Its Only One Preseason Game But…
Before diving into the article, it is worth noting that it has only been one pre-season game. Many of the players are still working on shaking off rust and learning to play with one another. And the two biggest stars on the 76ers not named Ben (Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris) were absent from last nights contest. This is all the say that it is too early to say Scottie Barnes will win ROTY or OG is a lock of MIP (remember how good the Matt Thomas-Malachi Flynn backcourt looked last year in preseason action?) We can, however, begin to look at what the major storylines for the season are and how they played out against Doc Rivers’ Philadelphia 76ers.
Much was made of the moves this past offseason. Toronto traded franchise legend Kyle Lowry to the Miami Heat in exchange for Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa. The Raptors made a surprising choice on draft night and selected Florida State forward Scottie Barnes over Gonzaga standout Jalen Suggs. Thirdly, the team did not make any major splashes in free agency and instead re-signed Khem Birch and Gary Trent Jr. And it is from these moves that the two big questions for the season came to be. Question one, who would lead the team now that Kyle Lowry is gone? And, perhaps the bigger question, how would the size of the roster work?
The leadership question, while important, is too hard to discuss after one preseason game. One quick point is that while the role of leader will need to be addressed by the veterans of the team in Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby, Goran Dragic will also play a vital role in terms of mentoring the young talent. When asked about how he can help the team, Dragic said that one of his biggest impacts can be as a vocal voice in the locker room and help communicate through hectic moments. Early in the third quarter, Dragic did just that. The defense caused a turnover, but OG got blocked on his way to the rim. Scottie Barnes grabbed the ball and missed an easy shot right under the rim. The ball then got swatted out, and eventually landed in Dragic’s hands who was able to set his footing and calmly knock down a three-point shot. The Raptors will need more moments like this from Dragic in the regular season, as his shooting and veteran presence will be able to help the team not only in terms of scoring, but in showing the younger guys how to stay calm and poised even when a play gets disrupted.
While leadership will come up a lot during this season, the game against the 76ers did show just how versatile the Raptors can be for the 2021-22 season. One major question that was asked of both head coach Nick Nurse and general manager Bobby Webster was the teams lack of size at the center position. When asked about rebounding, both Webster and Nurse similarly responded with how they like what Khem Birch was able to bring to the table last season with not only his size but also his mobility. They also mentioned how on certain nights (Bucks, 76ers) the Raptors will have to scheme to go up against the bigger centers in the league, but that rebounding is a team effort and everyone blocking out their man is the best way to do it.
In the beginning of Monday’s contest, the idea of going with athletic bigs against more traditional centers was put to the test. The 76ers signed Andre Drummond to be their backup center, and he got the start against Precious Achiuwa. Achiuwa struggled early on the try and guard the much bigger Drummond, and Drummond had his way and was able to dominate in the paint. Later in the game, the Raptors schemed for Drummond to varying levels of success. Two instances, the first with Anunoby and help from Barnes, and later with Freddie Gillespie and help by Yuta Watanabe, were able to shut down Drummond. While the younger players each picked up a foul on the play, Drummond visibly struggled when he had two 6’9" players guarding him. If the Raptors help defenders can avoid picking up fouls when they provide said help defense, the team should be able to at least minimize the damage some of the better big men in the NBA will do to the team.
As just mentioned, the Raptors have a lot of players who are between 6’8" and 6’9" (11 in total). The length and speed that those players bring was discussed with much excitement by coach Nurse during Media Day. Nurse mentioned how his theme for the year was going to be versatility. When asked about his biggest challenge with the roster as currently constructed, Nurse replied "I don’t know if I know yet but if I had to sit here and wonder if there is enough scoring there…but (I) believe in scoring by the system." Nurse and Webster also both mentioned how with the length and disruption caused by the teams defense it should lead to offense.
Again, one preseason game is a very small sample size, but the Raptors did show flashes of what their length and versatility can bring. No one highlighted this more on Monday that Scottie Barnes. While Barnes did struggle at times with his offense, his overall game showed fans why the team drafted him with the 4th overall pick. Barnes played great defense all night and switched multiple assignments guarding every position of the floor. Barnes also was able to use his hyped defensive skills to create offense when a turnover he created led to a VanVleet three pointer. Also notable on that play, Barnes brought the ball up passed halfcourt on his own. Much was made on draft night of Barnes ball-handling and play making abilities. By bringing the ball up himself rather than a guard having to come back for the ball, it allowed Fred VanVleet to do what he does best, set himself up for a catch and shoot opportunity. The absence of Kyle Lowry and his play making will surely be missed, but if Barnes can continue to have moments like previously mentioned, or when he was able to dribble and handle the ball long enough to find someone open cutting to the basket for an easy layup (like in the first quarter with Dragic) or slam dunk (Achiuwa in the third quarter), the team will be able to ease into the post-Lowry era a bit easier than expected.
There were other moments in the game against the 76ers on Monday in which the Raptors showed there versatile and energy. Mainly in plays from Yuta Watanabe and Dalano Banton. While both far from finished products, Watanabe and Banton showed high energy while using their size and length to create disruptions on defense and fight for rebounds. Both players also looked comfortable being able to handle and pass the ball to find their open teammates.
It was one pre-season game so no foregone conclusions can be made, but the vision is clear for the Raptors this season. The team is going to move away from traditional basketball and play by committee. Whether is it to grab a rebound, guard the opposing center, or find the open man and create shots for teammates, this young Raptors core shows glimpses of being able play a more positionless style of basketball. As long as they continue to grow and can keep mistakes to a minimum, the vision, versatility, and future look bright in the North.