When Kawhi Leonard announced his decision to sign with the LA Clippers last week, everyone was disappointed, but it wasn’t a complete surprise. The possibility was there all year that he would be with the Raptors for just one season, and everybody on the team — especially Masai Ujiri — knew it. In the wake of Kawhi’s departure, Toronto moved on as best they could via a couple of prudent free agent signings.
But who are the two young forwards, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson — signed from the Brooklyn Nets and New Orleans Pelicans respectively, and teammates on Arizona in college — and how are they going to be used this upcoming season with OG Anunoby already on the roster?
With both Leonard and Danny Green (off to the Lakers) off the roster, there are big shoes to fill on the wing. After a championship season, one in which the Raptors completely surprised the NBA and its fan-base, they won’t quite have the same mettle, but they’ll still be a good team.
The first thing both of these new recruits (and OG) have in common is their defensive ability. They’re both big, trunk-legged guys who can hold their ground. Stanley Johnson especially has shown great potential against stronger forwards around the league such as LeBron James and Paul George. Offensively, they won’t be asked to do much, but Nick Nurse will have to find appropriate roles for each to thrive in. Let’s try to figure out what that will look like.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: now that there isn’t an iso-centric player on the team, the Raptors could become one of the best passing teams in the league next season. With Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol all sharing the floor, whomever is beside them will find open looks regularly. The Raptors assist percentage last season when Kawhi was off the floor was shockingly great.
In all three lineups that played at least 20 minutes last regular season that included Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry without Kawhi Leonard — no matter who the other three players were surrounding them — the team posted at least a 69.2 assist percentage, peaking at 94.1. Two lineups admittedly weren’t great in that configuration, but Toronto’s coaching staff will presumably start with what works, and tweak from there. Right now, the passing ability and overall offensive awareness of this team looks stellar.
Looking at Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
With Norman Powell all but guaranteed the starting shooting guard spot, the fight begins for minutes as the starting three and the backup four position. All three of OG Anunoby, Rondae and Stanley Johnson will get an opportunity to make an impact in these places.
Rondae comes from Brooklyn having developed an interesting skill set. The first thing that pops out when watching him is his length — he stands 6’7” with a 7’1” wingspan. Defensively, he has potential to be a terror in transition, but his timing is what holds him back. He won’t be dynamite, but he’ll be more than serviceable on the break.
In a three-point obsessed Nets’ offense last year — where everyone on the floor was required to be able to shoot the ball — RHJ struggled to mesh with his squad. He can’t shoot from three (18 percent), and he had a horrible season from the field overall (41 percent). However, when he did get minutes, he made the most of them in the ways he knew how — defensively and on the boards. (Fans might recall Toronto’s biggest weakness last season: rebounding). RHJ averages nine rebounds, 1.5 steals, and nearly a block per game per 36 minutes for his career — he’s a dynamic defensive option.
I believe the Nets developed Hollis-Jefferson incorrectly during their three-point inquisition. In focusing so much on shooting, they ignored the things RHJ excelled at. Hopefully it’s not too late to change his habits and get him acclimated into what I expect to be a pass-happy, movement-based offensive attack. (Side note: everyone in the NBA can play basketball really well — it’s up to the team they play for the develop them correctly and put them in positions to succeed.)
Hollis-Jefferson excels cutting off the ball, but is also a willing an able ball handler. Last season he averaged, despite a career-low in minutes played per game, nearly as many assists per 36 minutes as he did in the previous two seasons.
RHJ will likely get most of his minutes at the backup four spot behind Pascal Siakam, with spot minutes at the three in bigger lineups — likely against bigger forwards where his length will be a strength. If everyone remembers Ed Davis in Toronto, RHJ reminds me a lot of him regarding his combination of motor and defensive effectiveness. He’s not as tall as Davis, but he still finds ways to be effective on the offensive glass.
Stanley Johnson vs. OG Anunoby
It’s likely that most on the Raptors coaching staff are expecting Anunoby to come in and lock in his spot in the rotation from the jump. After missing the postseason and large gaps of the regular season due to various ailments and situations, OG is primed for a huge bounce back season, provided he does the work off the floor. He has stated multiple times he wants to hone ball-handling skills, and develop an ability to find his own shot offensively, while continuing to be a force defensively.
Unfortunately none of that happened last season and Anunoby looked lost at times. Stanley Johnson will challenge him and is almost exactly the same quality player — and likely just as hungry. As opposed to RHJ’s one-year deal, Johnson signed a two year deal worth $7.5 million — using up most of the Raptors’ Mid-Level Exception (MLE).
At just 23 years old, Johnson is entering the next stage in his NBA career — he’s gotten to know what he’s able to do, and what he isn’t. Now is the time to showcase his strengths for a playoff level team, becoming a serviceable role player. If he’s able to hit threes at close to league average (roughly 35 percent), he’ll find consistent minutes. That’s the situation at the small forward position in Toronto. Who can hit open threes and play solid defense on a nightly basis?
While OG hopefully makes a jump next year — his third in the league — it’s not a given. That’s the reason Johnson was signed. With Kawhi’s departure, and the uncertainty as to how OG will develop, he had to reassess his wing depth. Johnson fits the mould of what the Raptors expect from OG, at the very least.
Johnson is not likely to increase his shooting percentage next year. He’s a career 29 percent three-point shooter, but he’s a solid operator off the ball and can dribble effectively in a limited capacity — much like RHJ.
The Raptors’ season hinges on the development of OG Anunoby. Pascal Siakam is expected to take control of the team’s offense next season, and everything that happens around him will be to complement him, not work against. Anunoby has the opportunity to get way more involved offensively (the same goes for Norman Powell). The time is now to make this work — OG should recognize that, and if he doesn’t, then the team certainly does.
Nobody will fill Kawhi’s shoes — and nobody should be asked to. But the two players that Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster brought in have an opportunity to function in a new look Raptors offense that will feature lots of beautiful ball movement. It’s at least a step in the right direction.