The Raptors got a lucky break with the NBA Draft Lottery. Despite being the odds-on favourite for pick number seven, they jumped up to four. This would be cause for celebration in any year, but this year, as it happens, there is near consensus as to the first four picks of the draft and almost no wrong way to go. Nothing is certain, of course, but it feels likely that Toronto is about to get a high-calibre young player to add to their roster.
Setting aside Cade Cunningham, who is a sure-shot number one pick, that leaves the Raptors with essentially three players to choose from: Evan Mobley, Jalen Green, and Jalen Suggs. (Yes, anything can happen — maybe Jonathan Kuminga or Scottie Barnes are also in the mix, but most mock drafts are not taking that gamble just yet.) How those three players will fare in the NBA is anyone’s guess, but we’re going to try and narrow that question down further.
Knowing what we know about the Raptors today, how could each of those players fit in Toronto?
Some quick ground rules: the players of consequence we know are going to be Raptors next season are Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Malachi Flynn. (There is also Chris Boucher, who is likely to stick around as a bench forward, and an under-contract Paul Watson, but his place is still down the bench.) I mention Flynn specifically here because his role will change dramatically based on the presence (or absence) next season of Kyle Lowry. The rest of the squad is made up of players who might return (e.g. Yuta Watanabe) and players who are definitely gone (e.g. Aron Baynes).
So then, let’s run through the potential draftees at number four.
The Good: Mobley is a 20-year-old 7-foot centre who is mobile, able to play off-the-bounce and in the pick-and-roll, defensively capable, and versatile. The appeal here for the Raptors is obvious: they’ve got two do-it-all forwards already (and a young point guard desperate for a strong pick-and-roll partner), so what if they added a do-it-all centre to the mix too? You can’t teach height goes the old adage, so it’s easy to see how Mobley would fit with the uber-athletic frontcourt the Raptors have been shaping for the past few seasons. I’m of the opinion that if Mobley somehow falls to number four, it would be huge for Toronto. (But I also think there’s no way he falls to number four.)
The Bad: To my mind, the only real question is one of timeline. The Raptors don’t exactly have to win now, but they’re obviously banking on the core of Siakam, VanVleet, and Anunoby — now entertaining their career primes — to set the tone and keep the team on the winning side of the ledger. That means there is a bit of a time limit on Mobley’s growing pains, whatever they may be. As we saw with James Wiseman, also a number two pick albeit a different big man, sometimes the arc of a young centre prospect is long. Mobley tracks as having more potential — or at least a more NBA-ready and tangible skill set — than Wiseman, but we’d have to see how quickly that can be applied with these Raptors.
The (Potential) Ugly: The other teams in Mobley’s range (the Rockets and Cavaliers) would be looking to couple him with their young, unproven cores — which could be a good thing (e.g. they all develop together) or a bad thing (none of them really fit together). The Raptors are in a different boat, which puts a different pressure on Mobley. If he takes to the tutelage of the more experienced Raptors, maybe he jumps in right away as Toronto’s starting centre. If he’s more on the Wiseman track (at least to begin with), the Raptors may find themselves running out of time with the core they’ve got.
The Good: With VanVleet and Flynn, the Raptors are still undersized in the backcourt (and Lowry doesn’t quite help there either). Obviously, both provide Toronto with something (with VanVleet at an All-Star level of production), but we saw last season how much more scoring they could use on a nightly basis — not just shooting, but actual downhill pressure at the rim. At 6’5” with an all-around offensive game, Green would be the player the Raptors need at the two-spot to provide them with production on the wing. That’s his whole thing — shooting, driving, putting the dang ball in the basket. With the Raptors’ defensive identity set, Green could come in right away and do what he does best.
The Bad: Can Green do enough other things though? The knock on his game right now is that he’s just a scorer. The Raptors need that, but can they live with a player whose defensive utility remains questionable, who has a bit of tunnel vision on offense, who still needs to work on his handle to be a lead guard at the NBA level? These are all things Green can develop (particularly the handle), but they’re also questions worth asking. The Raptors went through the ups-and-downs of Norman Powell (who ultimately became the player they needed) and are now high on Gary Trent Jr. (a restricted free agent who may not be back), so they’ve got some confidence as a franchise in their ability to develop scoring two-guards. That can still count for something.
The (Potential) Ugly: The worst-case scenario here is that Green doesn’t put it all together. He’s got the scoring ability and other-worldly athleticism, but in this nightmare, he becomes another Sixth Man-type for the Raptors, which would obviously not be what you want out of the fourth pick — especially not when teams are hoping Green becomes their offensive focal point. Do the Raptors get the most out of Green if the ball is still in, say, VanVleet’s hands most of the time? What if the team’s offense is being coordinated around Siakam and Anunoby? Maybe, but only if Green becomes the all-around player everyone is hoping he’ll become.
The Good: A Suggs pick makes a ton of sense for Toronto — especially if Lowry is indeed on his way out of town. Listed at 6’4”, he’d give the Raptors what they haven’t had since before the Lowry era: a tall point guard! This is no slight on the Greatest Raptor of All-Time, I’m just stating some facts here. Toronto obviously sees how Suggs and VanVleet could work together in the same sort of two-PG lineups they run now. And with Flynn as the point guard off the bench, the fit makes sense there too — the Raptors’ point guard continuum continues on unabated. Suggs can be trusted to run the team, attack the rim, and play within Toronto’s hard-nose defensive style. No problems there.
The Bad: Suggs will have to work on his shooting, though, which is something he’ll absolutely need to thrive as a lead guard in the NBA (and on the Raptors, of course). There’s also — again, to my mind — a whiff of a ceiling already to Suggs. That’s not to say he won’t be a solid pro, but we do have to wonder if the Raptors won’t be kicking themselves for not taking a bit of a leap on, say, Kuminga in favour of another point guard. I know I said I wouldn’t mention any other potential draft picks here, but I’ll just add this: I could see a scenario in which Suggs ends up at no. 4 and the Raptors make a reach on a player with more potential.
The (Potential) Ugly: As with a Green pick, it does feel a bit like if the Raptors select Suggs they’d still be nibbling around the edges of what they really need to take the team to the next level. It’ll be impossible to actually replace Lowry — at least in the short term — so taking another point guard with a questionable jumper may not move the needle much with the roster they have now. The same scoring and frontcourt issues could still remain for 2021-22 even if Suggs is ready to play heavier minutes right from the jump. And if Lowry stays, well, the rookie will get an excellent free education, but Toronto’s roster balance (with four point guards!) will be way out of whack. Something would have to give somewhere.