Of all the unexpected successes the Toronto Raptors experienced last season, none were more fun to watch than that of the team’s second unit. With a net rating of 8.3 (1st in the league among benches), a true shooting percentage of 56.4% (4th), 3.9 steals per game (1st) and 8.9 points off of turnovers per game (1st), the Raptors bench—led by the platooning “Bench Mob” of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Bench Dad C.J. Miles—stormed through the regular season, transforming games with their energy on defense and efficient scoring on offense.
They were also such a great group of guys that they were incredibly fun to root for.
Heading into the 2018-19 season, things will be different. Poeltl is gone, traded to the Spurs along with DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Given the different positions those players play, there’s no 1:1 swap, and Nick Nurse has a challenge on his hands figuring out the ideal lineups for this new group of players.
But let’s leave the lineup speculation for another day and take a look at the remaining members of the Raps’ second unit and how they can evolve to find continued success in 2018-19.
Area to improve: Finishing at the rim
So here’s an honest question: What are the holes in Fred’s game? Does he really have any? High basketball IQ, shoots the ball well, great vision and handles, an excellent defender and rebounder for his size.
Looking at VanVleet’s numbers, the only one that stands out as having room for improvement is his .422 FG percentage on drives. For a player Fred’s size, finishing at the rim will always represent an extra layer of difficulty. That said: How many incredible twisting, falling-down finishes did VanVleet manufacture when the Raptors needed a score last year? More than a few, I’d say.
So perhaps rather than “improve”, we should take more of a “show me” approach with VanVleet—can he have the same impact this season with an uptick in minutes? Because I expect this team will be even more careful with Kyle Lowry’s minutes this year, and I expect they’ll want a return on investment they made in VanVleet in the offseason, so I can see his minutes creeping up from 20.0 to 24.0, and his shots going up from 7.2 per game to 8.5.
Can he handle the extra workload? Given everything we’ve seen from VanVleet thus far, I’m not going to bet against him.
Area to improve: Shooting range
This section only needs two words: Jump shot. Siakam shot only .220 from deep last year, and anything beyond eight feet (where he shot 64%) was generally a nightmare. This young man will be deadly as soon as he can shoot the ball with consistency. That’s all.
Well, OK, he could add five pounds of muscle, maybe, or learn how to balance his centre of gravity so that he doesn’t get pushed off the block by bigger players so easily. But yeah. Jump shot.
Will it come? Things are looking good so far:
Area to improve: Offensive consistency
Wright had an overall excellent season last year, but if you look down his game logs, you see a lot of 2s, 4s and 5s alongside 14s, 17s, and 19s in the scoring category; scan across and his shooting numbers follow the same pattern. It would be great to see those numbers even out a bit so that we knew what were getting from Wright game-to-game.
Wright also made it a personal goal to make one 3-pointer a game last year; he fell short at 0.8, but he shot a solid 36.6% on 2.2 attempts. Can he make it two a game this year?
On the defensive end, there were no issues—Wright’s length and surprising quickness disrupted opposing teams’ ball movement constantly. More of the same please!
Oh—and health! Hopefully Delon is strengthening up those shoulders after missing most of 2016-17 and another dozen games last year with shoulder issues.
Area to improve: Three-point shooting
This is a joke, right? Saying the team’s resident three-point specialist needs to improve on the one thing he’s paid to do?
Nah, no joke. Miles was sixth on the team amongst regulars in 3-point percentage last year; even if you remove Jonas Valanciunas’ one attempt per game, Miles is still fifth and I expect a specialist to be in the top three.
We know what Miles is at this point in his career, a relentless gunner who keeps defenses honest and who can turn a game around if he gets hot. I just don’t think that happened quite enough last year.
Now, if Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam can shoot even a little bit better from downtown, that should open up a little more space for C.J. And any minutes that Miles plays with Lowry, Leonard, and/or Danny Green? Who do you shade off of on the perimeter?
On the other hand Miles might be the odd man out here. If Green doesn’t start for Toronto, he’ll take some of Miles’ minutes; he’s not as quick on the trigger but he is an excellent shooter from range and a far superior defender. Still: You can never have too many shooters in today’s NBA. Miles will get his moments this year.
Beyond the Mob
Norm was clearly considered a significant part of the Raptors’ future before last season—as demonstrated by the contact extension the Raptors gave him. He began the year in the starting lineup, struggled, got hurt, lost that starting job to OG Anunoby... the five-man bench unit excelled without him and, as the 11th man, Norm didn’t contribute much at all the rest of the way.
Can he turn it around this year? I would love to see it; Norm has a special place in my heart. But opportunities might be even more slim with the Raptors’ guard/wing depth. Powell might be nothing more than bench insurance or a trade piece.
Monroe is, ostensibly, the Poeltl replacement. He’s not as tall or long as Poeltl, not a shot-blocker, but they have equally excellent hands and Monroe is a far superior screen-setter.
We’ll have to wait and see what Nick Nurse’s rotations look like to see how many minutes Monroe will get and how he can contribute. He’s solid big man insurance to have on the bench though.
Is Brown, coming off a G-League MVP campaign and a handful of games at the NBA level, ready to take a Fred VanVleet-like jump this year? He appears to have all the tools, but he showed an alarming lack of aggression last year, rarely doing anything more than walking the ball up and deferring to others. Let’s see if he’s willing to shoot and drive a little more this season.
Whatever the bench squad looks like, it’ll be tough for it match the level of excitement last year’s Mob brought to the games. But even though it’ll be different, this is an awesomely deep Raptors team and I expect the bench players will have just as significant an impact on the 2018-19 season.