After the Raptors acquired P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline last season, I was certain that iteration of the Raptors — however short the honeymoon lasted — would be my favourite. There was so much to love in Tucker. He was a hardass, he had an edge (or as Paul Pierce would say, an “it” factor) that the Raptors just hadn’t had to that point. He defended hard. He was, so clearly, trying.
Since then, I’ve moved on. This iteration of the Raptors, and I’m certain I’m not alone here, is by far my favourite — and it’s all thanks to the young guys. We’ve linked to it a lot this week, but Alex Wong’s piece in Vice Sports gives the exact insight into what makes guys like Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Delon Wright, and Jakob Poeltl so likeable.
CAVS: [actively hating each other]— John Gaudes (@johngaudes) January 24, 2018
They’ve developed chemistry both on and off the court. For young players, they’re comfortable in their own skin — and they’re ready for big roles on the court.
Adding Tucker was amazing, but seeing this growth from within continue and flourish has been more so. No matter what the Raptors are in for over the next four months, we’ll have no problem remembering this team. And that starts with the guys on the bench.
Let’s get into the rankings.
3 Young Gunz of the Week
1. Fred VanVleet (last week: 3)
Honestly, despite the fun quotes, the stat lines were a bit disappointing for the Raptors’ bench this week. They didn’t need big point totals to beat San Antonio — Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan took care of that. Similarly, Lowry dropped 40 against Minnesota, and the Raptors didn’t get much else in the loss.
In Wednesday’s blowout win over Atlanta, however, Fred VanVleet showed out. He had 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals, and three blocks(??) in the win, even getting re-inserted in the game in garbage time by Dwane Casey to see if he could top his career-high (22, set two weeks ago).
VanVleet’s shot is coming along nicely. He was 4-for-6 from distance against the Hawks, and I’m starting to feel like when the playoffs roll around, he’ll be the most reliable of the bench young guys. When things start to slow down, the Raptors are going to need their shooters to perform. VanVleet is starting to round into a very well-balanced player, including the outside shot, and that’s a great sign for a Toronto team that needs players to lean on besides Lowry and DeRozan.
2. Delon Wright (last week: 1)
Though he didn’t score a point against the Spurs, Delon was excellent behind and beside Kyle Lowry the following night against Minnesota. On the tail end of a difficult back-to-back, Wright’s energy was needed — he had a bench-high 12 points, also snagging six rebounds and six assists.
This was also with VanVleet returning, and hopefully it’s a sign of things to come. Getting both these guys 25 minutes a night will be challenging for Dwane Casey if they keep playing well. They’ve earned the opportunity, though, and triple guard lineups may be more normal as we go down the stretch.
3. OG Anunoby (last week: 2)
Lots of great OG pieces around the Raptors writing sphere this week, and they all hit the same point. Sure, we’re not seeing excellence in Anunoby’s offensive game right now — his best game this week was 10 points, five rebounds against Atlanta — but his defensive work has remained solid.
Credit where it’s due, the Raptors fanbase has been notoriously antsy when it comes to starters who don’t have an impact. Going back to Luis Scola, Tyler Hansbrough, and the other lot of power forwards who sunk the team, it’s refreshing that Toronto’s off-ball guy now is an absolute terror on one end. There’s no need to change, and OG is going to get time every game to work out his struggles.
The Other Guys
4. Jakob Poeltl (last week: 5)
When you talk about all these young guys, who’s really the biggest snub from the Rising Stars Challenge? Those in the know would start with OG or Fred VanVleet, but it seems like — on a national level — Jakob Poeltl is earning the most buzz.
Credit that explosive game against Cleveland, but Poeltl continues to plug away, earning positive plus-minus lines with minimal stat lines. There’s not much new to add for this week, but I’m impressed with how the word’s out on Jak.
5. Pascal Siakam (last week: 4)
Siakam made threes this week! In fact, the Timberwolves game was hella weird for him — four of his six shots were from outside the arc. Confidence is a hell of a drug, and maybe Pascal is shooting his way back into a groove. The conversion percentage is 15.7 and moving up, baby.
6. Norman Powell (last week: 6)
I really, really want Norm to be good again, and I appreciate that The Athletic’s Eric Koreen is considering an exposé on GoDaddy’s ability to curse Raptors players.
We’re one season away from my oral history of the Toronto Raptors’ Go-Daddy Tie-In Curse. Two is luck, three’s a trend.— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) January 18, 2018
Norm was again the tenth man off the bench this week, shooting 1-for-6 in 21 minutes over the three games. We need answers, Eric. Godspeed.
7. Lucas Nogueira (last week: 7)
I love Bebe. In just six minutes against the Hawks, he got up a pair of three-point shots and marked a -15. That’s garbage time well spent.
8. Alfonzo McKinnie (last week: NR)
McKinnie played five minutes in garbage time against the Hawks, and had one smooth mid-range jumper to get on the board. He’s taller than I remember him being. What are they feeding these kids in the G-League?