The NBA tips off for real on December 22, but the competition actually begins tomorrow. That’s when the Raptors will reconvene with their mega 20-man roster to run the squad through their 2020 training camp. We’ve done this dance before, even if this time the team will be staying abroad to play their home games in Tampa, Florida for the coming season.
Before we get to all that however, let’s review where the roster stands now and how it’ll all likely fit together for the coming 2020-21 season. Here are the tiers of the latest iteration of the Raptors, with some analysis on where these players are now and what they could mean for the team going forward.
Training Camp Hopefuls
Not to breeze past these names too fast, but it remains highly doubtful any of Ellenson, Johnson, or Watanabe will stick on the Raptors roster for the coming season. And with the uncertainty surrounding the entire G League right now, it also remains unclear as to whether we could see these guys on the 905. In a normal year, that’d be the thinking, but that’s not the case here. Sorry, fellas!
Of this bunch, and at almost 24 years of age, Ellenson has the highest pedigree on which to build. He’s a 6’10” former first round pick (18th in 2016) and was a former player for the 905, so he’s familiar with the team and its systems already. The 23-year-old Watanabe, meanwhile, is an undrafted forward who spent the last two seasons on the fringes of the Memphis Grizzlies’ rotation. Johnson has Yuta slightly beat as a former 50th pick in 2018. He’s a similiarly-sized forward who comes into the season at 24 years old after having spent the past two seasons with the Pacers.
With the Raptors invested in 17 other players, enjoy these three while you can!
As the team’s first round pick in 2020, and as an obvious clone of Fred VanVleet, the career path forward for Flynn is obvious. He’s an undersized guard who runs the pick-and-roll with confidence, which is, at a basic level, what every team needs from their point guard (especially their backup). Can Flynn do more than that at the NBA level? Well, we’ll see. If nothing else, Toronto is going to develop him towards having a chance to prove it.
As for Harris, his abilities are perhaps more replaceable. He’s a scoring two-guard, which the Raptors already have in both Norman Powell and Terence Davis — and can be found all over the place on the league’s scrap heap. As far as succession plans go, much like Flynn, it makes sense to see what could be there with Harris. Given how abruptly things ended between the Raptors and Dewan Hernandez, however, Jalen’s runway could be shorter than we realize.
On the Bubble
All three of these guys are going to be on the 2020-21 Raptors.
Brissett is still of interest to Toronto, and this could be the year he proves himself to be a useful rotation player (bumping himself up a couple of tiers in the process). Same goes for Watson, who showed out in a couple performances in the Bubble over the summer, but still has a ways to go before becoming a regular in the rotation. Both players have what the Raptors want: they can guard multiple positions, they can excel within narrowly defined roles, and they’ve shown the ability to do a bit more (without trying to do too much) when the situation calls for it. Smaller stakes, sure, but there’s much to play for here for both Brissett and Watson.
Davis, meanwhile, has become a quagmire from which the Raptors seem determined not to escape. They could have released him before his contract guarantee date on November 29th, but apparently feared reprisal from the NBPA. The official statement from the team is that they want to let the justice system do its work, which, fine. But they’ve also invited Davis to training camp when it’s clear he should stay away from the team. Ultimately, it feels like this saga is not going to end in any sort of satisfactory manner — and in that, the Raptors could have done more.
Setting aside my declaration off the top of this section: it will be hard to root for Davis again.
Both of these players are entering the final years of their contracts, which pay them in the range of $3.8 to $4.0 million a year. Johnson got to slide back into Toronto thanks to a player option on his second year; McCaw, meanwhile, had guaranteed money waiting for him for his return. Neither player is particularly exciting — for the present day or the future of the Raptors — but the team needs someone to fill out the backhalf of their roster and these two do... something.
Throughout last season (despite his injury), McCaw was clearly the more valued of the two, as coach Nick Nurse turned to him as the team’s backup point guard. That spot is still there for McCaw, since Flynn is not likely to play heavy minutes in his rookie year, which is to say: buckle up. Despite his controlled — yet somehow still erratic — play, McCaw is going to be on the floor this season — and frustrate in much the same way. Johnson, meanwhile, is likely to be back in the same role he was last year too, just hanging on.
Final thought: both McCaw and Johnson have a use/value as trade ballast, but that’s obviously a projection too far for the purposes of this column. If nothing else, it puts them in a group of their own, which is why they’re here and not... [see below]
We arrive now at the meat-and-potatoes of the Raptors’ roster. In different ways, these six names will be integral to Toronto’s upcoming regular season efforts. We’ve got 72 games to look forward to before the playoffs, and that means hundreds, if not thousands, of minutes for this bunch. In the playoffs, their roles will likely shift — with some disappearing altogether — but to get there, the Raptors will need them all.
It’s important to note that none of these players is set to be part of the Raptors’ future. The trio of new players (Baynes, Bembry, Len) were clearly brought in to fill short-term needs and are likely to be off the team by next year, depending on how things go in the mythical free agency summer of 2021. And though Boucher and Thomas are sentimentally attached to the Raptors for now, their presence on and off the court is mutable — we don’t know if or how they’ll be useful in the playoffs or if they’ll be on the roster beyond next season as well. That’s how it goes for a team in semi-transition.
Powell is the peak of this category. He’s valuable to the Raptors as their leading bench contributor and second-longest tenured player. But his ceiling is now established as exactly that — a steady Sixth Man, a plug-and-play wing, and potentially someone whose trade value has never been higher. Keep that in mind.
He’s Kyle Lowry, the one player who can roll into training camp and do exactly zero. His place on the Raptors is secure even if this is the first season in which the team is subtly looking to transition away from Lowry. As obscene as that sounds, it’s not an untrue sentiment. Toronto has secured their point guard of the future, Fred VanVleet, and cleared the decks to sign a future superstar (be it Giannis or someone else) to pair with young star Pascal Siakam. In all of this, the role of their soon-to-be 35-year-old franchise cornerstone continues to shrink.
Nevertheless, the Raptors are still Lowry’s team. Even if this is somehow, unthinkably, his last year in Toronto.
Of the three, only Anunoby’s status in Toronto remains somewhat up in the air. He’ll explore the restricted free agent market next year, and likely draw massive interest from other teams given his already fearsome defensive powers and the potential jump he could make on offense this season. There’s little question that the Raptors want to keep him, however; young forwards who can guard every position, shoot 35 percent from three-point range, and operate with an ice-cold efficiency don’t exactly grow on trees.
Which makes it exciting to consider the Anunoby-Siakam future, regardless of whether or not the team can land that big fish free agent. These two players, paired with VanVleet (who is of the same mould), provide Toronto with a solid foundation moving forward. The question now is: what’s the ceiling?
Or to address it more specifically, consider the following questions: can Siakam continue to improve on his All-NBA Second Team standing? Can VanVleet really replace Lowry in the long run? Can Anunoby become even more than a complementary player? If the Raptors get good-to-great answers on these three questions, they’ll be in an astoundingly good position for this season — and the coming years.