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2022 NBA Playoffs - Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers

Player Preview: Free Malachi Flynn

The Toronto Raptors need to find minutes for Malachi Flynn, whether with the Raptors or another team.

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

If a Toronto Raptors fan went into a coma after the preseason games last year and woke up this offseason, perhaps, one of the Raptor-related questions they will have is, “What the hell happened to Malachi Flynn?”

The thing is, Malachi Flynn can play. We saw what happened in Tampa Bay when the Raptors finally opened up rotation minutes for him. Despite “red-shirting” for most of the season in Tampa, he eventually was able to show off why the Raptors were high on him, even earning an Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in April 2021. Back then, it felt like the Raptors are all set at the point, with Fred VanVleet starting and Flynn as the backup.

So, what the hell happened?

Flynn had a shaky preseason last year but punctuated it with a stellar performance, as he led the Raptors’ bench to a win against a Washington Wizards team that played at full strength for the preseason finale. But once the season started, Flynn saw himself on the outside looking in as the Raptors went all-in on positionless basketball, relying on PG-by-committee on any non-Fred VanVleet minutes.

The Raptors’ front office added a slew of 6’8”-6’10” versatile players last season. That move allowed coach Nick Nurse to lean hard on playing five like-sized players on the floor outside of VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. What’s worse, rookie Dalano Banton got the leftover minutes as the third point guard ahead of Flynn. Flynn barely played in the first 15 games of the season. It also didn’t help that his first long look — against the Utah Jazz in mid-November — underwhelmed. Despite the additional minutes, Flynn looked out of rhythm and was a hesitant shooter.

Trips to the Raptors 905 didn’t help. After a successful rookie campaign with the Raptors 905, his sophomore stint was a dud. He only played in three games, and it felt like three games too many. Flynn averaged from 20.8 points per game to 8 points per game, dropping his shooting from 44.2% to 28.1%.

Flynn’s best stretch last season was when VanVleet sat several games after the All-Star Break, and for a few games, he looked like his old self. Flynn averaged 16 points, four rebounds, and 5.5 assists during that four-game stretch as a starter. Unfortunately, a left hamstring injury took him out of the lineup for the next 15 games and would later resurface in the playoffs, as VanVleet was worn out even before the playoffs began.

The Problem

Two things.

Firstly, Malachi Flynn is like those classic cars with carburetors. You will have to let the engine warm up for 10-20 minutes for optimal use. He’s an unselfish, “let the game come to you” type of player. Because of that, Flynn comes in cold, and when he tries to make his presence felt offensively early, he looks tight. It’s hard to be loose on the floor when you don’t know when your number will be called, and if it happens, having limited minutes and playing with a quick hook ain’t helping either.

Secondly, Flynn was a ball-dominant point guard at San Diego State, and the minutes he saw outside of VanVleet’s injury last season were primarily off-ball. He’s the type of player that gets into the rhythm faster if he can get his hands on the leather more often, and more often than not, his role was more of a floor spacer. That’s not Flynn’s strength, even as a rookie, as his buckets were mostly unassisted. He prefers to do something with the ball than catch-and-shoot, although last season’s numbers suggest he should do the opposite (38.9% on C&S 3P% vs 20.6% on pull-ups). However, these numbers have a lot of noise, as many of these attempts happened on games where Flynn played no more than ten minutes (10-for-39), and we have enough sample data and an eye test on what he can do as the point guard.

Ok, perhaps it’s not just two things.

It’s clear that coach Nurse wants to be in a position to win every night, and given the offensive challenges of this team, defense is one way that he can give the Raptors a fighting chance to pull off a win. Given the lack of a traditional big and the Raptors’ scrambling defense, Flynn gets in trouble when he’s switched against someone on a downhill or whenever he finds himself as the last line of defense. We have also seen the Philadelphia 76ers and James Harden target him several times on switches. Among the returning Raptors, Flynn has the 2nd-worst defensive rating and is almost the only one with a negative net rating (-2.6 NET RTG, while Khem Birch was -0.1 last season).

What can Malachi do this season?

The reality is Flynn will most likely start the season out of rotation, with the team focusing on “mismatch basketball” on the offensive end. He’ll need a strong camp to keep the token 2-3 cardio minutes that he would get midway through the game, barely touching the ball. That is if Banton doesn’t steal those minutes away from him.

However, the season is long, and Nurse will drive his core players to the ground, causing key players to miss time. Flynn would need to be ready when they call his number and make it hard for Nurse to keep him out of the rotation. To do that, he’ll need to change his game and mentality.

Flynn needs to reprogram his game so that he won’t need much ramp-up time to get into his rhythm. We’re not asking him to be a microwave scorer like Jordan Clarkson, who comes off the bench scorching hot, but to be a better version of how the Boston Celtics are using Payton Pritchard offensively. What he can’t be is the Flynn that we saw in limited minutes last season. That Flynn was a hesitant shooter, second-guessing his decisions, and was tight that he couldn’t get his handle clean against defenders at times. He’ll need to be aggressive in scoring, whether on catch-and-shoot or off the bounce.

Defensively, Flynn needs to show that he’s not a liability out there. He’s had a front-row seat on how the maestros did it, with Kyle Lowry and VanVleet not letting their physical and athletic limitations become a target on their backs defensively. He was decent against Tyrese Maxey in the playoffs, providing some nice point-of-attack defense, but he’ll need more of this consistently.

It’s disappointing to see the Raptors neglect the development of Flynn as a point guard, but at the same time, he hasn’t really made it hard for the coaching staff not to play him. With the Raptors’ direction, it’ll take a drastic change to see Flynn as part of their future past this season. Perhaps the management still believes in him, as they picked up his contract option for next year, but the management and the coaching staff might have different views on his fit with the team.

It’s likely that Flynn’s game just doesn’t fit the Raptors’ system. The “mismatch basketball” and putting the ball in the hands of non-point guards produce an imbalanced and clunky offense, as we’ve seen these past couple of years. Heck, even the Raptors 905 team moved away from the traditional offense, and relied more on the mother club’s MO last season, and we saw Flynn struggle offensively with the ball not touching his hands consistently. It’s a shame that Flynn only averaged around 1.5 pick-and-roll reps per game last season, with several games he’s filled in for VanVleet inflating his numbers.

Flynn has had a fantastic summer and a decent preseason. He’ll get his shot sooner or later. Will he be ready when his number gets called? We’ll see. It’s time to free Malachi this season, and I hope it happens sooner rather than later, regardless of whether it’s with the Raptors.

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