There’s something about the looseness of the Toronto Raptors this season that makes you wonder—is this the year they break through?
Take a hilarious pre-game exchange, for example. Getting set for their rubber match with the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena, veterans C.J. Miles and Kyle Lowry are sitting down at their lockers just hanging out.
The morning beforehand, Basketball Insiders conducted an interview with Pascal Siakam, so Miles was asked about the second-year forward and his progression. He began to rave over him and the plethora of young talent on the team’s roster. That is, until an interruption happened in the midst of his words.
*Siakam walks by and messes with Miles*
Miles: I’m talkin’ about you.
Siakam: Stop lyin’ dawg. What you talkin’ about?
Miles: Pascal is [expletive]!
Siakam: That’s crazy man.
Miles: See what you did? You did this. I was on your side until 10 seconds ago.
After the shenanigans, Miles got back to his thoughts on Siakam and three other sophomores he plays with as a part of a talented bench that has been “battle-tested.”
“Pascal—he’s just Mr. Do A Little Bit Of Everything, basically,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “He just plays with a ton of energy and he does whatever it takes. You love having guys like that on your side.
“Just getting that confidence. That’s the biggest thing. Our league is about confidence, opportunity. A lot of guys come in with talent and ability. I think it’s just about having the chance to play themselves into a rotation, and if they’re working on the sideline, it always shows when they get the chance. And that’s what happened. It showed that those guys have been working the last two years ‘cause they got a chance to be thrown out there and they were ready.”
That still may be an understatement. The five-man group of Miles, Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright is one of 26 units that have played on the floor for 315 minutes or more this season. Only the Philadelphia starters have a higher net rating than their plus-18.9 among the aforementioned combinations in the NBA.
When it comes to Toronto’s best defensive units, Siakam is a common denominator. The two rotations that allow the least amount of points per 100 possessions feature the 24-year-old (95.6 and 98.8, which are good for the only figures under 100).
“Everyone has a chip on their shoulders,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Just a couple of GOATs on the team (smiles)—Delon, Fred, Jak. We got guys that work hard and I think it’s just good to see that we’ve been playing pretty good.
“We just play ball. We just hoop and we got that little chemistry going. Hopefully, we keep it going.”
So why is it that this collection of 20-somethings has been able to get the job done? You can boil it down to the faith that Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has in them, especially in crucial and late game situations.
“It means a lot,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “I think a lot of young players don’t get that privilege unless you’re like…Who’s getting that right now? I don’t know. But yeah, you see my point.
“We don’t really get that a lot (in this league), so it means a lot. We’ve proven that we’re capable of handling that and he’s trusting us to handle it when we have to.”
For Miles, he was surprised that “an old-school guy like Case” would afford this prominent of a role to guys so early in their respective careers, but he’s also been the one who has worked with them since day one.
“They’ve stepped up to the challenge,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “He got a chance to see those guys work every single day. And then, it’s hard to shorten that rope when those guys continue to play well and continue to overcome obstacles and continue to show that they can take a punch and get back up. So you earn trust, and they’ve done it.”
Casey’s method in handling the situation has been simple—don’t be afraid to hand them to the keys to the car. Sometimes it’ll go well, sometimes it won’t—but they’ll gain the proper knowledge from it regardless.
“They’re learning, and it’s been that way all year,” Casey said. “I know their numbers have been really good, but they’ve been up and down all year. They’ve learned from their mistakes and some of their failures, which all young guys are gonna go through. That’s the positive of that—that you do get that experience and learn from it.”
In a disappointing 110-99 loss to the Boston Celtics six days ago, one of those lessons manifested itself when things went awry. Leading by two points after three quarters, Toronto was outscored 28-15 in the final period. It wasn’t because they weren’t trying, but rather one of those times where the inexperience came into play.
“I don’t think it was lack of effort,” Casey said. “I think it was execution, doing the little things that’s gonna help that group play well offensively and defensively. I’m not questioning our guys’ effort. I think right now we’re playing hard, but not playing smart. That’d be the way I would describe it.”
“We had a slippage [in Boston],” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “At least we felt like we did, ‘cause I don’t think we played bad, but we’re just so used to us playing better. Had a little slippage. I think we’re pretty good at usually bouncing back, so we’ll be alright.”
Luckily for the Raptors, if things go downhill, there’s always the duo of Lowry and a guy named DeMar DeRozan to carry the load. At times, Casey likes to mix them in with players in the second unit. Siakam told Basketball Insiders that’s how he sees things shaking out in the postseason.
“It’s not gonna be all five of us at the end of a game,” he joked. “It’s gonna be starters in there. And if he can throw some youth in there to run with the vets, it’s good.”
Speaking of DeRozan, the outlook on him as a spectator and playing as his teammate has been two different experiences for Siakam.
“He’s just getting better every day, every year, man,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Like I didn’t know him before the two years that I’ve been here—well I knew him before, but I’m saying I didn’t actually know him.
“I think it’s one thing to just watch basketball when you’re in college and stuff and knowing that DeMar DeRozan is one of the great players in the league. The other thing is just being on the team with him—seeing what does and how he works and the things he’s been able to do on the floor is incredible. So I think All-Star, my favorite player for sure.”
As for his own view on how he’s come along for Toronto this year, Siakam believes the most significant improvement has come as a ball-handler and a distributor. Casey has referred to him as a point forward multiple times, but he doesn’t go that far just yet.
“I don’t even wanna say all of that,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders when asked if that’s what he considers himself. “I’m just a ballplayer man. I’m trying to play and get my teammates involved and play the game the right way.”
The skill has been in his arsenal since he started playing. Now it’s just showing at the highest level in basketball.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Raptors are scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions with Siakam on the floor on an effective field goal percentage of 54.7 percent, ranking him in the 90th and 88th percentiles individually among others. In addition, his assist percentage (2.9 to 12.3 percent) and assist to usage ratio (0.25 to 0.8) has skyrocketed in just one year.
“It’s been something that I don’t think people saw coming,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “It’s something that I’ve always had and I’ve been working on and now seeing that development just gives me even more room to just even work harder and get even better at it.
“I think now that you have that freedom, I think it opens up a lot more things. Usually, it’s like, ‘Okay, I’mma work on this and address this for my development. I don’t know if I’mma do it in a game.’ But hey, now that I know that I can do it in a game, it helps even more to just work on it more.”
Siakam will keep attacking every day and get better with each game, as will the other young guns on Toronto’s roster.
In the meantime, Miles will continue to encourage them as the oldest member of the quintet. Nearing the end of his 13th season in the league, he put into perspective what it’s like to be the veteran, mentioning a time where he played for the Cavaliers in his eighth NBA season as the turning point for him grasping life as a professional.
“I was 25 but I was five, six years more than a lot of guys that were on the team,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “Me and Luke Walton were the oldest guys the first year.
“But now at this point, I think I really understand it. I didn’t understand it then. It took me some time because I was still trying to figure myself out, but now I think I’ve embraced it as much as I can. And a lot of knowledge I was handed over the years, I just try to share it.”
Neither Miles nor Siakam have experienced life in the playoffs with this team. Outside of Wright and Norman Powell, the same can really be said for the other young guys on the roster.
In four straight years, it’s been a punch to the gut. Their last couple of postseason appearances have resulted in eliminations in the Eastern Conference semi-Finals and Finals, and the previous two years before that resulted in first-round exits. Seeing the late-season struggles serves as a reminder of those shortcomings, just sooner than what we’re used to seeing.
Prior to the dominant rebound victory over Boston, the Raptors had dropped four out of six games. There was a glaring lack of coverage on the perimeter where opponents shot 45.9 percent from deep and made over 11 threes per contest. It’s something they desperately want to get fixed before the regular season concludes.
“I mean, we just gotta do a better job,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Be engaged more. It’s mostly communication. We get a little lazy sometimes, but I don’t think it’s a big deal. We gonna figure it out.
“Usually we execute pretty good in the last five minutes or something of the game, but recently a little bit we’ve gotten away from it a little bit. We lost some tough games.”
Despite the down stretch, Toronto remains the top seed in the East and can clinch it with a win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday night. Because of their last victory, it’s highly likely they’ll earn that number one spot and home-court advantage in the conference.
It’s an accomplishment that the team should be proud of, but they are hungry for more than that. They want to go far.
Forget the outside noise. Forget the past. Siakam is focused on now.
“I know this year, we got a pretty good team,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “I think our combination of youth and vets gives us a really good chance. I just like our chemistry. I like our chances. I don’t know about other teams, but I like our chances.
“I’m putting my money on the Raptors.”
NBA Daily: Keldon Johnson Is Next In Line
Keldon Johnson, a prototypical 3-and-D prospect, will have plenty of franchises clamoring to get a look at Kentucky’s next 19-year-old star-in-waiting, writes Ben Nadeau.
The life of a potential non-lottery first-rounder is not easy, make no mistake.
And for Keldon Johnson, a wild final month may be just beginning.
Johnson, 19, is one of three players from the University of Kentucky expected to be drafted in the opening round next month — but where exactly is anybody’s guess. At 6-foot-6, Johnson is an athletically-gifted guard, above average in both the open court and from behind the arc. His overlying statistics — 13.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 38.1 percent from three — might not scream can’t-miss, but the freshman is ready to get after it and prove his worthiness during the springtime workouts.
“I’m fine with competing, I did it all year and I’ve been doing it all my life,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders during last week’s NBA Draft Combine. “All I gotta do is just keep working hard. I think if I keep working hard and stay in the gym, I’ll be fine.”
So far, Johnson has received strong marks — both during the collegiate season and during these most recent tests — for his passion, athleticism and effort on defense. Given his height and lengthy wingspan, it’s possible that Johnson could slot in at the small forward position at the next level too. Basically, Johnson kind of spring-loaded rotation-worthy asset that every franchise could use, whether rebuilding or as a yearly powerhouse.
Thankfully, that’s a position that Johnson finds himself settling into one month before the draft.
As is customary for the back half of the first thirty picks — the odds are high, barring a trade, that Johnson lands on a team that reached the postseason this year. In fact, the only team that didn’t have a playoff game with a current selection between Nos. 14 and 30 is Cleveland at 26. The possibilities, particularly so given Johnson’s modern skill-set, are endless.
Whenever he ends up, though, Johnson just wants to make a good impression.
“I definitely want to play my first year, but if I get in a situation where I won’t get as many minutes and they still develop me, I’ll be fine,” Johnson said. “I definitely want to play, but if that’s not the case, then I just have to keep working.”
Prestigious franchises like Boston, Golden State and San Antonio decorate Johnson’s perceived pick range, with perennial postseason contenders in Milwaukee, Portland, Oklahoma City, Utah and Philadelphia finishing out the round. Johnson, like most young prospects, will have to work at improving his deficiencies — to some, that includes his free throw percentages and playmaking — but what he could eventually offer far outweighs everything else.
A defensive-minded athlete that can stretch the floor? Check. A multi-position shooter that wears those impassioned emotions on his sleeve? Sign him up. Understandably, Johnson wants to land with a franchise that can help him hit the ground running as a rookie, both on and off the floor.
“Just having a great relationship with the whole organization,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Coming and fitting in right away, them developing me and getting me ready to play at that level.”
One look at Johnson’s stellar freshman year highlights, however, and it’s hard to see how the former Wildcat won’t fit in. For as much as things change — what with the need for floor-stretching unicorns and seven-foot point guards these days — sometimes, other matters stay exactly the same.
The desire for 3-and-D contributors in the NBA will never die and Johnson seems to fit that mold exceedingly well. And, if anything, that may just be his floor.
On seven occasions in 2018-19, Johnson tallied 20 or more points, even hitting at least one three-pointer in six of them. During a mid-season contest against Utah, Johnson went a blistering 6-for-7 from deep before notching 4-for-7 against the much tougher North Carolina a week later. If the pressure wasn’t high enough then, Johnson certainly lived up to the hype during the NCAA Tournament as well.
Although he struggled against Houston, Johnson was solid in Kentucky’s narrow loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight, tossing down 14 points, 10 rebounds and three assists on 4-for-6 from the free throw line. Time and time again, giving the ball to Johnson resulted in wins for the eventual No. 2-seeded Kentucky.
According to Johnson, he believes he’s a more-than-capable passer too — an opinion he’s set out to cement during upcoming private one-on-one sessions.
“I really just shoot the ball — [but] I can handle the ball a lot better than what they think,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Once I go into workouts, I’ll be fine.”
Since 2010, more than 20 players from Kentucky have been chosen in the NBA Draft and their list of former superstars needs little introduction — Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and John Wall to name a few — but their continued success with prospects under John Calipari cannot be understated. Just last year alone, four Wildcats were selected, including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, the former of which was just named to the All-Rookie Second Team earlier this week.
But with his silky smooth stroke, Johnson’s mechanics and release have potential franchises simply excited about the type of two-way scorer he could be in the near future. Against stiff competition like LSU’s Naz Reid and teammate Tyler Herro– two other likely first-rounders in June — Johnson still finished the season as the SEC Freshman of the Year for good reason.
In a month, somehow, everything and nothing will change. Fundamentally, Johnson will be drafted to an eager team somewhere in the first round, a franchise that will want to feature his NBA-ready qualities — whether that be on the defensive end or from behind the arc. Johnson’s name may not be mentioned in the same breath as Zion Williamson or Ja Morant — two other freshman standouts — but the marathon has only just started.
With everything other than the interviews and individual workouts now officially out of his hands, Johnson’s trying not to sweat the small stuff.
“[I’m] just enjoying the process, just having a great time,” Johnson said. “I mean, really enjoying it, to be honest, don’t take it for granted and enjoy the whole thing.”
NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard
The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.
At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.
Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.
The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.
He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.
“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.
Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.
“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”
There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.
Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.
Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”
Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.
Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.
But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.
There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.
But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.
“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”
But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.
More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.
“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.
He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.
NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up
Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.
When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.
This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.
Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.
“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”
The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!
Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.
“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”
No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.
“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.
After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.
Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.
Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.
“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”
Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.
Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.
In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.
To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.
“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”
The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.
“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”
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