Toronto Raptors’ Success Hinges on Internal Development

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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.”