It’s been a very good year to be a Toronto Raptors fan.
It’s been so good that the nagging sense of doubt that losing a random Thursday night game on the road in, say, Indiana means the Raps will slog through the playoffs yet again, barely feels ever-present anymore.
It’s safe to say that Toronto’s players have, overall, exceeded expectations. But, here at HQ, we’re not down with such dramatic over-simplifications. What we want to know is which Raptor has most exceeded expectations. Or, to put it another way:
Who is the 2017-18 Toronto Raptors Breakout Player of the Year? [sponsorship pending]
The first thing we need to do is to define what that means — so we’ll put our potential winners through a rigorous series of tests based on Expectations, a Singular Skill they have improved upon, and Importance to the Team.
Next, to make things more manageable, we need to figure out who the finalists for this coveted award are, and that means we need Selection Rules.
RULE #1: YOU CAN’T BE A VET WHO’S DOING WHAT YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO DO, BUT MAYBE BETTER:
We can cut Kyle Lowry, C.J. Miles, and Serge Ibaka because they’re all performing roughly as expected. There may be some variance from our hopes (or fears), but on balance they are, to borrow a phrase from Dennis Green: “who we thought they were.”
I wavered on including Jonas Valanciunas in this group. His addition of a three-point shot, but more importantly his far better grasp of what he can do defensively in this era of pace and space, almost make JV a changed man. But right now, these improvements have merely sharpened the JV we know, not transformed him, so he’s out.
RULE #2: WE HAVE TO HAVE THOUGHT WE KNEW WHAT YOU WERE:
This means the axe lands on OG Anunoby.
OG has been great, but he’s a rookie. How on earth can he “break out” of a mould, when we don’t yet know what the mould is?
Is he a very pleasant surprise? Sure. Definitely. But he’s not a breakout, simply because we hadn’t made a box for him to escape from.
RULE #3: YOU HAVE TO BE SOMEONE WHO MATTERS DAILY, NOT A PLEASANT SURPRISE FROM TIME TO TIME:
Sayonara to Lucas Noguiera, Alfonzo McKinnie, Malcolm Miller and Lorenzo Brown — they simply aren’t important enough to have “broken out”, even though they have all either improved (Bebe), or proved to be competent (the 905 mob).
(Speaking of the deep bench, I urge you to read this piece on Nigel Hayes. It’s not why the Raps signed him, but tell me that doesn’t feel a bit Masai Ujiri-ish?)
RULE #4: YOU CAN’T BE NORMAN POWELL:
In case you were unsure, Norman Powell is definitely not on the list.
RULE #5: YOU CAN’T NO LONGER BE ON THE TEAM:
I will not let the fact he’s a King keep me from defending Bruno Caboclo as a possible high value piece for the Raps (we’re going to sign him to a G league deal next season!).
However, as I have learned from my long and tortured history of defending Zan Tabak, Michael Bradley, Roko Ukic, Kris Humphries, Lonny Baxter, Joey Dorsey, Carlos Rogers, Uros Slokar and Gary Forbes, I know nothing about basketball and all my opinions should be burned in an oil drum behind the service station just outside of town.
That leaves us with Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, DeMar DeRozan, and Jakob Poeltl, which still seems like too much. So... let’s make-up more Selection Rules!
(I could totally help the NCAA pick the March Madness field.)
BONUS RULE A: YOU HAVE TO BE IN THE TOP, UH, NINE IN MPG:
So, Jakob, despite playing really well, gets cut because he’s playing the least of this group on a per-game basis. (I hate myself.)
BONUS RULE B: WE CAN’T HAVE PREVIOUSLY SEEN YOU ADD PIECES TO YOUR GAME LIKE ONE OF THOSE SIX-ROBOT TRANSFORMERS THAT WERE ALWAYS COOLER WHEN THEY WERE DECEPTICONS:
DeMar goes next. Despite the leaps and bounds he’s made as a passer, a three-point marksmen (hell, just as a three-point aimer), and on D, the Raptors best player isn’t breaking out, because breaking-out implies surprise, and while I’m not sure if anyone expected this, we all knew, based on history and DD’s insane work ethic, to expect something.
So, now that we have our final three breakthrough finalists it’s time to move on to the highly scientific, and oh-so number-y analysis!
Expectation: Before the pre-season it was that Siakam would nail down inconsistent minutes as a fourth forward and hustle, but not really do anything well, skill-wise. (Let’s not forget that out of training camp Siakam seemed to have lost his spot in the rotation.)
Reality: The former Western Athletic Conference Player of the year has flourished in year two. None of it’s really flashy, but it’s all important. He’s passing and rebounding the ball more effectively than as a rookie, while almost doubling his number of steals per game.
Perhaps most impressive is Siakam’s ability to pull down a rebound and initiate the Raptors offense. Whether it’s off the break….
Or with a quick hitter…
Or with the newfound confidence in his handle:
Pascal has given Toronto a whole lot more than we expected back in October.
Expectation: That Wright would stay healthy, and his long arms and his weirdo change-of-pace game would make Raptors fans forget about dealing away favourite son Cory Joseph.
(Plus, Wright is even hitting threes.)
((That health thing hasn’t quite been there, though.))
Expectation: That FVV would settle into being the perfect third-string point guard, and that he might continue to show signs of growth, to the point that he could be an asset in a potential trade.
Reality: The dude has played more 4th quarter minutes than anybody else in Toronto. He’s a dogged defender who allows the Raps to somehow survive having two 6-ft nothing players on the court at the same time, he’s absolutely fearless at taking the big shot, and he’s even finishing at the rim.
Wright has been good, but we expected (hoped?) that he would.
Siakam has done things that, unless you were watching WAC tape real close, you probably weren’t expecting. But look at that first VanVleet stat. He’s playing the most 4th quarter minutes for the 3rd-best team in basketball.
I’m not saying FVV is going to become Kyle Lowry, but damn, could there be a better finishing school for a player like VanVleet then to play with KLOE?
Winner: Fred VanVleet.
Wright: What’s Wright’s “singular” skill again?
Is it that sweet, sweet Euro-step?
The out-of-nowhere swat?
Or, the jump-the-passing-lane steal?
Siakam: Hustle, baby. Hustle.
Fred Van Vleet: The signature FVV moment might be watching him spill to the ground after hitting a lay-up in traffic, but for a skill? It’s got to be the way he digs in on defense.
I mean, look at this clinic:
And after the clip ended, VanVleet crashed down low to help make sure the Raps came away with the ball. He just doesn’t make mistakes.
It’s close, but Delon gets eliminated because as shown above, he has too many little moves for any of them to be “singular” to his identity. (What? You’ve read this far and you were expecting logic to suddenly make an appearance?)
VanVleet’s defense is an absolute joy to watch, the way he gets into a guy’s chest, whether it’s Chris Paul or whoever’s backing up the point for the Knicks ([checks box score] Trey Burke? Huh.). But nothing he does is quite as iconic as this:
Winner: Pascal Siakam.
IMPORTANCE TO TEAM:
Wright: He’s my long-limbed illegally adopted step-child, and I love him so. His hybrid skill/athletic game flummoxes opponents, and he has turned several games with either his ball-hawking presence, or those odd-angled, whacko, defense discombobulating assaults on the tin. He’s an X-factor anytime he steps on the court, and one of the singular most un-coverable players on the team.
VanVleet: Admit it. You still have this feeling that the Raptors might shrink in big moments. Part of it is because very few members of this team have played in big moments. Kyle and DeMar have been in a number of elimination games, but with, as we know, mixed results, and sure Serge has had a couple of runs in OKC, but still.
Breathe deep, my friend. If you’re talking about a track record of having big games in big games, Fred VanVleet is the man.
He’s been to one Final Four (the only Raptor who can make that claim), he’s hit clutch baskets in the last two minutes of Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games. He dropped 17 in an upset of no. 2, and then 25 in a close loss to a no. 3 Notre Dame.
VanVleet is the most confident man in the gym. Toronto’s one weakness may be that, underneath the business-like façade, the Raptors might be a team that could get shook.
Fred VanVleet cannot be shook.
Siakam: Wright and VanVleet’s contributions are much more obvious, but Siakam has opened up the Raptors offense in a totally new way. His growing ability to function as a release valve off the pick-and-roll, and punish teams for loading up on it is a key component to any great modern offense. His ability to secure the carom and then bound down the floor, throws the opponent’s defense into chaos. His length and quickness means he can guard almost any opposing player, 1-5 (and if the strength comes, we might be able to lose that qualifier). He’s unique on this team.
In a weird way, VanVleet and Wright hurt each other here. Because the one exists, the other is marginally less important. If the Raps choose to close with VanVleet and the Big 4, we’re happy. If Wright steps in, we’re intrigued. One offers a bedrock of excellent basketball. The other an impossible to predict combination of skills whirling about the perimeter.
The other issue here is depth. Lorenzo Brown has been so good in the G, that if he had to step in as the third point-guard, the Raps could whether the storm. Whose stepping into Pascal’s minutes? (Hint: despite my love of all state of Wisconsin-y college basketball things, the answer is not Alfonzo McKinnie or Nigel Hayes)
Another way to look at this is to see, in these breakout seasons, what the new ceiling looks like for our finalists.
For VanVleet, I see Derek Fisher — another stocky, under-sized point-guard who’s tough as nails, hits big shots, and defends his heart out. Is FVV going to play 18 years in the NBA? Maybe not, but I wouldn’t bet against 15.
Squint a little with Wright and you can see Shaun Livingston — if he hadn’t lost so much of his athleticism and could shoot. Sure, Wright doesn’t quite have Livingston’s size, but he seems like the heir apparent to Livingston’s herky-jerky, wise beyond his years, complete game.
With Siakam though, you’re looking at something that might be from the future. Is he a motor always on, less refined Boris Diaw? A bouncier, not as angry Draymond Green? No, not yet, but the idea that Siakam could be one of those players, and maybe even more, now seems a possibility worth dreaming on.
Winner: For that, Pascal Siakam is the 2017-18 Toronto Raptors Breakthrough Player of The Year.
(Seriously sponsors, don’t let this opportunity pass you by next year. Bruno will be a great redemption story.)