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NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day

Raptors Draft Watch: Reading the tea leaves

In a very early Raptors Draft Watch, we reflect on how the season has gone, and what the front office has told us so far.

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I was not expecting to have a Toronto Raptors Draft Watch piece this early. However, the season’s turnaround and the front office’s trade deadline activity heavily impacted the team’s drafting position in this coming draft. Raptors president Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster also made their own pressers, which gave us a hint of what to expect after this season. Let’s review and predict!

Season turnaround

The season started shaky, with Pascal Siakam missing games and Chris Boucher getting off to a disappointing start. It didn’t help that it took a while for Fred VanVleet to get used to the balancing act of being the lead facilitator versus being a score-first guard. The team lacked identity and bench production early on, with the latter carrying over as of this writing. Even Siakam’s return did not pay dividends right away, as they spent two-thirds of their 2021 calendar season outside of the play-in range.

For a while, doubts were creeping in whether this team was good enough or should the organization rebuild around Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr’s timeline. That meant the Raptors could have been a seller this past trade deadline, and that could have significantly altered what we’re looking at this coming NBA Draft. However, Nick Nurse intervened before the fanbase even got a chance to fantasize how Paolo Banchero or Chet Holmgren would look alongside Barnes and Trent.

The mad scientist went on playoff mode to solidify this team’s core and perhaps saved the VanVleet-Siakam timeline. Raptors GM Bobby Webster pretty much confirmed this when he said, “Two, three weeks ago before we came together, I think we might have had a different conversation” in one of his pressers. Of course, it wasn’t all Nick Nurse. Siakam’s emergence was a big contributing factor to the turnaround. The core’s health finally came around, but more importantly, Nurse managed to re-arrange their offense on the fly. The team got back in the thick of the playoff picture, and the pick that they flipped to facilitate the Thaddeus Young trade should be in the 19-23 range, barring any major injuries to the core.

Trade activity

To put it simply, Thad Young in, and Goran Dragic out. Well, he was two feet out of the door to begin with, anyway. Young gives the Raptors some insurance if one of the wildly unpredictable bench bigs (Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher) becomes too erratic. The cost of waiving Dragic is a pick swap. The Raptors essentially traded their 1st round pick to San Antonio Spurs for the Detroit Pistons’ second-round pick. The Pistons are on course to be the worst team in the league, with only one Raptors game left on their schedule, so that pick that the Raptors are getting should be either the 31st or 32nd overall. That’s around 9-13 picks from their original position.

Front office pressers

At the start of the season, Ujiri set us up to temper our expectations, saying that this is a young team, and that development “sometimes might be slow, and sometimes it might be painful.” Then we have Bobby Webster at the trade deadline, talking about how they want to see someone from the bench grow and step into the rotation. Sadly, none of the several projects occupying spots at the back-end of the rotation (Dalano Banton, Malachi Flynn, Justin Champagnie, David Johnson, Isaac Bonga) have forced the coaching staff to play them.

During his trade deadline presser, Webster also intimated that NBA G League/Raptors 905 guys are typically 1-2 years away. Second-rounders and undrafted players typically end up spending time with the developmental team (unless you’re Herb Jones), so perhaps, adding those types of players might not be the route for this coming season, as they already have their hands full in terms of developmental pipeline.

Webster also touched upon the position-less basketball during his presser. He mentioned they decided to go down this path last summer, targeting players that coach Nick Nurse likes to play, especially on the defensive end. This sentiment was echoed by Ujiri’s presser, where he said that he doesn’t see any competition for minutes between Young and Boucher, since everybody has a chance to play because they’re all the same position (lol).

Potential draft pick range

It’s still too early to tell, but we might have a bigger picture after March Madness. But looking at some of the early mocks right now, there are some interesting names around the 25th-40th range. There’s a couple of bigs like Christian Koloko and Ismael Kamagate, guards like Trevor Keels, Wendell Moore Jr., and JD Davidson. However, I won’t be surprised if the appetite remains the same, filling the roster with like-sized players. Some of the prominent wings within our range (for now!): EJ Liddell, Justin Lewis, Caleb Houstan, Bryce McGowens, Ousmane Dieng, all standing at 6’7” or taller. There may be some risers once the March Madness, the Draft Combine, and workouts are done. A couple of names that I’m keeping an eye on are Hyunjung Lee and Juilian Champagnie.

From here, we will go with the front office’s vision. That means we won’t be looking at small, potentially defensive liability guards, undersized shooting guards, and flat-footed bigs. Ideally, scoring acumen should be on the top of the list, but it’ll be hard to find them at this range unless they have a major flaw. Positional versatility and IQ will be up there on the evaluation, and of course, whether they are projected to be capable of playing the Raptors’ crazy style of defense. The only exception I would probably make is if the prospect had a terrible defensive season but has the tools to be better, a.k.a. the Gary Trent Jr. Special.

Hot (mild) take

Barring any trade involving a top-10 at their position type of player, I expect the core plus Precious Achiuwa, Dalano Banton, and Isaac Bonga to be back. I also expect Thaddeus Young to be re-signed. Achiuwa is a replacement for Chris Boucher based on how Ujiri and Webster seem to be invested in him, so I won’t be surprised if we don’t see the SlimmDuck back.

From there, I believe the Raptors will try to add NBA-ready players to fill out the rotation, and perhaps a trade can happen during the draft. With that being said, I won’t be surprised if we see this Pistons pick traded for a bench upgrade, perhaps, someone better than Svi Mykhailiuk. The rest of the bench probably doesn’t have enough value to help the Raptors acquire another pick in this coming draft, with only Svi, Khem Birch, and Malachi Flynn with a guaranteed contract past this season.

While there are teams with multiple picks at the latter half of the second round, I would be surprised if the Raptors buy those picks, as they haven’t done this in the past. With that being said, we will proceed with the Raptors Draft Watch as if we’re keeping the pick, but we will prepare for the worst, and that is to look into players that might go undrafted.

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