In thinking about filling out a basketball team’s regular playing rotation, determining what lacks is tantamount. Every NBA player has to believe himself to be complete — and why not? He’s already made it to the league, which means he has the skills necessary to play on a regular basis. Yet even if that sentiment were entirely true, it’s not the governing ethos of a given basketball team. Some players are going to have the ball a lot, others are relied on to shoot more, some just need to rebound and run, and so on.
As the off-season has continued for the Raptors, with the departures of both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, and their disinterest in re-signing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (to say nothing of Oshae Brissett, still undecided), they’ve had to address their overall lack. Which players can play in the frontcourt? Who is ready to play defense? Does the team have enough shooting, size, or some other quality? One of those questions was answered out-right with the signing of Aron Baynes, a veteran centre built to compete out of the 5-spot for an NBA team. The next two new players though were signed for specific reasons by the Raptors too, and fill obvious needs as well.
So then, let’s review what DeAndre’ Bembry and Alex Len are going to bring to Toronto.
Apostrophe Now: DeAndre’ Bembry
With Bembry, we must try to look past what he doesn’t do. A glance at his per game counting stats suggest that soon enough: he’s not much of a scorer (averaging 6.2 points per game for his career) and he’s not a player a team would like launching the ball from any sort of range (he’s a career 27 percent three-point shooter). These are Rondae-esque numbers, but unfortunately Bembry doesn’t quite have his size. At 6’5” and 210 pounds, the next question to ask of Bembry would be: what else he can do for the Raptors?
Again, think of what Toronto needs. Their overall team mission is to be as flexible and versatile defensive as possible. To achieve those ends, Coach Nick Nurse wants players who are relentless and swarming on that end of the floor. If a given player can defend up or down a position — a small forward who can stay with point guards, a shooting guard who can hassle power forwards, etc. — then they have a place on the Raptors. This is where we find Bembry. He’s a hustle player, someone who exceeds his position in those chaos metrics that Toronto’s bench lineups have specialized in of late. Putting Bembry in a lineup with other masters of havoc like Kyle Lowry and Chris Boucher maintains that exact energy.
In this, Toronto should be able to count on Bembry for defensive pressure, steals, deflections, and rebounding above average for his position. And that position could be flexible enough — even without the more useful size of Rondae — for lineups with the Raptors’ other super-versatile players like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. Yes, Bembry is not much of a shooter or shot-creator on his own, but putting him in a defensive specialist role on a team that loves to get out in transition means there will be chances for him to excel.
And I’d be remiss in not mentioning, of course, that Bembry, like Len, is also looking for a chance to prove himself. As a recent first round pick (21st in 2016), Bembry is a player still trying to find his place in the league despite entering it with some pedigree behind his name. In the short term for the Raptors — and make no mistake, this season is all about the short term for Toronto — Bembry looks to be a solid fit.
Strong Man Alex Len
The fit for Len with the Raptors is far less ineffable than Bembry’s. Toronto lost two centres, big men who still know how to man the pivot and do the traditional things big men are required to do for a team — set screens, rebound, block shots. That Gasol and Ibaka also contributed three-point shooting, passing, and style were an added bonus, the skils that took the team to the next level. In that, they will be hard to replace.
But Toronto still needs sheer bulk. And Len, at 7-feet tall and 250 pounds delivers that. What’s more, because of Baynes’ recent health issues — he missed a few chunks of last season and, uh, also got the coronavirus — Len’s general reliability and age (he’s 27) recommends him further to the Raptors. Again, the counting stats don’t tell us a lot about what Len could do in an expanded role, but that’s OK because his role is likely to be modest in Toronto too.
Last season, across 55 games with two teams, Len averaged 8.0 points and 5.8 rebounds, while shooting 56 percent from the floor (and flashing a modest three-point shot with 1.1 attempts per game on 27 percent shooting). Naturally, for a player now averaging 17.6 minutes per game, Len’s per-36 numbers are far better, peaking with a truly absurd 14.6 rebounds per game during his time with the Kings last year. Ultimately, it might be best to think of Len as Jonas Valanciunas Lite (which is funny, because they were compared earlier in their careers too). Len will give the Raptors similar size, along with some touch and power at the rim, and he’ll definitely rebound. (He ended last season grabbing 31 and 15 percent of available defensive and offensive rebounds, for example.) Meanwhile, like ol’ JV, Len’s defense is likely to be limited or scheme-dependent.
Len is working though to prove he’s still a viable big man in this league, one that has shifted away from his most obvious assets and forced him to develop new skills. That feeds into the general development ethose of Toronto’s squad as well — even if Len does not figure into their long-term future plans.
The hope with both Len and Benbry is that the Raptors’ core can work to mask their deficiencies and maximize their strengths. That’s on Nick Nurse too, of course, as he’ll have to find lineup combinations and schemes in which to use them at their best. Both players will have narrowly defined roles with the Raptors — like some of the team’s other bench components — but how they seize those opportunities will make a difference for the regular season.