Raptors Lead

Raptors’ Youth Showing No Signs of Potential Playoff Drought

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Coming into the 2019-20 NBA season, no team had as large of a shift in expectations as the Toronto Raptors. Thanks to the free agency departure of Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors were headed to an unknown place. The team had always been centered around steady scoring, led by Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and previously DeMar DeRozan. With only Lowry remaining, however, there were major questions as to how this year’s version of the Raptors would look like.

Up to this point, the Raptors sit fourth in the Eastern Conference at 10-4. Considering many thought them to be a borderline playoff team this season, they’ve exceeded expectations. Despite the hot start, their veteran pieces have not been leading the way. Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka were solid to start the season, but each are out with injuries. Marc Gasol has been playing, yet has been relatively ineffective. Their bench has started to come around as of late, but still isn’t up to par. Matt Thomas and Chris Boucher are limited players and Terence Davis is inexperienced as an undrafted rookie.

For all of this to occur and the Raptors still be playing great basketball 14 games in, the onus has fallen on the one group yet to be discussed. Their youth leadership. In different ways, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby have been both extremely useful and quite surprising. Each provides a drastically different role to the team, but have been doing a darn good job at providing it. With all three playing at this level for an extended period of time, the Raptors look to be contenders for many years to come.

So, how have they been so effective?

OG Anunoby

OG Anunoby has had an up-and-down career with the Raptors thus far. Drafted 23rd overall in 2017, he showed encouraging ability as a 3-D role player in 62 starts. He was projected to start again in 2018-19 until Toronto pulled up the infamous Kawhi Leonard trade. Anunoby was then relegated to bench duties, where he struggled fitting in alongside less skilled players, and missed the entire playoffs after emergency appendectomy surgery.

The biggest issue was Anunoby’s largest skill revolves around complimenting others. He is most effective when playing with stars, as he can make defenders pay for leaving him open from deep, and can lock down opposing stars to give others a rest defensively. Therefore, when he is a larger focus of the defence and has to create for himself, and doesn’t have to guard talented scorers, his biggest flaw is exposed and his biggest strength is nullified.

This season has been different both positionally and individually. Anunoby has returned this season as a better player, and his role is more defined. As a result, Anunoby has put himself back on the path of being a foundational piece moving forward.

OG’s defense was supposed to improve with Leonard out of the picture. Anunoby has been tasked with guarding opposing stars all season. With his length and athleticism, he’s been locking them down. This was no more evident than earlier this week when Anunoby hounded LeBron James into a 5-15 shooting night. He takes genuine pride on the defensive end and is arguably one of the 10 best one-on-one defenders in the NBA.

However, what wasn’t expected this year from Anunoby was his major leap forward offensively. The Raptors have always hoped for Anunoby to be hovering around league average from 3, which is about what he has done. This year, Anunoby has taken a massive leap. He currently sits 2nd in the NBA in three-point shooting at a scorching 52.0%. This is obviously not sustainable, but what he’s been able to accomplish so far is a major plus.

Anunoby will likely never be a superstar in the NBA. His handle and off-the-dribble game may never reach that level. This season, however, he has developed into an elite role player. Every team searches for knock down shooters and high-level defenders. Anunoby happens to be both. The Raptors have an elite 3-D starter at only 22 years old, and yet he’s only their third most promising young player. That should say something about the future they have in place.

Fred VanVleet

Fred VanVleet played unbelievable basketball down the stretch of the playoffs last season. It’s almost guaranteed that the Raptors wouldn’t have won the championship without his hot shooting and scrappy defence. Yet, as this season rolled around, expectations seemed to lower for him. Many people, myself included, expected a drop off from his torrid last 10 playoff games. I even pegged Norman Powell as the guard starting alongside Kyle Lowry, rather than VanVleet.

VanVleet has started every game so far this season, and has been a borderline All-Star caliber player thus far. A line of 17.1 PPG, 7.3 APG, 4.2 RPG and 1.6 SPG on 40.6% from deep puts him among the East’s best guards. He leads the NBA in minutes per game at 38.5, and is top 10 in both assists and steals. It seems almost as if Kyle Lowry has birthed a child, and that child is VanVleet. He has been everything that Lowry has been for Toronto– tough, dependable, smart and effective.

This breakout comes at an opportune time for VanVleet. He will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and with the season he’s having, he’ll demand huge money. This year aside, the Raptors have a huge question to answer with VanVleet. Is he really good enough to be getting paid $25 million per year minimum? The early indications say yes, but the results are of a small sample size.

VanVleet is still an undersized guard without major length or elite athletic ability. He has struggled to finish at the rim this season due to his diminutive frame, and it is certainly an issue moving forward. VanVleet fits the mold of a player who is what he is, effective but not extraordinary.

On the contrary, VanVleet has been extraordinary this year. Along with his high level shooting and playmaking, he’s been masterful defensively. A three-game stretch where his on-ball and off-ball defense have forced tough shooting nights from LeBron, Kawhi and Damian Lillard, has highlighted his growth on the defensive end.. The long term services of Fred VanVleet in Toronto are still up in the air, but in the present day, Steady Freddy has exceptional.

Pascal Siakam

By now, every casual basketball fan knows the name Pascal Siakam. His well documented climb from role player to full-fledged superstar has been swift and flamboyant. Siakam is now a household name as a NBA superstar. Even TLSM’s Week 4 MVP rankings had Siakam locked in at number 5.

Siakam is an utter lock for the All-Star team this year after his snub last season. The NBA’s 8th leading scorer has somehow remained efficient at 49% and played exceptional defence, all while playing the 4th most minutes in the league. No matter what slumps or injuries come the Raptors’ way this season, Siakam will keep them in every single game. With his play remaining at this level, buying the Raptors as a top four seed in the East becomes extremely imaginable.

Siakam’s longevity with the Raptors is guaranteed, unlike VanVleet. After signing a max-level contract of four years and $129.9 million, he’ll be the face of the franchise until further notice. With his ever-growing skill set and his otherworldly growth year-to-year, it’s anyone’s best guess as to how high he’ll climb up the latter of NBA superstars. Not to mention, his chemistry playing with VanVleet and Anunoby give him two running mates for the future, along with cap space for more talent through free agency.

All in all, the Toronto Raptors are firmly in contention for East supremacy despite losing their star, Kawhi Leonard. Pascal Siakam’s leap to full blown stardom and Fred VanVleet along with OG Anunoby have given him two sidekicks. It’s hard not to be excited about the future of this team, but the present is just as promising. If all plays right, the Raptors young core will still have some important games to play come late May.

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About Matthew Winick

Matthew Winick is an avid basketball fan both from the NBA side, as well as NCAA hoops. A native of Toronto, Ontario, he is a lifetime Raptors fan and is just now reaping the benefits. He is currently studying Sport Media at Ryerson University in Toronto, and hopes to be talking sports with the best of them in his future. You can reach him on any social media @matthewwinick.

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