What we’ve learned from first quarter of season

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The Toronto Raptors have played 20 games of their 2021-22 season, and currently sit on a 9-11 record, good for 12th-place in the Eastern Conference.

There’s still plenty more season to go and with the injuries the team has sustained it’s difficult to pinpoint, exactly, what this team is. But there have been hints of who the Raptors are and, certainly, concerns surrounding them as a result.

So, with the Raptors about to embark upon the second quarter of their season, Sportsnet has assembled a group of its basketball experts to answer a few big-picture questions about the team.

The Raptors have played a high-risk, high-reward defence to both brilliant and disastrous ends. What do you make of the defensive scheme so far?

Michael Grange, senior basketball insider: I think there have been enough examples where it has worked very effectively to justify sticking with it, but there are plenty of examples of what happens when the effort or attention to detail are lacking, so it’s success will depend on a better understanding throughout the roster of what is required and a greater commitment to play with the effort needed to make it work.

Steven Loung, NBA section editor: When it’s on it’s looked awesome and you can really see why Nick Nurse and the coaching staff want the team to play this style as it allows for easier offence on a team without a ton of options in the half-court.

With that said, as has been seen recently, when full focus and effort isn’t there, it can really burn the Raptors and give the opponent far too easy baskets.

I’d, personally, like to see a less risky style of defence played. They have length and athleticism all over the roster — even with injuries — so why not leverage that by switching everything and staying in front of people instead of gambling on steals and deflections?

Eric Smith, Raptors play-by-play announcer on Sportsnet 590 The FAN: Going into the season there was a lot of talk about the Raptors being undersized, overall, with their versatility and athleticism needing to be their calling card, but that was based on them being healthy as well.

Without Pascal Siakam, Khem Birch, Chris Boucher, OG Anunoby and/or Precious Achiuwa for various stretches this year Nurse has had to get creative with his lineups and his rotations. Those injuries have, to me, impacted the Raptors defence as much as anything else. It has created or at least contributed to a lot of those inconsistencies you’re speaking about. When healthy, I expect Toronto’s D to be much more stable.

How would you assess Pascal Siakam’s play so far since his return from injury?

Grange: I think his playmaking and shooting has been very encouraging – 18.5 points, seven rebounds and 3.3 assists with a true-shooting percentage of 55.4 over his past six games is a nice level of efficiency for someone who missed all of training camp, pre-season and the first 10 games of the regular season.

Over his next 10 games or so I’d like to see Siakam’s numbers bump up a little bit and — most importantly — a more consistent energy defensively, which Siakam admits had been a little bit lacking in the early stages of his return. The Raptors are allowing 8.7 points more per 100 possessions with Siakam on the floor than when he’s off so far this season. That’s not really a one-man stat, but it’s not a trend you want to be a part of.

Loung: Siakam’s counting stats have been good and his three-point stroke, in particular, has looked really good.

With that said, he’s had lapses defensively that this team can’t really afford to allow happen and, as weird as this sounds, while he has been pretty productive, that productivity hasn’t been particularly “loud.”

I know people are likely tired of the whole “No. 1” conversation, but that’s what Siakam is supposed to be and other than that game against the Kings he hasn’t been the guy leading the charge when he really should be.

Smith: While his scoring numbers are down a bit, everything else — assists, rebounds, field-goal percentage and more — is right in line with what he’s done over the past few seasons. And this all comes with Siakam playing about three minutes per game less (thus far). So, I’m not concerned.

Plus, factor in that Toronto’s roster is deeper and more balanced than it was last year, with OG Anunoby being looked upon as a scorer more-so than ever before, Scottie Barnes providing more offence than some expected, and Gary Trent Jr. getting his, too.

I think this is a perfect fit for Siakam. Being a part of a balanced team (like he was during the 2019 championship run) as opposed to having to be the go-to guy that has to carry the squad nearly every night. I’ve been pleased, for the most part, with his play since his return and I think we’ve seen good glimpses on the defensive end, too.

Scottie Barnes has looked great in the first quarter of the season. Do you think he’ll be able to keep up this level of productivity all season long?

Grange: I’m sure there will be more dips like we’ve seen at points over this road trip, but I don’t see why Barnes won’t continue to profile as one of the most productive rookies in the league.

His IQ allows him to play the game very simply and efficiently, so even in games when he’s struggled or looked a bit heavy in the legs, he’s found ways to contribute. I’d say that as Barnes’ comfort level increases and his shooting improves, he might even build on what he’s done so far.

Loung: I’m probably more concerned about Barnes’ durability than I should be, but with how hard he plays and how much the Raptors seem to rely on him I think the small blip he experienced while out on the road will eventually turn into something bigger.

With that said, the Raptors likely wouldn’t be sitting on just two games off a .500 record if not for Barnes.

He’s been one of the three best players on the team this season and the Nurse has rightfully been asking for more of him because he can not only handle it but because the Raptors need it for them to be successful.

Smith: Short answer: Yes.

Unlike some of the other rookies from his draft class, Barnes is on a balanced team that doesn’t necessarily need him to be the focal point on most nights. He can play a role in Toronto, which allows him to blend in more and have an impact on the floor in many different ways.

Plus, given his internal motor and motivation — and the guidance and confidence he gets instilled in him from not just his coach, but veterans like Fred VanVleet, too — I think there’s every reason to believe that the “rookie wall” won’t hit Barnes and he’ll continue to be highly productive throughout the season.

The Raptors’ bench has been among the worst (if not the worst) in the league this season from a productivity standpoint. How can they fix this issue?

Grange: The simplest thing would be to play Goran Dragic more, potentially move Gary Trent Jr. to a sixth man role and hope that Yuta Watanabe’s return to form can have an impact.

Even two of those three things would help considerably.

Loung: Nurse’s cry to the Basketball Gods for better health with his team would tremendously help with shoring up what has been an uninspiring bench unit so far.

However, bad injury luck isn’t all to blame. For some reason or another Nurse has Goran Dragic completely out of the rotation when he could very likely help shore up the Raptors’ second unit by having him play more of the backup point guard minutes instead of Dalano Banton.

Plus, if Dragic were to play, that would likely save some minutes for Fred VanVleet, who is leading the league in minutes per game this season.

Smith: I’m not sure that there’s a magic elixir. I’m from the camp that believes the starting lineup (when healthy) should be Anunoby, Barnes, Siakam, Trent and VanVleet. Thus, admittedly, when you go to the bench there’s not a ton of scoring. Achiuwa has some offensive upside and Svi Mykhailiuk can heat up in a hurry, too, but I don’t think you’re looking for Banton to score a ton, Malachi Flynn’s minutes have been inconsistent, Birch gets much of his offence off pick-and-rolls and offensive rebounds, and Boucher has struggled mightily to find his shot. So, I don’t see a ton changing.

However, could the second unit develop more of the “bench mob” mentality — bringing defence and energy, if nothing else? Yes. That could be their calling card and their biggest/best way to make an impact.

With that said, Nurse rarely does wholesale changes anyway. Sprinkling in a couple of reserves along with two or three starters and playing that shell game with his rotation (as he’s done thus far) is probably Nurse’s best bet moving forward.

Who/what has been the most pleasant part of the season so far? Who/what has been most disappointing to you?

Grange: Barnes has been better than advertised, or at least sooner than expected, but I would mention Fred VanVleet’s play also.

I was curious how he would manage a heavier load as the only pure point guard on the roster and he’s done very well in all areas and is on pace for a career-best in assist rate and two-point percentage and close to a career-mark in three-point shooting.

In terms of disappointments, I’d probably have to tag Precious Achiuwa. The upside is obvious and there have been glimpses of his potential, but how often he gets truly flustered offensively is a concern.

Loung: To me the most pleasant surprise this season has been Gary Trent Jr. His shot selection can leave a bit to be desired, but he has given the Raptors a sorely needed additional option to give the ball to when they need to get a shot up. Additionally, the flip he’s switched on the defensive end has been a revelation for the Raptors and has made the contract he signed with the team look like great value now.

As far as disappointments go, I’d say just, overall, the defence has been a real letdown. That was supposed to be the team’s calling card and, while injuries have played a factor, it just feels like the scheme might be too hard for this group to execute right now. The payoff, when it works, is beautiful basketball as it leads to lots of transition opportunities for the Raptors, but when the trade off is a cavalcade of open threes or 60 points in the paint for the opposing team, the risk doesn’t seem completely worth it to me.

Smith: The number one answer — from everybody — has to be/should be Scottie Barnes. You can’t say enough about how well the rookie has played and the impact he’s made to this team on both ends of the floor.

But if we eliminate him from contention, the next name on my mind would be Gary Trent Jr. I knew he could score but I often viewed him as a spot-up shooter. He’s shown me much more. He’s found ways to use the dribble to free himself and become deadly in the mid-range game, too, and he’s getting to the hoop more and more as well. Plus, he’s still great from the outside. His preparation and shot-readiness is, arguably, second to none on the Raptors. Defensively? He’s really shown major strides. Steals aside, he guards his man tough and seems to take on the challenge possession after possession.

The most disappointing, unfortunately, has been Chris Boucher. I know it’s not for a lack of effort and I believe that Boucher will turn things around as the season goes on, but right now he’s struggling mightily, to say the least. He can’t seem to find his range from distance and his overall numbers have dropped drastically. With less and less playing time — and with more bigs to compete with this season — Boucher is in a tough spot right now.

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