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Toronto Raptors’ Success Hinges on Internal Development

David Yapkowitz speaks with members of the Raptors, who believe internal development will determine their success next season.

David Yapkowitz

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The Toronto Raptors had a few important decisions to make this summer. All-Star Kyle Lowry and starting power forward Serge Ibaka were both free agents. Key role players such as Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker were as well. They already had big money tied up in DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Jonas Valanciunas and Cory Joseph.

For a team that was swept in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by the Cleveland Cavaliers, they had little room to operate in order to improve a roster that clearly needed some tinkering. They had made re-signing Lowry and Ibaka a priority, but bringing both players back all but ensured that the Raptors would have minimal cap space to work with.

As it turned out, they lost Patterson to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Tucker to the Houston Rockets. They also traded Carroll to the Brooklyn Nets in a salary dump that cost them two draft picks, and they traded Joseph to the Indiana Pacers, receiving C.J. Miles in exchange. Each of the departing players were, at times, key rotation pieces complementing the Raptors’ “Big 3” of Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka.

With their main free agents back in the fold, the Raptors were not only over the cap, but hard capped as well. Miles was their only major new addition. Thus, the key to keeping pace in the East, and trying to field a team capable of challenging Cleveland, is simple for Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. It’s going to have come from within, from the multiple young players on the team.

“It’s really important, I think where our franchise is right now, we’re in a situation where we’re building,” Casey told Basketball Insiders. “Just to have those core guys come back, we have DeMar, Kyle, Serge, Valanciunas, what we have to do now is get some of our young players to step up and improve.”

In contrast to when he first took over as coach in 2011, Casey has been giving some of the younger players regular minutes where he sees fit. One player who worked his way into the rotation his rookie year was Norman Powell. In the 2015-16 season, Powell entered the rotation when injuries hit the Raptors backcourt.

Powell quickly became a mainstay with his defensive prowess and overall aggressiveness. His defense on Paul George during the Raptors’ first round series that year against the Pacers was a big reason why they advanced. Powell knows that he and the other young players will be counted on to keep the team competitive.

“I think we bring energy. We bring commitment, hustle, we buy in to doing whatever the vets need. DeMar, Kyle, Serge, whatever they need to help them with their play, making it easier on them,” Powell told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s gonna be good for them cause we’re able to develop and we have some room to grow.”

Powell took another step further in his development this past season. Needing a spark after going down 2-1 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs, Casey inserted Powell into the starting lineup. He responded by holding Khris Middleton to 12.3 points per game on 38.2 percent shooting. He also shot 10-11 from the three-point line throughout the series.

“I think it’s gonna help with my development, help with my maturity, being able to go in there and play minutes, and play big for the team and help them get wins,” Powell told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just looking forward to improving and taking a big step this summer to be ready for my third year with them.”

In addition to Powell, the Raptors have a couple of other players looking to make their mark on the team. Delon Wright was drafted by the team the same year as Powell, but his playing time has been a bit more sporadic. He finally got a chance at extended minutes this past season when Lowry went down with an injury following the All-Star break.

In the playoffs, Wright’s numbers didn’t fill up the stat sheet, but his presence was clearly felt. He did a better job at times than Joseph at keeping the ball moving offensively and staying aggressive. His length bothered the Bucks’ second unit defensively. Now with Joseph gone, he knows his time has arrived.

“It’s a good opportunity for me because they’re kind of expecting me to step up now with it being my third year. They’re looking for me to step up and I think I’m ready,” Wright told Basketball Insiders. “They expect the young guys to bring energy and play hard, and just kind of do little things that the veterans aren’t doing right now. Get loose balls and play defensively.”

One player who fits that description perfectly in terms of bringing energy and playing hard defensively is Pascal Siakam. Siakam was a rookie this past year and was thrown into the fire from the get-go. The Raptors had signed Jared Sullinger last summer in hopes that he could ultimately emerge as their starting power forward. Unfortunately for them, Sullinger needed surgery on his foot prior to the beginning of the season.

Instead of turning to his veterans, Casey opted to start Siakam. He started the Raptors’ first 34 games and showed a knack for rebounding and tough defense while being able to finish around the rim. He had four games where he scored in double figures during that stretch, including a season-high 14 points on 58.3 percent shooting in a 44-point win over the Atlanta Hawks on December 3.

“It was good to be able to learn. A lot of rookies sit on the bench and not play,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “I had the opportunity to play and it was the best thing I could ask for.”

Siakam eventually hit the rookie wall and as the season progressed, his playing time began to decrease. Once the Ibaka trade happened, he began to rack up DNP’s and was put on the inactive list. But with Patterson gone, he will again get his chance to become a regular in the rotation.

“Just step up, that’s all we have to do,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “As far as the young guys, we got to come in and just play. We’re gonna have opportunities and we have to take advantage of what we’re given.”

This summer, Powell, Wright and Siakam have been making the rounds of the offseason Pro-Am leagues. They’ve played in the famed Drew League in Los Angeles as well as the newer Crown League in Toronto. Although there’s always chatter about NBA guys playing in some of these leagues, Casey is in full support of his guys getting in summer run.

“I think it’s great. I think the whole summer league situation is great for our young players to go through and experience,” Casey told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s great for a young player to do this, just getting some good work in. It’s great competition so it’s a great experience for them.”

They all know that much of the Raptors’ season will depend on how quickly the younger players are able to contribute. They’re still learning and still developing. But even so, they have some high expectations.

“As a team, try to get to the Eastern Conference Finals and go from there,” Wright told Basketball Insiders.

It was only a year ago that they did just that. Although they eventually lost in six games to the Cavaliers, they were the only team in the East to win games against Cleveland in the playoffs. The series was even tied at 2-2 before Cleveland put it away.

Other teams have improved since then, however. The Boston Celtics added Gordon Hayward to a team that finished first in the East and got to the conference finals. The Washington Wizards also have a young core that’s still developing, and they added some much-needed bench depth with Jodie Meeks, Mike Scott and Tim Frazier. The Raptors believe they’re up for the challenge.

“We just got to go in with the mindset that we got to work to get back to where we were last year. Nobody’s gonna give it to us, nothing is given,” Casey told Basketball Insiders. “We got to go back with our work boots on, our hard hat mentality to get back where we were last year. Nobody is gonna hand it to us.”

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Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?

Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.

Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.

The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.

What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.

Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.

Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.

Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.

We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.

Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.

As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.

Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.

Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.

Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.

Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.

Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.

If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?

It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.

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2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players

Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.

Mike Yaffe

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The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.

But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.

The Top Dogs

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).

To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.

Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.

With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.

Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.

While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.

Solid Potential

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.

Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.

D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.

Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.

Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.

The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.

Best of the Rest

Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.

Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.

Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.

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NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers

The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.

Steve Kyler

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Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers

While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.

It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.

So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.

Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.

The Potential Future All-Stars

DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters

Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players

Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs

The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust

Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs

Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.

If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.

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