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Player Preview: Malachi Flynn has the keys to the bench unit

After a strong finish to the 2020-21 season, Malachi Flynn is set to have the first regular role of his NBA career.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Of every player to have a slow start to their rookie season, Malachi Flynn surely has one of the best excuses. Granted, as the 29th overall pick by the Toronto Raptors, he wasn’t expected to produce anything more spectacular than his 7.5 points and three assists per game. But Flynn’s gradual development throughout the 2020-21 season — he averaged two points in eight minutes per game pre-All-Star break versus 10 points in 25 minutes post-break — was surely slowed by the strange circumstances of his rookie year.

With no summer league, no real training camp, and, due to injuries on the NBA roster and issues with COVID-19 protocols, a mere six games played in the G-League, Flynn was only given a brief taste of the Raptors’ well-reputed developmental system. Flynn logged 207 total minutes (averaging 21 points on 57 TS%, mind you) in the G-League last season; for reference, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright played 518 and 536 G-League minutes apiece in their rookie seasons.

Luckily, with Kyle Lowry and VanVleet on last year’s roster, Flynn was able to remain comfortably in the background for the season’s first few months without being rushed into too big a role. By the time the onslaught of COVID absences, injuries, and “injuries” arrived, Flynn’s meek offensive play was beginning to catch up to his already quite competent defense. He was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for April 2021, during which he shot 41% from three while averaging 12.7 points and 4.8 assists. While he still looked a step slow at times on offense, Flynn was clearly ahead of where he’d been to start the year.

Now, with no Lowry on the team, Flynn will in all likelihood be placed in the role of full-time backup point guard. Last season, the Raptors fared well with their best players on the court, outscoring opponents by 13.4 per 100 possessions with a Lowry-VanVleet-Powell-Siakam-Anunoby lineup. But things got hairy when the starters exited the game and the team’s paltry depth became exposed. If the Raptors want to be a playoff team once again, they’ll have to get more out of their reserves.

This begs the key question surrounding Malachi Flynn’s upcoming season: can he help lead a successful bench unit? It remains to be seen who will spend the most time next to Flynn in the backcourt — and who that is might depend on just how comfortable he looks. If Nurse chooses to start Gary Trent Jr., the steady playmaking hand of Goran Dragic would surely help keep their bench unit afloat while the starters rest — but Dragic’s services probably won’t be available to Nick Nurse past the trade deadline.

Then, of course, there’s the possibility that Flynn comes off the bench with Trent, a skilled shooter who, at the same time, would do little to alleviate Flynn’s playmaking burden. In either scenario, it’d be nice to see Flynn operate more in the pick-and-roll with partners like like Khem Birch, Chris Boucher, and Precious Achiuwa. When sharing the court with Lowry or VanVleet last year, Flynn was sometimes too passive, and would give them back the ball without properly testing the defense. But as the year progressed we saw more and more flashes of Flynn’s playmaking out of the pick-and-roll, which was really his bread and butter in college. If Flynn remains aggressive when he reaches the paint and takes the shots when they’re there (see: game-clinching bucket vs the Wizards in the preseason), then defenders will overcommit to him, creating opportunities for him to find guys open for kick-outs.

Of course, before we saw much of anything from Flynn on offense, it was his solid defense that got him more playing time (spoiler: Nick Nurse likes that aspect of basketball). At six-foot-one and 175 pounds, Flynn is often giving up some strength in his matchups which can make it difficult to navigate screens. But his quickness, his knack for making the right rotation, and his awareness of the team’s scheme make him a plus defender. So, if we’re doing our math here, Flynn is at no risk of losing his spot in the rotation (no matter how much we love Dalano Banton).

Flynn’s defense and ability to hit threes define the floor of his playing time. But how will the Raptors fare in those minutes? It’ll depend on who’s healthy and who’s on the court with him, sure. But after looking ahead of the competition in Summer League — a standard litmus test for whether a second-year player is NBA-calibre — and picking things up at the end of a shaky preseason, the hope is that Flynn will be enough of a positive to make this team’s bench unit better than last. Malachi’s Flynn defense is there, but his progress as an on-ball creator could be the x-factor to how well this team’s depth performs.