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Raw Raptor Rankings Week 18: A look ahead to the stretch drive

The Raptors were off this week, but that doesn’t mean we can’t assess their young guns anyway and decide what matters down the stretch.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Chicago Bulls Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an obvious problem with doing a Raw Raptor Rankings this week. Can you guess what it is? I’ll give you a moment.

Ding ding ding — it’s because the Raptors didn’t actually play a single second of professional basketball for the past seven days. There were vacations, All-Star Weekend festivities, and probably other events that went down — but nary the sight of a single Raptor dribbling a ball towards a basket in any meaningful sense.

So what are we doing here?

We could have just assessed how each of the young Raptors has done so far this season, but why not try to predict/rank whose performance will be most important for the team? With 25 games left in the Raptors’ season, I say now is a good time to look forward.

Without further preamble, let’s get to it. This week’s Raw Raptor Rankings is a ranking of the young Raptors down the stretch (and on into the post-season) in this 2017-18 season.

3 Young Gunz of the Week

1. Pascal Siakam (last week: 1)

From surprise starter, to absolute absence, to a significant bench player, Siakam’s first two seasons with the Raptors have been a trip. He’s the most important young Raptor right now for a few reasons. First, he’s their most effective defender, able to blitz any and every position out there. Second, he’s been showing an ability to play-make and run the break that may prove to be extremely useful this season (to say nothing of the rest of his career). And third, opposing teams are going to leave him open on the perimeter.

Now I know many of you don’t want Siakam to take threes at all, but they are going to be there for him. And while Pascal isn’t much of a shooter (yet), he’ll have to take a few to help nudge the Raptors up a level. He may miss (he most likely will miss) but nevertheless, it’s important.

2. Fred VanVleet (last week: 2)

VanVleet’s presence this high is perhaps questionable, given the fact that he’s technically the Raps’ third point guard, but his body of work suggests otherwise. If FVV hasn’t made it clear already, he’s the bench’s organizing influence. When he’s playing, things click into place — the halfcourt offense, the fast break, the defense. The fact that VanVleet is the team’s third most valuable shooter (behind Kyle Lowry and C.J. Miles) is also not something to overlook.

I don’t think any of us would have predicted VanVleet’s importance at the start of the season. But he’s bet on himself, and it’s paying off for the Raptors. Opponents should be cautious of taking FVV lightly.

3. Delon Wright (last week: 4)

My guy Delon is a quiet force for the Raptors in that he doesn’t exactly fill up the box score (though, looking at his averages, it’s clear he does, in his way), and yet he always seems to be involved in the play. Wright’s an ineffable element to the Raptors’ offensive and defensive schemes — he doesn’t overpower guys like Lowry, he can’t quite shoot the lights out like VanVleet, and he doesn’t physically dominate like OG or even Norm.

So then what does Wright do? In a word: a little of everything.

The Other Guys

4. Jakob Poeltl (last week: 3)

Because Poeltl’s offense is of a more secondary nature — he’s an offensive rebound man, and the ideal pick-and-roll finisher — the Raptors really rely on his defensive presence more than anything else. When Jak is keeping the other team honest in their pick-and-rolls, and threatening to block shots from an increasingly wide number of angles, he’s a force for the Raptors.

We know Toronto can usually rely on some combination of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas (together or apart), but having Poeltl in reserve is a nice weapon to have as well.

5. OG Anunoby (last week: 5)

The hardest one to place. On the one hand, Anunoby is in the starting lineup, and is one of the team’s best defenders — even if he can and does get lost at times. On the other hand, there’s not a ton of offense coming from him these days. As Zach Lowe pointed out today, OG’s shooting numbers have gone way, way down, and he’s faking himself out of open 3s these days.

The Raptors will need offense from the wing, and they’ve got the veteran Miles (and maybe our next entry below) to provide it. Does that mean Anunoby sees his minutes dry up into the playoffs? Maybe.

6. Norman Powell (last week: 6)

I was very tempted to put Powell ahead of OG in these rankings, if we’re being honest. There’s just too much history here. Norm may be having a poor season overall, but that hasn’t stopped him from stepping up huge on the biggest stage two years running.

And while Anunoby’s shot has disappeared, and his defensive acumen is sometimes all over the map (in terms of IQ, not ability), Powell’s proven he can carry the load. I remain convinced Powell will have a part to play in the Raptors’ post-season run — there’s still time!

7. Lucas Nogueira (last week: 7)

Since Dwane Casey has shown he’ll only really play Nogueira to keep the rotations steady (with Poeltl coming off the bench to spell Jonas Valanciunas), it does not feel likely we’ll see much of Bebe for the rest of the season and beyond. (That is unless JV gets into early foul trouble in any game in the near future.)

I’ve been predicting a playoff game will be swung by Bebe for awhile now, but it feels like we may have to put that forecast to rest. The Raptors are just too deep at his position.

T-8. Alfonzo McKinnie (last week: 8) and Malachi Richardson (last week: 9)

These two won’t count much for the Raptors the rest of the year. Such is life.