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Three Lessons from the Toronto Raptors’ Preseason

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The first week of Raptors basketball got overshadowed by the Giannis news, but we examine both in this week’s iteration of Three Lessons.

Toronto Raptors v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Last Friday, the Toronto Raptors returned to the court as we got our first glimpse of the 2020-21 squad. In those games, Fred VanVleet reminded us why we gave him that contract, OG Anunoby flashed signs of serious growth, and Malachi Flynn showcased himself as yet another hidden gem unearthed by the team. That so much excitement came from the younger players had us excited not only for the upcoming season, but for the next season and beyond.

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 5-year $228-million extension with the Milwaukee Bucks temporarily threw a wet blanket on those mental machinations of Raptors fans, as many factored him into the future plans of the team. For those in the “Giannis or bust” camp, it was like a director had planned a whole movie — the costumes, co-stars, dialogue, and set — around the casting one star, only to find out they will be busy filming sequels of their recent blockbuster for the next half-decade.

Do not despair, however, even if Raptors fans didn’t book Leonardo Di Caprio, we can still make a pretty kick-ass movie. Provided Toronto has the right people helming the ship, which the team very much still does, we should not view the Giannis news as a stake through the heart of the Raptors’ future, which leads me to my first lesson:

1) Malachi Flynn is a reminder of the potential of the unknown

You’ve undoubtedly inundated yourself with Flynn content over the past few days, and frankly, rightfully so. The young guard has done just about everything that a rookie can do to impress in the preseason. You also probably did not know who Flynn was two months ago. He serves as both a point of excitement for fans and a reminder of how little we actually know about the future of the NBA.

With Giannis deciding to stay in Milwaukee, the general tenor of Raptors fans is vacillating between disappointment and despair. Yes, he was perhaps Toronto’s best hope at landing a star in free agency, but consider this: Pascal Siakam, like Malachi Flynn, was generally unknown before he was drafted. Kawhi Leonard was thought of as the next Tim Duncan, a standard bearer for the San Antonio Spurs who would play out his career there, and Fred VanVleet was never even supposed to be in the NBA. My point is that the next best opportunity may be the one that we didn’t even know existed for the Raptors.

Having a superstar is absolutely a necessity to win a title, but this was not the only way to get one. Giannis himself was not a hyped draft prospect, but rather a project taken on by the Bucks that surpassed all expectations. Leonard did not choose the Raptors, the team capitalized on an opportunity created that none had predicted would appear. Giannis is not the last of those chances. There will be another thing to spring up that we Raptors fans can latch ourselves on to — there might even be one now!

Perhaps I am approaching this a tad too abstractly. Flynn might not even be good! Still, there is potential in the unknown. In the next year or so, there will be a star that we did not expect to blossom, or an already-established star unexpectedly needing a change of scenery. Embrace the unknown whilst enjoying the excellent team that we currently have.

2) Aron Baynes is going to be a fan favourite

As soon as Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka declared their intentions to leave the team, the Raptors moved quickly to pick up Aron Baynes, their plan B at the centre position. Although Baynes is simply not as good in a vacuum as either Ibaka or Gasol, he will be a capable starting big man for the team. In fact, the way that Baynes plays will quickly make him a fan favourite.

Baynes is more than willing to be a complimentary player, and his game is predicated on making life easier for the guys who make the big money. That starts with his screen-setting. Aron Baynes is like a mobile Easter Island head on offense, as his picks make his opponent looks as if they just ran unexpectedly in to a 6’10” stone pillar with an angry mug.

On defense, he is big, physical, and can stymie big men, perhaps not quite to the degree of Gasol, but effectively nonetheless. What is perhaps most frustrating to opposing offensive players is when the human rhinoceros that they ran into on the other end suddenly crumbles upon contact as they see themselves called for a charge, something we caught a glimpse of in his first Raptors preseason game against the Charlotte Hornets. Baynes is often amongst the league-leaders in that category, along with his new teammate, the charge-taking Picasso Kyle Lowry.

Long appreciators of the art of the charge, we Raptors fans will cackle with joy as Lowry and Baynes form a Shrek and Donkey-esque duo of taking charges.

Baynes comes without the name recognition of Ibaka and Gasol, so he won’t bear the weight of expectation that those two centres did. As a result, our collective opinion of him has plenty of room to grow. He’s still getting used to the new squad, but fear not, Baynes is unselfish, gritty, and maybe a little too physical at times — all things that we love in a centre here in Toronto.

3) Pascal Siakam’s three-point shot could be even better

Of all the exciting moments of the Raptors’ preseason games, the muted play of Pascal Siakam flew somewhat under the radar. He entered both games with a clear approach of letting the game come to him and not forcing his offense. He did, however, look to get his three-point shot off. That he did so effectively is the lesson with the largest bearing on the Raptors’ success this season.

Siakam began the first game by giving We The North nightmarish flashbacks to last year’s playoffs, in which he shot a ghastly 10-of-54 from 3. After missing a few shots from deep, he came back and banged three treys in the second quarter to finish 3-of-6 from beyond the arc. After a 2-for-4 performance in the second Charlotte game, Siakam shot 50 percent from 3 for the preseason.

The sample is small, but it is absolutely promising in a couple ways. He did not look spooked to let it fly after last year’s playoffs, and he actually looked smoother and more confident than he did at times when he was shooting it well last year.

If Siakam’s shooting is improved from last year’s regular season, the rest of his game will likely improve as a result. The threat of his long-range shooting opens up attacking lanes if teams are forced to legitimately respect him beyond the arc, and it clearly has a mental impact on Siakam. He always looks better in a game when he gets a couple early shots to fall, and the more frequently he can see the ball go through, the better.

Yes, preseason takeaways are hardly meaningful, and two games does not make for a deadeye shooter, but this was an important showing for Siakam after his recent struggles.

That concludes this set of lessons, we need only endure one more preseason game before we have some real NBA basketball to discuss for next week!