You think the NBA has this Raptors team figured out, and then they surprise you again. Over the last month, we’ve seen opponents take different tactics to suppress Toronto’s youthful, super fun bench — ballhawk Fred VanVleet and C.J. Miles, collapse on their skinny bigs, dare Norman Powell to make shots. It worked!
Yet, the Raptors have found balance through this. After a rocky 1-2 week, Toronto ripped off three straight — beating Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Chicago in some of the season’s most satisfying games.
The key? Well, besides DeMar DeRozan learning to shoot threes (which is good) — it’s the human knuckleball Delon Wright. Since coming back from a shoulder injury, Wright has simply made the bench more effective.
His play has rubbed off on others, and as such, Delon’s name pops up a lot in this week’s rankings.
3 Young Gunz of the Week
1. Delon Wright (last week: 1)
Let’s talk about the man himself. Wright had the best outing of his career in Chicago, a night made more epic by an emphatic return key:
Delon Wright vs. Bulls:— William Lou (@william_lou) January 4, 2018
This was supported by 13 points against Atlanta (6-of-10) and eight points against the Bucks. Even in those games, though, Wright made a big difference in how the bench operates.
Dwane Casey has been more hesitant to play all-bench lineups over the last couple weeks, after a late December trip displayed their limited offensive capability with Delon out with injury. With his return, though, these units have been exciting again, all thanks to his pace and creativity.
Wright’s ability to create off the dribble and make the right decision is part of this, but it’s also his speed in transition. The Raptors’ bench feasts on these opportunities and Delon pushes the ball like nobody else on Toronto. The tasty Euro-step is just one way these pushes have finished in baskets.
It’s simple science, people: the more the young guys run, the better the team is.
Canada's team, the surprising Toronto Raptors pic.twitter.com/LagbU0UUZt— Duncan Smith (@DuncanSmithNBA) January 2, 2018
Delon makes the Raptors better, just because he’s a weird change of pace. Beyond the all-bench units, he’s been plugged in beside Kyle Lowry, DeRozan, and others — it all seems to work. The +28 in Chicago was no accident.
2. Fred VanVleet (last week: 4)
Wright’s return has also allowed Steady Freddie to settle back into a comfortable role. The Raptors struggled when they relied on VanVleet to run the offense alone, and his return to a more off-ball role has looked good.
VanVleet was the best bench player in the Raptors’ best win, against Milwaukee. His 11 points came on 2-of-3 shooting from outside, looks that he shot confidently and without hesitation.
Fred’s performance was shadowed by DeMar DeRozan’s 52-point outburst, but in the overtime he was fantastic. Three consecutive times down the floor, Toronto ran the same play: DeRozan leading the play from the wing, getting a screen from VanVleet. Both Milwaukee guards trapped DeMar, and Fred smartly moved to a spot where he could be the release valve. Every time, he made the right decision after getting the pass.
At his size and age, that level of strong side play in overtime against a hungry team is demanding. Steady Freddie delivered.
3. Pascal Siakam (last week: 2)
Some weeks I just want to group Siakam and Poeltl together, because they impact games in similar ways at similar times.
Pascal gets the edge this week because he was a live wire against Atlanta, with Serge Ibaka sitting for rest. His five points and seven rebounds earned a +13 mark, and during an unexceptional game for the Raptors, his energy was more pronounced (and needed).
The Other Guys
4. Jakob Poeltl (last week: 3)
Poeltl is the model of consistency, but it’s yet to get boring. He catches the ball well, shoots above 50% from the field, makes the right decision, and cashes paycheques. With the starters looking drab in Chicago, he put together a +26 night on just six points.
Again, I’m looking up at Siakam’s similarities — these are two guys who have small stat lines, but huge impact, especially in games where Jonas Valanciunas struggles early.
5. OG Anunoby (last week: 5)
Our beautiful OG is back in fifth! Unfortunately it was a second straight quiet week for the Raptors rookie, as he shot 1-for-9 from three against Atlanta and Chicago, and threatened a Sam Mitchell Special in the Milwaukee game.
Still, the OG flashes are mesmerizing. Late in the Milwaukee game, guarding the leviathan Giannis Antetokounmpo, he stayed with the Greek Freak in one-on-one defense. He face-guarded on the perimeter, then did what so few NBA wings can do: stuck with his first and second steps to the basket.
Giannis scored anyway, on a fadeaway 14-footer, but it was drool-worthy.
6. Lucas Nogueira (last week: 7)
Bebe barely played in the later two games, but a 3-for-3 night against Atlanta looked pretty good. The team feels weirdly empty without a Brazilian on the end of the bench.
7. Norman Powell (last week: 6)
I hate to do this to Norm, but it seems he’s finally fallen out of the rotation after a month of negative impact.
His only meaningful game of the week, against Atlanta, saw him shoot 3-for-10 and miss four of his five looks from three. He got a DNP-CD against Milwaukee, and nearly gave the game back to Chicago in three minutes of garbage time.
You have to believe Norm will figure it out, but this situation is starting to mirror James Johnson in 2015-16. It’s hard to get playing time back once you’ve lost it, and with ten more useful players ahead of him, hopes are not high.
T-8. Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie, Bruno Caboclo, Malcolm Miller
The motley crew of no-minutes people. The 905 are still good, though! Seven game win streak!