The quarter-mark of the season came so quickly this year we almost missed it. Yes, if you check the math, the Raptors have played 18 games which is exactly a fourth of the way through their 72-game regular season. How have things been going so far for Toronto? Well, to be frank, not the best. Maybe this turn was inevitably given various outside factors, maybe Raptors fans have been spoiled after six years of solid starts, maybe it is still early and the team will figure it out. Whatever the case: Toronto is 7-11 and making progress through a one-step-forward, two-steps-back method that’s been frustrating to watch.
So now we must take stock of where each member of the Raptors is through the first quarter of the season. As is tradition here at HQ, that means it’s time for a report card. Without fewer ado, here are grades for each member of the Raptors — and their coach Nick Nurse.
Kyle Lowry - A-
In truth, I flirted with giving Lowry a B+ here for the last few stinker games he’s thrown up. We can of course give the man some leeway after a toe infection forced him to miss a couple of games. (In that case, his shooting form is still taking a few games off.)
It’s just hard to dock Lowry too much as he continues to destroy himself to try and get wins for the Raptors. If he’s allowed a little exhaustion to creep into the frame this season, well, why not? This is the toughest season he’s had in Toronto since back before the Rudy Gay trade. So yes, as he approaches 35, Lowry has not quite been the plus/minus and net rating god he usually is for Toronto so far — but it’s not from lack of trying for the most part. And if/when the going is good for the Raptors, it would be hard to accept that not involving Lowry.
Pascal Siakam - B-
There’s no other way to say this: Siakam has not been as good as he was last season (before the Bubble). Yes, his assist and rebounding numbers are up, which is nice to see. But the Raptors need him to do something else really well to give them a chance to be great: score.
In this, Siakam has been slowly undoing whatever progress he made last year as the team’s number one option. His shot attempts are down, his points per game are down, his three-point percentage has fallen off a cliff. Progress isn’t linear and there’s always a chance Siakam will push through. But it’s just as easy to conclude that for all the wondrous things he can do, Siakam may not regain whatever confidence he had as the Raptors’ leader of the future.
Fred VanVleet - A
Did you know VanVleet is the Raptors’ leading scorer so far this year? It’s true! At 18.9 points per game, VanVleet has most often been the guy driving the team forward on the offensive end. His finishing at the rim is still suspect, but VanVleet has gotten better at all other aspects of the game. He’s showing improved utility in the pick-and-roll, flashing a midrange game, and hitting deeper and deeper threes. Meanwhile, on defense he absolutely can put opposing guards on the torture rack for 48 minutes.
Sure, there are times it is possible to dream about what this version of VanVleet would look like if he was, say, four inches taller, but that’s missing the (short?) forest for the trees. Fred has lived up to his name and steadied the Raptors all season. Here’s to more of that.
OG Anunoby - A
Anunoby only gets docked the plus here because of his slow start to the season. As others have pointed out, OG’s absence last Wednesday night highlighted what Toronto lacks when he sits: an organizing force, a structural backbone to the defense, a player who can cover for a lot on both ends of the floor against almost anyone.
It helps that after a cold start, Anunoby has been shooting over 60 percent from three for the past two weeks. It won’t last, of course, but it suggests he’ll settle into being a stout three-point shooter for Toronto this season, which they definitely need. What’s more than that, in Siakam’s recent absence, OG has emerged as, if not a number one option, than at least a player who could be counted on to generate more offense in a pinch. It doesn’t seem likely that Anunoby will develop that fearsome dribble-drive game we’ve all been clamouring for, but watching him body guys in the post has been eye-opening.
Aron Baynes - F
Look, sorry to Aron, he seems like a nice guy, and he has been rounding into form a bit over the past couple of games. Still: he was almost entirely unplayable for most of the past 18 games. Baynes’ utility has been limited to bodying the biggest centres in the league — which is a pretty narrow focus these days — and corraling defensive rebounds. In every other facet, Baynes just hasn’t been good as of yet. And what’s more, he hasn’t really even been able to be or stay on the court, which has crippled the Raptors’ frontcourt rotation for long stretches so far.
Some of this isn’t his fault, but some of it just highlights his limitations within the framework of how Toronto wants to play. Here’s hoping the next 18 games give Baynes a chance to repair this grade. Love him or hate him, Toronto needs something from their nominal starting centre.
Norman Powell - B
God love him, Powell is still reliably Powell. In one game he’ll look totally out to lunch, making bad decisions all over the place, costing Toronto little and big edges at every opportunity. And then in another, he’ll be lights out and annihilate a team all by himself. At this point, the Raptors just have to live with whatever they get from Norm. Like any Sixth Man-type, he’s unreliable, built on irrational confidence, and doesn’t always work. But when it all clicks together, Norm is awesome.
The irony here is that when Powell gets to play in the starting lineup he really does look like the true two-guard the team has always needed. As of late, with injuries shaking up Toronto’s rotation, Powell has been bombing threes and getting to the rim with force. In this, he does indeed give the Raptors something they need more of: the desire to just go for it. We’ll see how Powell settles back into a bench role, but for now, he’s been solid enough.
Chris Boucher - B+
Boucher gets the bump ahead of Powell here only because for a stretch there it looked like he might save the Raptors’ season. With both Baynes and departed Alex Len totally hopeless at centre, Boucher emerged at just the right time with a few huge games. He’s cooled off as of late (especially from three), but on the season Boucher is still posting averages of 14.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
It’s worth noting that Boucher’s scoring average is good for sixth on the Raptors, which shows how big of a role the man they call Slimm Duck has claimed for himself. I still worry about relying on Boucher too much, but there’s no doubt he has proven himself to be an actual NBA player — a fact that didn’t seem true as recently as two years ago.
Stanley Johnson - B
Despite Boucher’s emergence (and setting aside Yuta Watanabe for now perhaps), the feel-good story of the Raptors this year has to be Stanley Johnson. Last season, poor Stanley looked worse than lost, he looked totally overwhelmed by the prospect of even being on the floor. It was sad to see because Johnson has always looked the part of a basketball player — and seemed particularly thoughtful about his career and role in the NBA.
Johnson’s numbers still don’t bounce off the page, and his role is still fairly limited for Toronto. But he’s actually embracing it now, which is not something we could say previously. The Raptors have trusted him as a secondary ball-handler and play-maker, and he’s delivered. In fact, at times, Stanley has even delivered with some flair! Couple that with his regained versatile defensive abilities, and it has actually been fun to watch Johnson play this season. Look at that.
Terence Davis - D
The bloom has come off the rose with Davis in every way. Given his current ugly legal situation, which is yet unresolved, the Raptors have kept him away from the cameras and microphone. In more ways than one, he’s no longer just a enjoyable, fun-loving guy on the bench. Meanwhile, his play this year on both ends of the court has been mostly reckless and unfocussed (save for a hot shooting night here or there). In a way, Davis is the inverse of Johnson’s rise with the Raptors. It doesn’t feel good to root for him, and we will likely not get there again in Toronto.
Patrick McCaw - INC.
The news yesterday was that McCaw was participating in non-contract drills, which means he’s on the path to recovery for the Raptors. This also means we may soon be lost once again in the throes of the Great McCaw Debate. Buckle up.
Matt Thomas - F
After what felt like some decent early returns through three games, Thomas has not seen the floor for the Raptors in any meaningful way since then. The reason for this has to stem from Thomas’ inability to be a difference maker on defense, which both is and isn’t his fault, in my opinion. Surely, his offensive ability still has to count for something, right?
In all, it’s hard not to give Thomas an F here though because the chance was there for him to become a considerable cog in the Raptors machine (especially when they’ve been stymied against a zone defense). Instead, we wait to see if Thomas even gets on the court again this season. It’s been a dramatic fall, if nothing else.
DeAndre’ Bembry - D
Like Toronto’s other bench players, no one would accuse Bembry of not playing hard. In very limited minutes, he’s been trying to do what he was brought to the Raptors to do: make hustle plays, get into it on defense, facilitate the offense a little bit. That’s all well and good, as far as those things go.
For a player who thrives on chaos though, Bembry’s presence on the floor has largely been invisible for Toronto. In fact, he’s been quiet enough that I almost wonder if it would have made more sense for the Raptors to try and bring Rondae Hollis-Jefferson back, if only to give them another forward option. Overall, it just feels like the Raptors don’t need Bembry’s brand of basketball at his position as much as they originally thought.
Malachi Flynn - C+
There was a moment there when fans were clamouring for Flynn to get more of a chance. What could it hurt to get the rookie out there after the Raptors started 2-8? I understand the thinking. When he was playing well Flynn offered a tantalizing bit of potential as a shooting and play-making guard. It was not nothing to watch him confidently step into elbow jumpers, for example.
Still, it’s way too early for Flynn to take on a bigger role with the Raptors, as evinced through the various times when he wasn’t playing well. The ability is there though, which is nice to see out of a 29th overall pick. Let’s see if Flynn gets a chance to build on that this season or if next year will be the one for him to really breakout.
Paul Watson - D
For whatever reason, maybe those last couple of games in the Bubble, I was all-in on the idea of Watson becoming a bigger part of the Raptors this season. That has... clearly not been the case through 18 games. Watson is averaging 3.1 minutes per game and his last appearance — a brief stint against Milwaukee — had him looking particularly out of it. Maybe the Raptors jumped a little to quickly at the idea of Watson as an every day rotation player.
Yuta Watanabe - A-
Here’s a fun turn. Given the heirarchy on the Raptors — and this very report card post — Watanabe was supposed to be a spot player and part-time G Leaguer. He is indeed on the 905 roster which is getting set to compete next month. Except, look at that, Watanabe has become a stable part of the Raptors’ main rotation.
For a two-way player to go from relatively unknown quantity to well-regarded in his role as defensive stalwart and smart dude is quite a feat. Like Johnson, Watanabe isn’t blowing up the stat sheet, but ask yourself: do you remember the last time he made some monstrous error that stood out and gave you pause? I certainly don’t.
Jalen Harris - INC.
Harris has played four minutes this season and has yet to take a shot in a real NBA game. Yeah, he’s not quite an actual player yet.
Nick Nurse - B
The book on Nurse is that he’s not afraid to get funky and take risks to try and win basketball games. Two years removed from the luxury of Kawhi Leonard, now we’re seeing how that ethos functions when Nurse is the coach of, for all intents and purposes, an average NBA team. The results? Decidedly mixed.
To be clear, Nurse is a good basketball coach. This season has seen him trying very hard (too hard?) though in his quest to find whatever edge he can to win. When you’re coaching in the BBL or D-League, that everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach can work. In the NBA, it’s made for some wild inconsistency and frustrating losses. Players’ roles are huge one night, gone the next; rightly or wrongly, players are getting unduly called out in the media; it’s true the pressure of expectations still loom in Toronto, but in a different way.
Like his team, I believe Nurse can unlock the best version of himself and find a groove with this particular squad of players. But it may also be time for him to settle down a bit, if only to soothe the overall psyche of the Raptors. This team isn’t going for the championship anymore. Maybe everyone, including Nurse, should accept that and allow this team its growing pains as it morphs into whatever it will be next.