The pre-season is over. There’s one cut yet to make. The Toronto Raptors are about as fully-formed as they are going to be at this point in the season.
Except, of course, they’re not.
Toronto is going to start the 2021-22 season absent two of their marquee names in Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher.
Let’s refresh ourselves on what they’ll be missing for the first month or two - depending on how fast the two heal.
Last year Siakam, for all the scorn heaped upon him, still put up a 21.4/7.2/4.5 line. Only nine other NBA’ers managed to match that. Yes, his efficiency was towards the bottom of that group, but if a couple of his late-game shots rimmed in, instead of out, the narrative on last year being somehow disappointing would likely be different.
As for Boucher, all the Haitian-Canadian big did was lead the Raps in plus-minus, and Win Shares. Boucher put up a top-40 mark in the league in WS, and a top-20 mark on a per 48 minutes basis.
Their absence is going to mean other players will have to not only step up but perhaps be featured in roles they weren’t initially intended for.
Let’s check in and see who’s most likely to get that chance to step up.
With Siakam, the Raps leader in usage, out of the lineup, someone is going to have to fill in and soak up those posessions.
Enter Ogugua Anunoby.
As our man Sean Woodley is going to break down for you soon, Anunoby is in the middle of taking the next step. Through the final 20 games of last year, when the Raps were beset by injuries and tanking related absences, Anunoby averaged 18/5.3/2.8 on the highest usage of his career. Fewer than thirty guys put up that kind of production over a whole season in 20-21.
With Siakam and Boucher not around to finish possessions (and, uh, some guy named Lowry), Anunoby figures to start the year as no worse than 1B on offense alongside Fred VanVleet. With his new confidence in taking, and making, step-back threes, adding some change of pace to his bully-ball driving game, and an increasing confidence in making hay in the midrange, you could argue that OG, has, Pascal included, the potential to be the Raps most multi-faceted scorer.
Before Anunboy was drafted, some considered the Indiana product to be a Kawhi Leonard-esque figure. This may be OG’s best opportunity to prove them right. With the new tools he flashed in that end-of-season run, and sharpened this pre-season, Anunoby is making a case that he could be, if not a lead scorer on a good team, than a capable number two.
Obviously, losing two of your five top returning scorers is never ideal, but if there is a silver lining, it’s getting to see how much farther OG can stretch his offensive game.
Gary Trent, Jr.
In the same vein as Anunoby, Trent Jr. is on the limited list of Raptors who has proven himself to be able to get buckets. What Trent has yet to prove is that he can get them efficiently, or do much more than score on the offensive end. Tunnel vision is a thing for Trent.
One of the big arguments this season has been if the Raptors are better off with Trent starting and Goran Dragic helping to settle what will be a very young bench unit, or if Trent’s shooting would be needed to goose what could be a spacing deprived second unit.
Now, Trent will certainly see more shots come his way — and it won’t matter which unit he’s on — especially if Khem Birch and a lower usage player like Yuta Watanabe or Svi Mykhailiuk spend the bulk of their minutes on the court with him.
It also means Trent is going to need to shoulder more creation responsibilities- not just score. Almost regardless of how Nurse plays with his lineups, without Boucher and Siakam, Trent is likely to be no worse than the third guy in terms of getting the ball and making plays.
Unlike Anunoby, there is no major expectation that Trent Jr. will break out and prove himself to be a major piece of the offense. However, if Trent can goose his scoring towards league average efficiency, and consistently make the sort of simple passes that keep an offense humming, it could cement him as a clear starter-level NBA talent.
On the other side of the coin is Malachi Flynn. Unlike Trent or Anunoby, Flynn’s benefit from the lack of Boucher and Siakam may simply be getting to see the floor consistently in their absence.
While Flynn had his best two games to close out the pre-season, erasing some concerns about his development, it’s no guarantee that he gets serious minutes on a fully-stocked Toronto team.
It’s easy to see a world where a: Birch-Siakam-Anunoby-VanVleet-Trent starting lineup gives way to an Achiuwa-Boucher-Watanabe-Barnes-Dragic second unit, where Barnes takes the secondary creator role for the bench mob, and the remaining three guys have just enough on-the-ball juice to keep defenses guessing.
With Pascal and Boucher out though, you have to think the Raps are either going to start Barnes and let him be Siakam-lite, or, if Barnes is on the bench unit, that means Watanabe or Dragic is starting and Flynn’s ball-handling and (theoretical) shooting will be needed to squeeze enough juice out of that second, Boucher-less, grouping.
While Flynn’s a LONG way away from being cut out of the Raptors plans, it’s getting late early for the former first-round pick. Siakam and Boucher’s injuries likely buys Flynn a few weeks’ worth of consistent minutes to prove to Coach Nick Nurse that he shouldn’t take them away.
Yuta Watanabe/Svi Mykhailiuk
It’s kind of crazy how the Raptors all of a sudden look to have a WHACK of functional depth. Exhibit A and B are Watanabe and Mykhailiuk: a pair of rangy wings who have shown flashes in their careers that they can play a real role in the NBA.
Yuta is the taller, older and more defensively adept one, but with enough shooting and handling to help an offense keep moving. Svi, is shorter, younger, has a broader offensive repertoire, but shows enough savvy and willingness to fight to be a helpful part of the Raps’ defensive identity.
Before the two bigs were hurt, it was hard to see a world where both Yuta and Svi got much of a chance to make an impact. Or, either, really. Now, one could easily grab a role in the starting line-up, while the other provides a little bit of everything to the second unit.
Mykhailiuk, despite being younger, has the broader body of work, but also feels like he has the more tenuous grip on playing time, given his lack of familiarity within the organization. If he can find his way into semi-consistent minutes while Boucher and Siakam are out, he’ll at least put the heat on Watanabe (or someone else) afterwards.
Meanwhile, it feels like Watanabe as a chance to grab 20+ minutes a night, and maybe even cement himself as a no-doubt rotation guy.
It’s a great opportunity for both, and for Nurse to find out if he really does have more depth than we thought.
Finally, after starting with one obvious candidate for a bigger role, we’ll end on the other. While Barnes is a long way from being Siakam’s all-around equal, the starter kit is easy to see.
Barnes is a better ball-handler and passer now than Siakam was when he came into the league (and maybe even now), and while he hasn’t yet exhibited much in the way of shooting, or higher level offensive moves, his motor runs so high that he helps on offense just through sheer athleticim and activity (hmm, sound like anyone else we know?).
While Nurse was always likely to deploy Barnes in a myriad of ways and with different units, not having Siakam and Boucher makes it easier to try Barnes in as many ways as possible. Secondary shot creator on the second unit? Sure. Starting power-forward with a few of Siakam’s ball-handling sets? Why not! Lead guy in a super-funky, Achiuwa, Yuta, Svi and Trent conglomerate? Let it roll, baby!
Barnes represents a huge part of the Raps future, and with two of the Raps bigger pieces on the sidelines, Toronto fans will get an early glimpse into what he can bring to the table in a higher usage role.
Will it be ugly at times? Probably. But it definitely won’t be boring.