At some point, coach Jama Mahlalela should just throw his hand in the air and accept the fact that he will never have a full roster. Or maybe he’s already done that.
The past couple of weeks, going back to January 10th, brought in more changes for the Raptors 905 — positive ones for the organization, but a tough one for their coach, as Mahlalela’s squad lost two of their key players to ten-day contracts. The 905 had to scrap with whoever was left — and whoever was healthy.
Meanwhile, a couple of the remaining affiliates were saddled with minutes restrictions (Devin Robinson, Sagaba Konate), load management (Konate), injuries (Matt Morgan, sprained ankle) and fluke illnesses (Konate, Jawun Evans with the flu). Heck, I almost forgot about Dewan Hernandez, who’s looking sharp in street clothes on the Raptors bench, still nursing his foot injury.
Last week also marked the deadline to sign two-way contract players, and the Raptors made a move for the first time since this the league implemented the hybrid contract. Toronto waived guard Shamorie Ponds and brought back affiliate Paul Watson Jr. to fill the vacant two-way roster spot after his cup of tea with the Atlanta Hawks. Justin Anderson also recently came back as the Brooklyn Nets decided to let his 10-day contract expire.
For more player specific trends, there’s more after the jump.
If you are hoping to see the Sagaba Konate that you saw from his Mountaineers NCAA highlights, you are going to have to wait until perhaps next year. Konate’s recovery from his injury is being closely monitored, and he’s limited by a minutes restriction. He’s reduced to playing one stint per game (about five minutes). Konate has also taken days off due to load management. On the floor, he lacks the explosiveness, quick reaction, lateral quickness, but then it’s not a surprise looking at the clunky knee brace that he’s wearing.
For a few games, Matt Morgan became one of the main recipients of the vacuum left by Ponds, Anderson, and Watson. He relished the extra shots and minutes and was the key contributor off the bench for the 905. Morgan had a couple of games last week where he dropped 21 and 18 points, respectively, while converting on more than three three-pointers per game. Because of his size, Morgan is limited to putting up those three-pointers, but now and then he did attack the basket after shaking his defender.
Jawun Evans is having a lacklustre G League season, and his fit with Tyler Ennis at the starting backcourt is not that great. His scoring is down as he’s not getting the touches that he’s used to. For the most part, Evans is the secondary ball-handler if he’s playing with Ennis.
The bigger issue is that neither Ennis and Evans work as an off-ball threat, and they’re hurting each other if they can’t provide the spacing that the team needs when they’re on the floor together. They have good chemistry in terms of taking turns in playmaking/running the offense, but the floor shrinks when the two of them can’t make their outside shots. Evans was 4-of-16 from the perimeter over the past 11 days, and that’s not too far off his season average of 30.8 percent from three.
For a while, Devin Robinson was the 905’s leading scorer, but he’s cooled off for the past few games. His minutes restriction isn’t helping either, so he’s had to make due with the minutes that he’s afforded.
A baffling turn here is Robinson’s lack of perimeter attempts for the past five games. He had three games over the past week and a half in which he didn’t take a single three-pointer. Worse than that though, when he’s been taking them, he’s been missing them (against the Charge he went 0-for-4 from deep). Robinson’s perimeter shooting for the year is now down to 23.5 percent, but before this he had a three-game stretch in which he shot 5-of-8 from deep.
Part of Robinson’s shooting woes come from his shot mechanics. It takes him a while to set his shot up, and the delivery of the pass seems to be a big factor. There also seems to be a confidence issue as he’s been turning down shots even if his defender is sagging, giving him all the space up top. Because of this, Robinson’s been limited to catching lobs, crashing the boards, and the occasional coast-to-coast drive.
Return of Justin Anderson
Justin Anderson wrapped up his 10-day stint with the Brooklyn Nets right when some of their key players got healthy and he rejoined the 905 — for a time. As it eventually turned out, the Nets apparently want a closer look at Anderson. Their G League team, the Long Island Nets, traded for him in exchange for Henry Ellenson. Now, I don’t know why the Raptors would do this, because I think Nicholas Baer is the better version of Henry Ellenson, but whatever.
Anyway, before leaving the 905, it didn’t take long for Anderson to start hoisting up shots from the perimeter, as he had a team-high ten three-point attempts in his second game back with the 905 against the Charge. The downside is he’s only made 4-of-14 threes since coming back. However, this time it looks like Anderson is much more aware that he can’t just camp around the perimeter, as he’s shown increased aggression towards getting to the basket.
Tyler Ennis is low-key playing through a pretty good stretch of basketball after going through an up-and-down season, and more recently, a five-game slump that saw his play and production dip.
Let’s look at some numbers:
Ennis’ last 6 games vs 5 prior games
|Category||Last 6 Games||Previous 5 Games|
|Category||Last 6 Games||Previous 5 Games|
Due to the recent roster shakeup, Ennis seems to have turned on the switch to be more aggressive offensively. A good development here is his willingness to look for the perimeter shot. He must be able to show that he can be a decent threat from range to provide spacing for the 905 (or any team, really), as it’s a must for point guards in the modern NBA.
Another good trend for Ennis is his turnover rate. Early on, he was pushing five turnovers per game. In his last eight games, Ennis managed to scale his turnovers down to 1.9 per game, half of what he’s been averaging for the season (3.8 per game).
Another issue for Ennis has been his finishing around the basket. For the most part, he’s able to get by using angles and misdirection to get at least half-a-step on his defender. However, if his defender is able to stay with him, or worse, if a help defender manages to catch up, Ennis gets in trouble. In such scenarios, his lack of explosiveness is a bit exposed, similar to how Fred VanVleet struggles with his drives to the basket every now and then.
Another concern I have with Ennis is his play to close games. More than a few times this season he’s committed turnovers or decided to call his number instead of creating shots for his teammates — and those plays ended up swinging the game. Now, I’m not sure if this is coach Mahlalela’s call, but unfortunately, Ennis has struggled to create his shot against set defense late in games. It’s looked like a better play-call should have been made.
Two-Way Contract Players
Oshae Brissett’s game is trending up, and it looks like the stint with the main club helped him a lot. At the start of the season, a good chunk of Brissett’s offense came from him looking out of control and struggling to finish around the basket. He was also bricking most of his perimeter shots, and his consistent offense was coming purely from hustle points, which he did not provide consistently.
I guess his stay (and success) with the Raptors reminded him of what his calling card is (for now). For the past few games, Brissett has been all over the floor, often hustling to create new possessions, or slashing/rim-running to present easy scoring opportunities for the team. His effort was not lost on coach Mahlalela, who’s playing him well into the mid-30s minutes-wise for the past few games.
Offensively, Brissett has shown some improvement. Naturally, he’s focusing on improving his perimeter shot, and he’s starting to look confident (and more natural) on catch-and-shoot situations. He’s also working on creating his own perimeter shot via jab-step, which bore fruit last night against the Lakeland Magic (he was 2-for-2 on such shots).
Brissett is starting to look more in control on his drives to the basket, and he’s beginning to finish his contested shots by adjusting to the contact/angles. His moves are still limited, and the finishing in traffic is still below average if he doesn’t have a head of steam or airspace, but it’s definitely improving.
Farewell to Ponds
Shamorie Ponds leaves the Raptors 905 with averages of 14.4 points per game on 41.6% FG%, 1.6 3PM (25.2% 3P%), 3.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.7 turnovers, 2.0 steals. For coach Jama, Ponds’ absence has a two-fold effect: He loses his go-to bucket-getter off the bench, but on the positive side, it reduces the glut at the point guard spot. Often, Jama had to play Tyler Ennis with two other guards that are 6’1” or shorter. This change should allow Jama to field a more balanced lineup for the most part, while giving Jawun Evans and Matt Morgan a better look as well.
Unfortunately for Ponds, he hasn’t had a good season as a professional. While he’s shown plenty of flashes of what he can do, his overall production was nowhere near what we saw from him back at St. John’s.
Ponds is probably in-between the mould of a “shooting guard stuck in a point guard’s body” and a “score-first point guard.” It’s still unclear which one he is, as he ended up in a roster with three other point guards who couldn’t be on the same floor at all times. Given the situation, I thought the Raptors made the right call putting Ponds in a position where he might excel: the team’s scoring option off-the-bench. Unfortunately, this meant Ponds didn’t get a chance to develop his point guard skills much at all.
Ponds’ production as the 905’s heat-check guy was inconsistent, and he struggled at times with his shot selection and accuracy in general. However, it’s clear that the skill level and potential is there, it just needed some polishing. Unfortunately, Ponds is a liability on the defensive end, and even his active hands in the passing lanes can’t make up for it.
Ponds’ absence also means the 905 is losing their best player that can break down his defender 1-on-1. His city game, when it’s on, was usually fun to watch too. Also, the squad is losing arguably their best clutch player.
Ponds can technically still come back to the Raptors 905. With Paul Watson being converted into Ponds’ vacated two-way roster spot, the 905 is now down to three affiliate players. If Ponds wants back with the team, he can be signed as an in-season affiliate player at any time.
Still, Ponds might want to take his talents where he can be a high-usage starting point guard, as he needs to refine that part of his game and improve his shooting. At 21 years old, he’s got plenty of time to get better, but the timer starts now.
Watson, The New Two-Way Player
Paul Watson went back to the Raptors 905 as soon as his 10-day stint with the Atlanta Hawks was over, but this time he’s no longer a returning affiliate. Instead, he’s on a two-way contract with the Raptors.
This is a calculated move for Toronto. If there’s anyone out there with data on Watson’s development, it wouldn’t be the Hawks, but the Raptors. His progress is more than intriguing enough for the organization to take a closer look. And this time, he’ll have the chance to join the main squad from time to time.
Unfortunately, since Watson got signed as a two-way contract player midseason, his “NBA days” are also prorated. He should have approximately 20-23 NBA days to spend with the Raptors. With Brissett’s NBA days running out as well, Watson should see some NBA minutes eventually. Who knows, coach Nick Nurse might put him randomly into a contested game as he did with Brissett.
Since coming back to the 905, Watson seems to be much more involved in the offense. In the past, he’s been content with camping around the perimeter, with occasional drives to the basket. This time, he’s holding the ball more, trying to work on getting his shot up, whether it’s in the midrange or all the way to the basket. Not only that, Watson is also looking to be a triple-threat with the ball, while also looking to make plays for his teammates. He posted his season-high in assists (6) against the Lakeland Magic last night.
The only concern here is that Watson is a bit shaky with the ball, as shown by his high turnover average so far (3.2). It’s also worth noting that he’s struggling from the perimeter since coming back, shooting at an ugly 16.7 percent clip (4-for-24). On the bright side: it can only go up from here!