FINDING THE BRIGHT SIDE TO RAPTORS' LOST SEASON
If there is to be any lasting feel-good legacy from this atrocity of a season for the Toronto Raptors, it will come in the area of development.
There are several promising players, starting with their firstround pick Malachi Flynn. The 22-year-old, who celebrated his birthday on Sunday, has received the kind of opportunities a Fred VanVleet, for instance, waited an entire season to get in his formative years.
It hasn't all been onward and upward for the former San Diego State star, but already over 775 minutes in his rookie year, including 10 starts, is a healthy dose of experience considering VanVleet only got just under 300 in his first year. He didn't start a game until his third season.
All of that time, even the periods of struggle, one of which Flynn is in now, will pay off in years to come when he and VanVleet are filling the backcourt for this team.
But there's another backcourt option that has more recently come to the fore with playing time suddenly available, and he has jumped at the chance.
Jalen Harris, the Raptors second round pick last year (59th overall), has only appeared in 10 games and has yet to crack the century mark in minutes, but he has not looked out of place on an NBA court of late. Harris has appeared in each of the past eight games and would appear to be likely to carve out minutes over the final five.
In the Raptors most recent action Saturday night at home to Memphis, Harris played a season high 29:27 in the game with a career high 16 points on 5-of-12 shooting.
Harris has looked increasingly comfortable and increasingly decisive with the ball in his hands as his minutes have increased.
“I'm just trying to capitalize on opportunity, mostly,” Harris said post-game. “I've been doing a lot of work throughout the year, throughout the off-season before and all that, and so I just want to be able to go out there and help the team win and be able to do whatever I can to help them win.”
Head coach Nick Nurse admitted that even in training camp Harris caught his eye with his confident scoring, but there were so many bodies he had to get a look at back then. Harris was told he was going to have to wait his turn. Well, it appears that time has come. But the backcourt is only one area where the Raptors have made progress with regards to their future.
Up front they have been force-feeding Yuta Watanabe minutes for a while now — Saturday was his third start of the year — and since Day 1 he has been showing off his high-end motor that has made him a royal pain for opposing offences.
His strides of late have come from an offensive standpoint primarily because he has finally convinced himself that he is a good enough shooter to take those open shots he had been turning down.
The way he quickly gets his shot off from behind the arc these days is exactly what Nurse and the coaching staff have been pushing him to do all year.
Watanabe may not be a starter going forward in his career, but he has a skill set that can make him a valuable piece of a second unit if he continues to progress.
Injuries at the worst possible time when minutes are available after patiently waiting his turn earlier in the year have cut into the impact Paul Watson Jr. has been able to make. There have been moments this year where you can see a path for more sustained time for him as well.
Watson had his best moments through a 10-game stretch in March when the Raptors were in the midst of the worst part of their COVID crisis. Just when it looked like he was finding his rhythm, though, he joined the inactive list with his own COVID battle.
By the time that was over most of the starters were back and his opportunity was missed. A problematic knee issue more recently has kept him from joining the likes of Flynn and Harris in taking advantage of the suddenly ample minutes with starters being rested down the stretch.
The irony of the season comes among the development of the Raptors bigs, which were the biggest question mark to start the year.
Between them Chris Boucher, Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie have probably done the most to solidify roles going forward.
Boucher, before spraining his left knee a couple of weeks ago, was arguably the team's most reliable player taking availability and production into account.
Boucher appeared in all 59 games before the injury averaging 24 minutes and providing rim protection and scoring, two areas that were in high demand most of the year. Boucher's year wasn't perfect, but he more than justified the Raptors' decision to ink him to that two-year US$13.5-million contract before the season started.
The two late-arriving bigs in Birch and Gillespie have both made solid cases for future minutes with the Raptors. Birch with his rebounding, his hustle and his tireless energy has been a godsend at the centre position, which the Raptors were forced to fill with an out-of-position Boucher until he arrived.
Gillespie, a much less experienced player than Birch, has further solidified the position, confidently filling those minutes.
Between them they have taken the weakest area of Toronto's roster and at the very least brought it up to NBA standards.
So, yes, the season has been horrendous for all sorts of reasons, but there has been headway made in the midst of this rather forgetful year.