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Five thoughts on training camp: What to expect from the 2020-21 Raptors

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The 2020-21 NBA season is almost upon is, so it’s time to put some thought into what we can learn from training camp.

Brooklyn Nets v Toronto Raptors Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s December and the NBA season is just around the corner. Training camps are getting underway and players are getting into shape — and so are we! The Five Thoughts are back, and to help get our brains and typing fingers warmed up for the season, let’s run through five of the things we’re looking out for from the Toronto Raptors during training camp and the preseason.

Two storylines that continue to hang over things that we should maintain awareness of but don’t really need to go into again, are Terence Davis and the coronavirus. Despite the serious allegations he’s facing, Davis remains with the team, and whether you believe it’s because of “league protocols” or the team simply not willing to give up a valuable asset, we will simply have to wait and see what happens next.

As for COVID-19, it remains a serious and real threat and, with teams traveling all over the United States, players and staffers will inevitably contract the virus. All we can do from here is hope that everyone takes care of themselves and acts responsibly, and that the league’s safety protocols are good enough to minimize the risk.

So with all of that out of the way: On to the thoughts!

1. Who’s Starting — and who’s Closing — at Centre?

The rebuilt centre rotation looks like it should be functional, with Aron Baynes and Alex Len doing the banging and screen-setting and Chris Boucher floating between the four and the five as matchups dictate.

But none of those guys brings the defensive chops or court awareness that Marc Gasol did, and none brings the scoring that Serge Ibaka did. So I wonder how long of a leash any of them will get under Nick Nurse.

Then of course, there’s the small-ball option. The Raptors saw decent success in the 2020 postseason with a frontcourt of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, and assuming those two continue to develop, I hope to see more of it — either with Norman Powell as the third forward or, if the team needs more length, DeAndre’ Bembry.

Ultimately I think Baynes will be the full-time starter, but Nurse will enjoy experimenting and I think we’ll see a pretty even split with Baynes and Anunoby closing games at C.

2. Will the Real Backup Point Guard Please Stand Up

The Raptors entered the 2019-20 season with only two real point guards on the roster, and ended up starting both of them together all season. That meant A) heavy, heavy minutes for both Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, and B) a heavy dose of Patrick McCaw at PG.

This year… looks kinda the same? And that’s a concern. Lowry is turning 35 in March and probably shouldn’t be playing 36 minutes a game anymore, and it wouldn’t hurt to reduce VanVleet’s minutes either, what with his history of nagging injuries.

But the Raptors didn’t really address this in the offseason, did they? We’re left with the following options:

  • Patrick McCaw, the Agent of Chaos who doesn’t seem to do anything well and whose on-off numbers are glaringly bad, but who seems to have Nick Nurse’s trust;
  • Terence Davis, who struggled in his lead ballhandler opportunities last year (and whose status and legal troubles remain unsettled);
  • Malachi Flynn, who, on paper, fits nicely with what the Raptors do, but I’m not about to set high expectations for a 29th-overall draft pick — he likely won’t get actual playing time this season;
  • Paul Watson Jr., who’s got good size and a decent looking shot, but who is obviously unproven (and is still on a two-way).

And it’s not like the Raptors added a proven player at the two, either, meaning there are no more opportunities to stagger VanVleet and Lowry.

Look, it probably isn’t a real problem — this team was just fine last year with the same guard rotation, and guys like Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell can handle the ball as well. But if the injury bug hits again — and the more minutes VanVleet and Lowry play, the more likely that is — the lack of real backcourt depth could spell trouble.

3. Nothing Like a Good Old-Fashioned Camp Battle

As JD wrote about here, all three of Yuta Watanabe, Henry Ellenson and Alize Johnson bring a lot of potential to the table. The question is, is any of it enough to vault them over one of the Raptors’ incumbent players?

The Raps have 15 players signed to guaranteed contracts and two more signed to two-ways. Now, the Raptors could waive a a player to free up a spot (except, apparently, Davis, because reasons) but they’d still have to pay that player their money. In other words, Watanabe, Ellenson and Johnson would have to be good enough for the Raptors to guarantee their money, and pay whoever they cut. That’s a tall order!

Beyond that, we still don’t know what the G-League will look like this year, so we also don’t know whether the Raptors will be able to keep these three within the organization.

If I were to put money on any one of these three, it’d be Johnson. His high motor and ball-hawking seem like the best fit; if anyone were to replicate the chaotic energy that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson brought, it seems like it would be Johnson.

Who would he supplant? Perhaps Jalen Harris’ two-way deal, or, if the team really likes Alize’s game, maybe they’ll waive-and-stretch the other Johnson — Stanley — in his favour.

4. What did Pascal Siakam Work on in the Offseason?

We already know that Pascal Siakam worked on his mental health during his time off, to ensure he was in a better place this coming season than he was at the end of last season. He also talked about strength training and conditioning, which should help him recover from the short offseason and perhaps help his finishing at the rim.

But I’m willing to bet he worked on the actual skill side of his game, too. I’m certain he was getting up jump shots, and I expect we’ll see more of that step-back he flashed at times last season, looking smoother than ever.

The other thing I hope he worked on, primarily through watching film, is quick decision making. Pascal’s at his best when on the move, but all too often last season, he would receive the ball on the wing and then take a beat (or two... or five) before making a move. That let the defense set up to wall him off, which was at least partially responsible for his inability to finish at the rim during the season re-start.

Reading the defense and making a quick move or quickly moving the ball will help open up Siakam’s game. Let’s see more of that this season!

5. Was Norman Powell’s 2019-20 Season a Mirage?

We’d all been waiting for it, ever since Norman Powell’s playoff performance in 2016: When would he translate those flashes into consistent, strong play, and earn himself a regular rotation spot?

It finally happened last year. Norm had by far his best season as a pro; he hit career highs in just about every category, shot the ball well, finished at the rim well, defended well enough, and even showed occasional playmaking chops.

But when a player’s biggest weakness has been consistency, you have to wonder if what you saw one season will carry over to the next. Powell certainly benefitted from Marc Gasol’s playmaking, as well, and that will obviously be missing; furthermore, with Ibaka’s bench scoring gone, Powell will be relied on even more to shore up the second unit’s offense.

So there’s a lot on Powell’s shoulders this season, and that’s before we get to the big question mark hanging over Norm, namely his status with the team beyond this season. He can opt out of his contract next offseason, and that kind of pressure — to set yourself up for a big payday in an offseason when lots of teams will have money to spend — can wreak havoc on your play. Beyond that, Powell’s trade value has never been higher than it is right now, and Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster might be looking to cash in.

Powell will certainly have the playing time — there isn’t anyone else ready to supplant him as a bench scoring option — so let’s hope he makes the most of it.

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It’s been a short offseason, but now that the season is almost here, I’m starting to get excited about seeing the team back in action. And while this might be labeled a transition year, but there’s still a lot to look forward to from the 2020-21 Raptors!