regular season. Here’s hoping Lowry’s shot will improve as a result, as the Raptors really do need it. Don’t put the bulldog down just yet.
Where Does Pascal Siakam Fit?
Until the Warriors game, we had been seeing a big man rotation of Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira — with not much Pascal Siakam. I expected his 6.5 minutes per game to rise as the season progresses, and last night proved my prediction correct. In 21 minutes, Siakam contributed 20 points on an effective shooting line, including from three-point range.
One would think that we should see a spike in Siakam’s playing time with Valanciunas and Nogueira out. If his young contemporaries can play under that type of pressure, Siakam must show himself able to as well, lest we see his role diminish quickly. Thankfully, going off of last night’s performance, Siakam is ready for the challenge.
Two Seed in the East?
Most journalists and fans predicted that the Raptors would finish as the third seed in the East, trailing only the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics. But, as we’ve seen, circumstances can change rapidly and without warning. Gordon Hayward’s horrific and unfortunate injury opens a slot for the Raptors to finish second in the conference, assuming the starters get healthy and perform at their apex for most of the season.
I’m excited to see how the Raptors fare moving forward. If both the bench and the starters reach their peak — with LeBron already overworked in Cleveland — the Raptors may just be able to topple the terrifying top team in the East too.
Well, at least in the regular season.