Fresh off an NBA championship, the Toronto Raptors have some massive holes to fill after losing the reigning Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard and one of the league’s best 3-and-D wings in Danny Green. Obviously there is no way to fully replace these two (especially Leonard), but the Raptors have to move on for the 2019-20 season.
In the offseason, they added Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, two former 2015 first round picks who flamed out in their rookie contracts. Teammates at Arizona, both Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson entered the NBA as uber-athletic forwards with frames tailor-made for the league. Both rated as plus defenders, but they needed to hone in on their shooting from outside. Fast forward four years later, and it is still the same narrative.
Due to the lack of cap space on Toronto’s books, Masai Ujiri had to find the best options on the market on a bargain deal. While Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson have not quite worked out so far in the NBA, they offer a better chance of outplaying their contract value compared to other free agents on the market.
The issue with having Johnson, Hollis-Jefferson, OG Anunoby, and the 2018-19 Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam all on the roster is that they are all probably best suited for the power forward position offensively. However, Toronto does not really have experienced options at the small forward spot, and will likely need to have one or two of these players move down a spot.
How will each of these physical freaks of NBA players see their minutes broken down at the forward spot, specifically at small forward?
OG Anunoby seemed poised to make a jump before injuries and the depth of last year’s title winning team ruined what seemed to be a breakout sophomore year. People forget that before Siakam started his MIP campaign, Anunoby was slotted by many as the player who would take the next step in Toronto.
Currently, Anunoby seems to be the best shooter out of all of the aforementioned players, knocking down 35 percent of three pointers over his career. More importantly, he has knocked down catch-and-shoot threes at a reasonable rate of 34.8 percent from behind the arc. His shooting has been inconsistent in specific areas (essentially flipping his corner three vs. non corner three efficiency over the past two years), but he has shown enough to be considered a threat, and potentially has room to improve.
There are issues with placing Anunoby at the three. He is not the most diverse player offensively, limited at this point to just off-the-catch threes and straight line drives. He has improved since entering the league with his creation skills, but still has a long way to go, as evidenced by around two-thirds of his shots being assisted. At the small forward spot, having at least an average initiation level is important.
In 2017-18, Anunoby played 77 percent of his minutes at small forward. Oddly enough, it was almost flipped in 2018-19, where he spent exactly three-quarters of his time at the four. If you look at his production, he seemed to be more efficient in 2017-18. Assuming he is back in a consistent role, hopefully Anunoby can take flourish at the three in 2019-20.
If you did not know about Pascal Siakam before the 2018-19 season, now is too late. Only pinned as a breakout candidate by a select few NBA media members, Siakam emerged as arguably the second best (not important) player on the Raptors. After spending the majority of his first two seasons in a role off the bench, coach Nick Nurse “took a risk” placing him in the starting lineup.
This past season, Siakam was a beast at the power forward spot, especially in transition. Siakam scored 42.6 percent of his points within the first ten seconds of the shot clock, using his 6-foot-9 size and length to create enormous size advantages.
Before this past year, Siakam was an abysmal shooter. With Leonard in the offense, spot up opportunities increased galore for Siakam, and his overall three point percentages jumped from 22 to 37 percent, a massive leap for anyone. Now the primary offensive threat for Toronto, if he can take another step, Siakam could turn into a legitimate All-Star threat.
I know he has never really played the small forward position, but he has the quickness and fluidity to thrive in that role. Continuing to improve his shot and game off the dribble, especially once his primary options are taken away will allow him to take the next step into the NBA’s elite. Due to Toronto’s lack of quality small forward options, Siakam could be available to play the position in a pinch.
I was a fan of Stanley Johnson prior to the draft, and I still want to be. Defensively, he has flashed a ton of potential in the NBA, gaining notoriety for his abilities “guarding” LeBron James during the 2016 Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Since then, the hope has been for his offense to catch up. In three and a half years with Detroit and half of a season with New Orleans, it hasn’t exactly happened yet. Obviously Toronto is hoping to unlock Johnson’s offensive potential, but how can they do that?
Overall, Johnson is largely a negative on offense, but there are a couple areas where he can be successful. In three of his four seasons, he has finished in at least the 50th percentile in assist percentage among forwards. On the other hand, he also had an unusually high turnover rate. In the best offensive system of his career, there is potential from him to flourish as a secondary creator.
Johnson has consistently been one of the NBA’s worst shooters since entering the league, and that is likely not going to change. However, last year, he was above average as a mid range shooter, and his willingness to take shots from outside could turn into something helpful.
The best way to utilize Johnson is to put him as a secondary creator with essentially the rest of the starters, where he is surrounded with shooters and a primary ball handler. He could be used as a slasher or as a distributor with the ball in his hands. For example, a lineup of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, Johnson, and Gasol/Ibaka would provide a perfect blend of two way production.
Like I said earlier, Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson are somewhat similar players. While Hollis-Jefferson is on the leaner side, he can still be an effective defender, ranking in higher percentiles for steal and block percentages.
Again, like Johnson, he has a relatively high assist percentage for his position, but also struggles with turnovers. Finally, he also struggles with his outside shot, sporting a 22.3% career three point percentage. Numbers wise, Hollis-Jefferson is a worse shooter than Johnson, but what makes it even worse is his lack of shooting volume from deep. His shot chart showcases the lack of attempts from even outside the key.
I don’t think Hollis-Jefferson can do much at the small forward spot. At the end of his time in Brooklyn, he spent a bigger portion of minutes at small-ball centre than the three. The good thing about the Raptors system is that both of their centres can shoot, allowing Hollis-Jefferson to be around the paint without clogging the lane too much. The only concern is that he isn’t able to convert on those close looks.
Hollis-Jefferson’s role in Toronto seems to be as a versatile, switch defender, who will try not to be too much of a negative offensively by making well timed cuts and smart passes.
So how should the forward rotation work out for the Raptors?
Although I’m not 100 percent convinced he is a perfect fit, Anunoby is clearly the best player for the job. As of now, he is the best shooter on the team (though Siakam may be closing the gap quickly), making him the best threat from both the corners and above the break. Backing him up is where things get tricky. Although he is plainly not a shooter, Johnson’s propensity to shoot those shots from deep increases his viability just a tad. If he wasn’t such a good power forward, Siakam would probably be the best option, but can still soak up a few minutes here and there when the Raptors go big. Don’t forget Norman Powell either when Toronto goes small.
For the power forward spot, Siakam is clearly the man for the job. Behind him, a combination of Hollis-Jefferson, Johnson, Anunoby, even Serge Ibaka could see some time. It will mostly depend on the style that the Raptors are going for.
All we know for sure is that with such a difference in options in 2019-20, head coach Nick Nurse will have a lot to figure out, making sure Toronto can make the playoffs.
Statistical information provided Cleaning the Glass and NBA.com