After 21 games of the 2019-20 NBA season, we’re officially at — or, technically, just past — the quarter-year mark with the defending champion Toronto Raptors. As of this writing, the Raptors are 15-6, good for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. They’re also, thanks to the narratives heading into this season and the injuries they’ve sustained so far, one of the best stories in the league.
Don’t believe me? Here’s ESPN’s Zach Lowe leading off his Friday 10 Things I Like and Don’t Like column saying very much the same thing. Basically, if you don’t like this iteration of the Raptors, you’re anti-basketball, and also just a bad person. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
But I do assign the grades. After 21 games, it’s time to fill out the Raptors’ quarter-season report card. Who is making the cut? Who needs to put in more work to improve? Who is exceeding expectations? We look to the letters to decide.
Kyle Lowry - A-
Last season, Lowry took a bit of a backseat as a scorer because of the presence of Kawhi and the emergence of Pascal Siakam (more on him in a second). This season, setting aside the 11 games he’s missed, Lowry has beefed up his scoring to 20.5 points, while still dishing 7.1 assists, grabbing 4.5 rebounds, and shooting a tidy 44%/38%/91%. At this point in his career with the Raptors, it feels ridiculous to give Lowry anything less than an A-grade of some type — so I will not do it!
Pascal Siakam - A
Siakam is everything we’d hoped he would be this season save for one thing that has emerged a bit as of late: the command of a true superstar. He’s scoring more (25.0 points per game), grabbing more boards (8.6 rebounds per game), and even making more passes (3.8 assists per game). And of course, as we’ve seen relatively consistently over 21 games, Siakam is unafraid of shooting from anywhere on the court now. Still, he’ll get the plus when he can be a true alpha for Toronto and take over games down the stretch. He’s shown flashes, of course, but there’s still room to grow into the role. Fortunately, I believe Siakam will get there.
Fred VanVleet - A+
This may be the best possible version of Fred VanVleet we ever see. A consistent scorer and shooter, a genius-level defender both on- and off-ball, and a guy who can organize the Raptors better than most other guards could. He’s become, in essence, a Lowry clone. Whatever that’s worth in free agency next summer, it’s clear VanVleet has played his way towards a solid deal. Betting on yourself... works!
OG Anunoby - A-
Setting aside the last two games when Anunoby couldn’t get off the bench in crunchtime, it may be time to admit that OG is the Raptors’ best all-around defender. He’s built like a linebacker, can move like a ballerina, and appears unphased by whatever moment he finds himself in. On top of that, all of OG’s numbers are ticking up in the right direction — more points and rebounds, and more efficient shooting (52 percent from the field, 43 percent from three). His ceiling is likely as a tertiary player on this (or any) rock solid Raptors team, but that’s A-OK in my book.
Marc Gasol - B+
We... we can’t talk about Gasol without first addressing his comical lack of scoring ability inside the three point line. Sorry, I have to ding Gasol for that. Yes, he’s been a 37 percent shooter from deep on the season, and he’s still a god on defense, and of course the Raptors benefit from his 3.5 assists per game. But good lord, it seems literally insane that Gasol can’t score at or around the basket. How is it possible for a 7-footer with good hands to be at 31.7 percent from inside the arc? Wild stuff.
Serge Ibaka - B-
But now we’re faced with a different sort of assessment. On the one hand, Ibaka is doing things like forcing opponents to shoot 37.7 percent from the 5-9 ft. range — he’s literally patrolling the paint with authority. On the other hand, Ibaka missed a bunch of games, his on-court defensive rating (108) is not great, and his Defensive Win Share value is less than half of Gasol’s. As per usual, Ibaka’s game just contains more noise — more dunks and blocks, yes, but also a lot of stuff that goes nowhere and helps no one.
Norman Powell - B
Speaking of which, Norm! Faced with a bigger role as both Toronto’s lead bench scorer, and as an injury replacement in the starting lineup, Powell has done what he’s supposed to do: put the basketball in the hoop. He’s up to 13.4 points per game, a career-high, and shooting 47 percent from the field, including 37 percent from deep. But he’s still Norm — which means he still has the usual brain farts on defense, the usual drives that careen out of control. He’s been solid lately, but it’s suspenseful watching Powell play, is my point.
Patrick McCaw - INC.
Poor Pat is in the midst of his first career season in which he probably won’t win an NBA championship. On top of that, he’s only appeared in two games for Toronto due to a knee injury. He’s still a peak chaos player but I will refrain from giving him a (low) grade here due to time missed.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson - A+
After an inexplicable slow start, Rondae has come on like a house fire for the Raptors. There were a bunch of reasons why Toronto kept winning with Lowry and Ibaka out, but one of them was definitely the inspired and furious all-around play from this 24-year-old forward. Hollis-Jefferson has scored efficiently, he’s been trusted at times to play-make, he’s defended his ass off, and he’s done all the little things a talent-deficient team has to do to win. Absolutely A+ stuff.
Terence Davis - A-
At 13.5, this guy leads the Raptors in Net Rating. Let’s just lead with that. Yes, Davis is playing just 15.7 minutes per game, he’s been a bit wild at times, and a bit foul prone too. But still: when Davis checks into the game for Toronto as an undrafted guard (who thought about going to the NFL instead), it usually means something is going to happen. For my money, my favourite part of watching Davis play is when he finds a lane, drives it, and almost surprises himself with his ability to get to the rim or make a solid (sometimes even flashy) pass to a big man for the bucket. And again, Davis leads the Raptors in Net Rating.
Chris Boucher - B+
Staying in the Net Rating lane, it’s absurd that Boucher is actually sixth on the Raptors at 8.8. He too is riding some sort of chaos wave and while his impact isn’t always easy to gauge, props to Boucher for trying. He shoots when open, he runs the lane, and he tries for offensive boards (grabbing 2.1 per game). While it looks like Boucher’s role is about to shrink back to being minimal, no one can take away the string of double-doubles he put up (three in total), and his highlight reel blocks on some of the league’s biggest names.
Matt Thomas - C+
Despite what Yahoo Canada’s propaganda will tell you, Thomas’ season has been fairly one-sided. When he gets a solid shot, he usually makes it. When he’s forced to move off his spot, or, heaven help him, defend in space, things get a little rougher. Still, Thomas is indeed shooting 54 percent from three. He’s a ways off from turning into the next J.J. Redick, but it’s something to, uh, shoot for.
Stanley Johnson - F
Johnson is injured now, so the recent string of absences is explainable due to forces beyond his control. But the stretch of play he missed for other reasons marks this season as a disaster for Johnson. Despite technically having the highest pedigree of any Raptors’ bench player (he was an 8th overall pick in 2015), Johnson has been an absolute zero on both offense and defense. The play that sums it up: Stanley getting the ball in isolation against Anthony Davis and Toronto deciding to call a timeout rather than wait to see what he’d do next.
Malcolm Miller - D
It feels unfortunate to grade Miller this way because he’s been such a good soldier for the Raptors (and the 905), but it just feels like this may be it for him. When Miller has popped into games for Toronto he hasn’t shown much — save for one shooting explosion in a blowout win against Utah — and hasn’t really given coach Nick Nurse much of a reason to play him. As far as I can tell, Miller is a consummate pro and good guy, so he has value as a deep bencher for Toronto, but dang, I guess it’d be nice to see more.
Dewan Hernandez, Oshae Brissett, Shamorie Ponds - INC.
Sorry fellas. We’re talking about NBA service time only at this point. Maybe next year!
Nick Nurse - A+
Oh, your team won a championship, then lost a top five player, then signed a bunch of unproven guys, then suffered injuries to the core of the roster, then put those untested players into the heat of battle, and still kept winning games? That’s been Nick Nurse’s run since the summer he got to celebrate in Toronto. It’s not enough that he’s come up with defensive strategies to slow some of the top players in the league, he’s also got his veteran core to buy in, and brought a new bunch of players to the fore as well.
The Raptors are indeed 15-6 and have yet to be blown out in any meaningful way. They’re playing hard and smart, and Nurse is rightly considered a frontrunner for the NBA’s Coach of the Year award. Is there a challenge — beyond the new coach’s challenge — he hasn’t been able to handle yet? Now let’s just see how far this team can go.