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What is the most important ability for each core member of the Raptors?

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With no basketball happening, we’ve been doing a lot of reflecting. Today, we consider the many talents and abilities on the Raptors and ask: what do the top guys on the team do best?

Toronto Raptors v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

It is often said that availability is the best ability when discussing athletes. Or to put it another way: an injured player is, in that moment, a player of no use.

With the situation as it is now, we’ll have to go in a different direction when discussing the best abilities of this season’s Toronto Raptors. While there was a lack of availability due to injury during the season, now with everyone presumably healed up, there’s no actual season.

Nevertheless, the Raptors’ foundation is built on two-way versatility. As a result, it can be difficult to narrow it down to one ability for many of the team’s players. Their success stems from competency in multiple facets of basketball. That said, here are what I believe to be the best ability of each core Raptor in the regular rotation — admittedly with a little bit of cheating on my part.

We begin with Kyle Lowry and his strange, beautiful mind.

Kyle Lowry – Spatial Awareness

Kyle Lowry’s outsized impact on the game is often boiled down to “doing the little things.” Examine these little things — drawing charges, maintaining verticality when contesting, sensing contact before it happens as a ball-handler and making a subtle movement to draw a foul — and a common theme emerges. These skills all rely on Lowry having a keen awareness of his own body as well as those of other players in accordance with where they are on the court. He uses his body and surroundings like a Spartan at Thermopylae, optimizing every inch of himself and the court.

Lowry’s consistent timing, anticipation, and placement when taking charges show an uncanny sense of the floor and the game. When he is the last man back in transition, he seems to know exactly when to contest, and how to use his body to do so without fouling.

Even on Lowry’s careening layups, he contorts his body to find unique angles for his shot, and he often hits the deck hard in doing so. That he (mostly) gets up unscathed is a testament to his spatial awareness.

With that awareness, Lowry is able to leverage every inch and pound of his 6-foot, 200-pound frame. That spatial awareness is the best ability of Kyle Lowry.

Norman Powell – Speed

With some of these picks I had to really think and perhaps even get a little bit creative in trying to define the best ability of some of Powell’s teammates. With Norm, however, it was actually quite simple: it’s all in his breakaway speed.

I still remember the first time I noticed that speed in a rookie Norman Powell. It was a regular season game against the Milwaukee Bucks, fittingly, and Powell was far from receiving consistent playing time. He recovered a loose ball and had a semi-transition opportunity. There were two Bucks in front of him with the angle to cut him off and force him to pull it out. Or so they thought.

Powell put his head down, took a few hard strides, and was at the rim dunking with both defenders on his heels. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the clip, but I won’t forget that play by Powell anytime soon. It is not the only time that Powell has used that speed to harm the Bucks, though.

Norm ignites the burst in an instant. Like my dog when the front door is open, Powell just needs to see a slight opening and he is gone before anyone can catch him. When I found out that Powell came from a track and field family and was a star sprinter when he was younger, let’s just say that I was not surprised.

This season, Powell has harnessed his speed effectively and become a devastating force in transition. Powell is scoring 1.25 points per possession in transition, while averaging 4.4 of those possessions a game, per NBA.com, an absurd combination of volume and efficiency. The only player with four or more transition possessions that is scoring more efficiently is Malik Beasley, who is scoring 1.32 points per possession in those scenarios.

Serge Ibaka – Pick-and-Pop Acumen

This would have looked a lot different for the Oklahoma City version of Serge Ibaka. Once an athletic dynamo, Ibaka averaged 3.7 (!) blocks per game in the 2011-12 season. His best quality certainly would have been in reference to that shot-blocking ability.

Nowadays, while Ibaka can still turn a shot back, his best work is done on the offensive end. He has made up for diminishing athleticism with a markedly improved feel for the game. That is never more evident that when Ibaka is in the pick-and-pop with Kyle Lowry. Serge navigates the space marvellously, finding the cracks in the defense where Lowry can set him up for an easy bucket.

Ibaka may roll to the rim, or pop for a three, where he shoots 73 and 40 percent respectively, both strong numbers. Where the Ma Fuzzy Chef really gets cooking, however, is in the midrange. A slight down year from the midrange by his standards has Ibaka shooting 46 percent, putting him in the 80th percentile in the NBA — well above average, per Cleaning the Glass. Watch Ibaka go to work with Lowry and the way in which he judges the right course of action following his screens (or in some cases, in lieu of the screens.)

Obviously, the disclaimer is that Ibaka’s chemistry with Lowry is essential for his effectiveness, but at least while they both remain Raptors, Nick Nurse has ensured that they share the floor plenty. In doing so, they have been one of the deadliest pick-and-pop combos in the league, thanks in large part to Serge Ibaka’s ability in his role.

Marc Gasol – Defensive IQ

I went back and forth between offensive and defensive IQ for Gasol, as both are essential to his game and are the main reasons as to why he is so effective for the Raptors. I ultimately decided on defense, as he seems to have a slightly bigger impact on the game overall on that side of the ball. The Raptors allow nearly seven more points per 100 possessions when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass, making him one of the most impactful defenders in the NBA.

Watch Gasol for a game, and you realize that it is not his athleticism that makes him so valuable defensively. In fact, an entire game is far from necessary. Watching Gasol’s vertical leap on the opening tip is enough of a sample to realize there are other forces at play that lead to Gasol’s defensive impact. The biggest one, of course, is his IQ.

The Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, Gasol uses this mind to benefit his individual defense as well as the team defense. In Memphis, teammates lauded his communication and his ability to call out the defensive coverages. A non-traditional rim-protector, Gasol’s savvy positioning serves as a deterrent on drives more so than his vertical shot-blocking ability.

In the Eastern Conference Finals against Milwaukee, Kawhi Leonard received the lion’s share of credit for neutralizing Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the team defense, and Gasol specifically, allowed the scheme to succeed. His positioning and communication with teammates were both essential parts of the strategy.

And in one-on-one scenarios, Gasol can still hold his own. His work against Joel Embiid, a far superior athlete, is perhaps the main reason that Toronto fans still feel confident in a potential playoff series against Philadelphia. Gasol’s brain makes him arguably the best centre-stopper in the league, and that really shows against typically dominant forces like Embiid.

Overall, Gasol’s basketball IQ has allowed him to remain an extremely effective player in the twilight of his career, and that is most apparent on the defensive end.

Fred VanVleet – Three-Point Shooting

I tried to get cute with this one. I considered something to do with VanVleet’s lateral quickness and his ability to mirror defensively, as he did on Steph Curry and has done so many other times. At the end of the day, however, it was VanVleet’s ability to get absolutely flaming hot from beyond the arc that was Fred’s biggest contribution to the Raptors both getting to, and eventually winning the NBA title. It even garnered him one of the more inexplicable NBA Finals MVP votes of all time, courtesy of Hubie Brown.

Over the past three years, VanVleet has shot well over 40 percent from the corners, and is currently shooting 39 percent on above-the-break threes, per Cleaning the Glass. That many of these shots come off the dribble makes these numbers all the more impressive.

Numbers aside, the nickname Steady Freddy applies to his shooting. VanVleet never clams up in the fourth quarter, he is always a willing shooter, and the confidence that he goes up with resonates with the Raptors faithful. Fred always thinks it’s going in, so I do too. This assassin’s mentality led to him hitting multiple 3s in Toronto’s Finals clincher while uncorking an all-time scream-face.

The above needs an exhibit at the ROM. I’m pretty sure that all of Toronto screamed back at him while trying to make that same focused yet unhinged look.

Anyways, shooting is perhaps the most important skill in the modern NBA, and VanVleet is one of the better ones in the NBA at doing so.

Pascal Siakam – Self-Awareness

When I said I was cheating, I really had this selection in mind. While we can marvel at the individual moves Siakam has in his bag, there’s something more important to consider here. And anyway, Siakam’s spin in the post is more of a signature move than a best quality, so I had to look elsewhere.

The defining narrative of Siakam’s NBA career is improvement, and he has the hardware to show for it. His meteoric rise, however, goes a lot deeper than just “getting better.” The way in which Siakam has done so has allowed him to evolve so significantly each year.

Siakam has shown awareness of his on-court deficiencies by methodically eradicating the most glaring ones. His offense was initially created purely by running hard in transition and getting a pass from a teammate at the rim. Soon, by improving his ballhandling, he was able to start leading the transition opportunities. That ballhandling then applied to his half-court offense, and he worked on his creativity and finishing in those situations.

Outside shooting followed next, and Siakam started to become a legitimate second option with flashes of being a number one guy. This season he has shown a commitment to compiling an offensive bag of tricks necessary to actually be Toronto’s number one option. Even as the season began, and turnovers and offensive fouls proved to be a problem, Siakam made note of it, and got better.

Siakam works hard, but more importantly, works smart, and that has allowed him to blossom. Understanding his own game and having the humility to acknowledge and address issues has spurred his season-by-season transformation.

OG Anunoby – 1-on-1 Defense

Perhaps the most obvious thing on this list was that OG Anunoby’s best ability would involve defense. To mitigate the predictability of simply choosing defense in general, I chose to specify between OG’s 1-on-1 defense and his off-ball defense.

Anunoby can be an absolute game-wrecker off the ball, using his long arms and anticipation to jump passing lanes. Where his impact has the potential to shine brightest, however, is when he goes mano-a-mano with the opposing team’s star.

Anunoby is among the few true credible 1-5 defenders in the league, combining size, strength, quickness, and smarts with a 7’3” wingspan. This makes him a terror to the poor soul he is matched up against. Being able to say, “hey OG, go make that guy’s life hell for the next eight minutes,” is both a luxury that few teams have, and a gambit that can change the outlook of a game. Between his length and recovery speed, Anunoby can play aggressive defense in a 1-on-1 scenario without sacrificing position.

The players he most often goes up against makes this essential. Of the top players in the Eastern Conference, Anunoby is the Raptor most suited to guard Giannis, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and Jayson Tatum, all of whom could be opponents in the playoffs for the Toronto Raptors. OG’s defense gives the Raptors a chance to really slow these players, and in turn, the offenses of their respective teams.

Anunoby’s 1-on-1 defense is already excellent, and he has a ceiling as one of the top shutdown artists in the NBA. It is both his best and most important ability.

*******

And that concludes this Raptors list, I hope you enjoyed it. There’s a whole other challenge to be had in trying to identify the best ability for each of the rest of the Raptors, but before we even attempt that, let me ask: what do you think each Raptor’s best ability is?

Leave your answers in the comments — and please stay inside and keep yourself and your community safe!