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Player Preview: Can coach Darko rehab Malachi Flynn’s career?

Coach Darko Rajakovic just may be able to resuscitate Malachi Flynn’s career after a rocky start.

Malachi Flynn enters a make-or-break season, and fortunately for him, Nick Nurse is no longer with the Toronto Raptors. It has been a frustrating three seasons for Flynn, starting from redshirting while the Raptors front office shopped GROAT Kyle Lowry around to showing what he’s capable of in Tampa. The following two seasons saw him end up in Nurse’s dog house (“Nick Nursery”) quite a lot, or when he saw the floor in meaningful minutes, he was not part of the offense for the most part.

Now we’re here. Flynn is entering his fourth season and a contract year, with his best stretch as a professional basketball felt like a decade ago. He’s not just fighting to keep his roster spot but also to keep his NBA window open. The NBA pumps in dozens of new point guards every season, and at age 25 and three years in, his runway is getting shorter by the day.

Flynn’s situation is not 1-of-1 for the Raptors these past few seasons. He was misused, under utilized, and neglected developmentally, much like the other prospects that the Raptors have had outside of Scottie Barnes since the championship year. Nurse’s obsession with winning and defense sacrificed not just the development of their young prospects but also led to the failure of building a coherent bench unit and their transition lineups.

In Nurse’s defense, Flynn contributed to his situation as well. Flynn could have made the most out of his opportunities. He was indecisive and lacked confidence when he was on the court. That’s more than enough to get one out of rhythm. Instead of playing with a chip on his shoulder, he played like he was always looking over his shoulder, worried about getting taken out for making a mistake.

What Happened Last Season

Malachi Flynn played the role of EBUG (Emergency Backup Goalie) last season, unless they’re playing Trae Young, which guarantees him minutes as Fred VanVleet’s knees are too cooked to chase Young. Flynn’s minutes spiked whenever Fred VanVleet or Gary Trent Jr. couldn’t play. However, except for a few games where Nurse really doesn’t have anybody else he can use, Flynn pretty much played as the “Fifth Beatle” on the floor and to be ready for a kickout as the halfcourt possession’s Option Z. That part is more about how Nurse ran his offense, where the major and minor offensive options were centered on just a couple of guys. For the most part, Flynn’s role was to provide respite for Fred VanVleet to end the first and third periods and not get in the way of Pascal Siakam and/or Scottie Barnes when he’s on the floor.

It’s tough for a point guard to get on the floor in limited minutes and not be involved in the offense. However, this is not Flynn’s first rodeo in this role. The previous season was even worse, as he struggled to adapt to the role. Last season, Flynn made strides, improving on his perimeter catch-and-shoot game. His perimeter shooting has improved steadily over the past three years, finishing at 35.3% last season, including 37% in catch-and-shoot situations. He was shooting 41.8% from behind the arc until the turn of the calendar year, but for some reason, he was not able to sustain it — his production was up-and-down, as he struggled offensively for the most part to finish the season.

Nurse split the 9th rotation spot between Dalano Banton and Flynn, and despite Banton being last year’s “shiny new toy,” Flynn managed to wrestle those minutes away from Banton, despite missing the early part of the season due to a face injury. That time, he looked like he’s settled into the role, despite getting DNPs now and then:

Unfortunately, Flynn had an 8-game stretch where he saw extended minutes, and this should have been his opportunity to make a case for rotation minutes. However, his production and impact were up and down, putting up 8.4 points, 2.9 boards, and 2.3 assists. Flynn didn’t shoot well on the floor, hitting 35.2% overall, but decent from the perimeter at 35.7%.

Can Darko Rehab Flynn’s Career?

Enter new coach Darko Rajakovic, the person President Masai Ujiri is banking on to rejuvenate the team’s developmental system that’s been falling asleep at the wheel for a few years. Ujiri’s been banking on internal growth from their younger players only to routinely not get the developmental runway they need.

For Flynn, Rajakovic’s arrival offers the chance for a reset. Theoretically, and with the small sample size of what we’ve seen so far, there’s an opportunity for him to get his career going after getting stalled for a few years. However, it will be hard, and it might take more than one summer for Rajakovic to jump-start Flynn’s career again.

Rajakovic would have to rebuild Flynn’s confidence and clean the bad habits that he developed — Flynn’s indecisiveness, tightness, playing like afraid to make mistakes — his issues could be more about the psyche, not just about giving him reps. There have been too many games where you can see Flynn’s confidence go down after every missed shot, turnover, or defensive coverage, knowing that Nurse’s quick hook is coming.

Can Rajakovic give Flynn the runway to get back to his old self? What happens when Flynn struggles — can Rajakovic juggle winning and still empower him? Coach Rajakovic’s 0.5 offense and a promise of running a deep rotation just might help with that.

2023-24 Season Outlook

Malachi Flynn is entering his contract year, and after spending three years in Nick Nurse’s purgatory, he might have a chance to show what he can do. From what we’ve seen from coach Darko Rajakovic’s offense so far, the system doesn’t require an “every-down” point guard. At the same time, the offense doesn’t appear to be centered on two players only, allowing the other players on the floor to be a scoring and playmaking threat. Flynn’s playmaking and shooting will probably get him some look, as there will be opportunities for him to be a threat, whether he’s the primary/secondary creator or an off-ball threat. He needs to be like those typical microwave guards off the bench, especially if he’s not being asked to run the team. Be like Trent Jr. Be like Payton Pritchard.

However, Flynn must remember that Nurse is no longer breathing on his neck. He would need to make himself a scoring threat and be impactful in the minutes he would get. More importantly, Flynn needs to put things together on a nightly basis. He needs to show that he can run the team, be both an off and on-ball threat, and play decent defense consistently. He has to put things together, as his NBA career’s clock is ticking.

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