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Raw Raptor Rankings Week 21: On beating Houston, and everyone else

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The Raptors beat the Western Conference’s best, reached the 50-win mark, and continued a win streak. A good week indeed.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

I’m officially running out of superlatives. Writing about a group of young NBA players was supposed to be an exercise in the ups and downs of an early career. Instead, we’ve got the really surprising, really enigmatic, really good Raptors bench mob. For what feels like the umpteenth week in a row, they’ve been the engine behind a winning record. Toronto went 4-0 this week, stretching their win streak to ten with wins over Houston, New York, Brooklyn, and Indiana.

I also have some regret about not including Jonas Valanciunas in this column now (initially using the caveat of his experience, though he’s technically 25-and-under). He’s been the Raptors’ best young player for a couple weeks now, and looks fully comfortable in his own abilities within this new Raptors offense. Consider this my aside for the column: Valanciunas had games of 14 points (63% shooting), 17 points (67%), 26 points (60%), and 16 points (36%). This is, no hyperbole, unbelievable.

But let’s refocus on the young men who brought us here. How did the rest of the youth shape up in Week 21?

3 Young Gunz of the Week

1. Fred VanVleet (last week: 2)

While the major focal point will be on last Friday’s win over Houston, it’s hard to deny Fred VanVleet the top spot based on his performances in New York and Brooklyn. In those two games, he scored 11 points and marked a +17 against the Knicks and scored 15 with a +31 (no kidding) in Brooklyn. In that pivotal Houston win, Fred stuffed his line once again: 11 points, five assists, two rebounds, a steal, and a block.

Over this win streak, Raptors games have typically gone one of two ways. First, and more preferable, the whole team tries hard — starters included — and Toronto can ride their best players. Second, the one that’s come more often, is the Raptors roll around in the trash a bit, eventually settling on some combination of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and the bench in the second half to rip off a run and win the game.

The common denominator in both methods is VanVleet. His plus-minus mark in that Brooklyn game was the ultimate example of his Swiss army knife role on this team. Dwane Casey has started to trust him in all three wing positions, and as he keeps making good decisions driving and shooting (along with being a solid defender), that will continue.

2. Pascal Siakam (last week: 1)

Similar to VanVleet, Siakam has been a presence in almost all those “okay let’s just win this thing” lineups. His presence isn’t so much felt in the box score these days, but it never gets old watching him run end-to-end — whether that’s for a transition layup, or making plays like this.

Siakam’s plus-minus numbers this week? +3 vs. Houston, +23 vs. New York, +7 vs. Brooklyn, and -2 vs. Indiana. Even in the outlier game, Siakam had the bench’s best line of 12 points, eight rebounds, and two assists. There’s a need for him right now: Serge Ibaka is far from playing his best basketball and, unlike the rest of the roster, isn’t shaking the malaise for any stretch of games. Having Siakam there to freshen things up is of incredible value.

3. Delon Wright (last week: 4)

Returning from a toe injury for the last three games this week, Delon wasted no time getting back into the action. His first game back against the Knicks was his best, as he dropped 12 on 5-for-7 shooting (2-for-2 from three) for a +11 mark. It seemed like the bench just toyed with the Knicks in that game, and Wright made them look the most foolish — putting in two impossible layups on a game-securing run in the third quarter.

Wright also put up double digits in the Brooklyn game, and had eight in 19 minutes versus Indiana.

The Other Guys

4. Jakob Poeltl (last week: 5)

Jakob was so, so good against Houston. As Sean Woodley wrote, it was the best defensive game for both the Raptors centres, Valanciunas included. Casey’s game plan going in was to be aggressive on the perimeter, forcing Houston’s guards to drive into Poeltl or Valanciunas for contested layups. While Poeltl’s line doesn’t reflect how many shots he changed at the rim, it’s still impressive: ten points, eight rebounds, three assists and a +23 mark (again, that’s against the Houston freaking Rockets).

I digress, though. Read Sean’s piece for more on how damn good Jakob was this week.

5. Norman Powell (last week: 3)

With OG Anunoby still out, Norm Powell had his rope extended a bit by earning the starting small forward job back. He really didn’t do great with it, though, putting up these three lines before being replaced by Malcolm Miller.

2 points, 1-for-6 (0-for-5 3FG)
7 points, 3-for-7 (1-for-4 3FG)
8 points, 2-for-4 (1-for-2 3FG)

It’s not as bad as it once was, but it still doesn’t compare to what the bench guys behind him are providing. With Miller coming on, too, it seems like Norm’s chances are doomed to diminish.

6. Malcolm Miller (last week: 6)

Though he wasn’t the starter for most of the week, Miller had a bonafide spot in the rotation for the Raptors. Against Houston, he made all three of his shots as Toronto rubbed salt in the wound late. Versus the Knicks, he was 3-for-4 for eight points in a rout. Then, as he started again in Indiana, he was pretty solid in 22 minutes of play for four points.

The nuts and bolts are there for Malcolm, and it’ll be interesting to see how him and Norm share minutes in the upcoming weeks.

7. Nigel Hayes (last week: 9)

After being signed to a 10-day contract, Nigel Hayes basically showed the NBA world the best way to get renewed. Against New York, he hit both his three-point attempts — in quick succession — launched a couple arrows, and was reminded to stay cool by Dwane Casey.

Then, his contract was renewed for another ten days. It’s that easy!

8. Lucas Nogueira (last week: 7)

Bebe didn’t get out there for any meaningful minutes, but he did make The Office parody that went viral. So that’s definitely something!

9. Alfonzo McKinnie, OG Anunoby (last week: 9)

McKinnie didn’t play, and OG returned to the active lineup against Indiana but... also didn’t play. We expect a big rise for our boy next week though!