The Toronto Raptors got worse this offseason. They got worse relative to where they were at the end of last season, and relative to other elite teams in the Eastern Conference. At least, that’s the meta-narrative that’s been perpetuated recently.
The Raptors did, in fact, lose a handful of key players responsible for a good portion of their recent success. They lost Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, and PJ Tucker. These are players who, over the past two seasons, helped fortify Toronto’s bench as one of the best in the league, capable of outscoring opponents by roughly six points per 100 possessions, according to John Schuhmann.
Now, their bench has purportedly been left in shambles, comprised of young and largely unproven talent. Jorge Sierra of HoopsHype reiterated this, railing on the bench as one of Toronto’s biggest weaknesses heading into the 2017-2018 season.
Even though the bench is undeniably young and unproven with the average NBA experience of prospective bench players being under two seasons, being young and unproven is not synonymous with being bad at basketball. There are several key guys sitting on the pine who will likely be formidable contributors this upcoming season.
Point guards. Swingmen. Athletic bigs.
Get to know them.
Losing Cory Joseph may have been a blessing in disguise for the Raptors as his departure will free up minutes for both Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet. These are two guys who, despite very limited playing time, showed flashes towards the end of last season.
Delon Wright will likely have the bigger role of the two, filling in as the second string point guard and likely coming second off the bench next to Norman Powell.
Wright stands at six foot five and weighs around 190 pounds. His size affords him a lot of advantages against smaller point guards, advantages which largely manifest on the defensive side of the ball.
Wright’s length and quickness allow him to crowd opposing guards and force plenty of deflections and steals. Long arms and quick hands make it dangerous for opposing guards to attempt passes that would otherwise be easy. According to Stephen Campbell, Wright averaged almost three deflections in 16 minutes of playing time per game. This means that Wright actually leads the league in deflections per minute, barely coming out on top of Robert Covington. With more playing time Wright should theoretically be able to convert these deflections into bonafide steals.
It’s also worth noting that Delon Wright doesn’t just disrupt plays, he’s a complete defender. He’s been a net positive with respect to defensive plus-minus for the entirety of his career.
Check out some of his numbers from last season.
Not bad for a guy who only got about 16 minutes per game.
Now Fred VanVleet, on the other hand, is a scorer through and through. VanVleet is particularly skilled at reading and reacting to what the defense gives him. He doesn’t have the size that Wright has, but VanVleet is quick enough and strong enough to take it to defenders if they give him even the tiniest angle to the rim.
VanVleet hasn’t had much NBA experience, but he excelled during his stint with Raptors 905 in the 2016-2017 season. He averaged just under 17 points and eight assists per game, shooting roughly 40 percent from the field and from three.
Wright will likely take the reigns as backup point guard to start the season, but that could easily change depending on any number of things.
Funnily enough, the Raptors have arguably their best bench player slotting in at the position where they are numerically the thinnest. Assuming that DeMar DeRozan and CJ Miles are starting at the shooting guard and small forward spots, respectively, that leaves Norman Powell coming off the bench for either DeRozan or Miles.
Raptors fans should already know what they're getting from Powell, especially after some electric performances against the Milwaukee Bucks only a few months prior.
Scoring in bunches. Plenty of highlights. Decent defense. Hustle plays for days.
The problem with Norm is that he’s yet to put all of this together on a nightly basis. In 18 minutes per game last season, Powell averaged about eight points on 45 percent from the field and 32 percent from three.
Going into his third year, Powell will have to, not only increase his production, but get more consistent as well should he want to truly help elevate the team. Realistically, if Powell does improve in such a way, there’s no reason that he shouldn’t be considered one of the premier sixth men in the NBA.
Forwards and Centers
With respect to big men, the Raptors have potentially two guys that stand to be major contributors off the bench.
Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl.
Pascal Siakam is one of the Raptors' more interesting young prospects. He's six foot nine, 230 pounds, and looks more limbs than body. He has a seven foot three wingspan and fits the mold of the ultra mobile big man with a diverse skillset that’s become popularized in an age where every team is on a quest to find their own Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s too early to say that Siakam will develop similarly to either of these guys, however, he fits the physical mold to a tee.
To describe Siakam as athletic and mobile doesn’t do him justice. He can run the court like few others guys his size and has unreal hand-eye coordination. He regularly catches the ball while on the move in transition or in traffic and has the composure to convert from seemingly impossible angles.
Siakam's nearly unparalleled mobility should allow him to contribute offensively by beating his man down the floor, in turn, putting the defense on edge, creating opportunities for himself and his teammates. He should also be good on the defensive end as his quickness allows him to keep up on switches, making Siakam a good option for Dwane Casey to go to when it comes to closing close games down the stretch.
With an improved three-point shot, Siakam figures to be a major contributor coming off the bench for Serge Ibaka at the power forward position.
Jakob Poeltl should also be able to contribute off the bench this year, likely taking minutes from Lucas Nogueira.
Poeltl's rookie season wasn't particularly impressive until you compare numbers with Nogueira adjusted to 36 minutes of play.
Poeltl, in only his rookie season, arguably gave more to the team than Nogueira who was older and in his third season.
With more minutes and a more definitive role, he should be able to increase his production in a variety of areas, including rebounding, an area in which he's already proficient. Poeltl's mobile for a guy his size and has broad shoulders, allowing him to get into space, box out, and collect boards, which is something he'll likely do more of next year. He could really make a name for himself as an elite rebounder, similar to Tristan Thompson, for instance.
Toronto's Success Depends on the Bench
The importance of Toronto's bench to their previous and their future success cannot be overstated. In order for the Raptors to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals, their young guys will have to step up in a huge way.
Delon Wright, Norman Powell, and Pascal Siakam will all get bigger roles heading into the 2017-2018 season. They each bring a unique skillset to the table and will each be given an opportunity to improve, not just individually, but the Raptors as a whole. The season is set to begin in less than a month, hopefully, the young guys are ready to emerge as leaders of an allegedly barren bench.