Raptors pre-season notes: Rookie OG Anunoby impresses in NBA debut

Michael Grange and Nikki Reyes breakdown OG Anunoby’s impressive game against the Detroit Pistons and what CJ Miles brings to the team.

TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors evened their record at .500 through four meaningless exhibition games but looked about as good as could be expected in their 116-94 win over the visiting Detroit Pistons in their only appearance at Air Canada Centre in pre-season play. With all the caveats in place – it is only pre-season; the Raptors were playing the Pistons playing on the second night of a back-to-back – there were some very encouraging signs and some niggling areas of concern.

The takeaways:

• Rookie OG Anunoby made his Raptors debut midway through the first quarter and while he was drafted for his defensive acumen, early on he showed signs why the Raptors are so high on the young man from Indiana who fell to them at No. 23 in large part because his college season ended in January following a knee injury.

“We got lucky,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “He’s a top-10 pick.”

His first two touches led to assists – an easy one to a wide-open Valanciunas under the basket but credit to Anunoby for having his eyes up and another after he drove hard from the left corner and made a nifty dump off to Jakob Poeltl, showing more poise than might have been expected.

Anunoby’s next touch he drove hard from the corner off a pump fake and tried to put the Pistons in the basket. He came up short but drew the foul (missed both) but the aggressiveness is impressive, given how long he’s been out of action.

He says it’s his games legs that have yet to fully come back after his long lay-off. Where does he feel the rust?

“Elevation in jumping,” he said. “Elevation on my jump shot. Just, shooting. And then some things defensively. Reaction stuff.”

A real key for him will be his three-point shooting. He pump faked two or three times on his first open look before pulling the trigger and missing. He had another look early in the second quarter and hesitated again, missing that one, too. He missed from nearly the same spot – right corner – on the same possession but stepped into it with confidence. It didn’t go in (he finished 0-of-4 from deep) but he’ll get better mileage in Casey’s eyes if recognizes shots that are open and he shoots them without hesitation.

His best moment game in the fourth quarter when he drove hard at the Pistons’ Henry Ellenson, crossed him over just outside the paint and finished on the other side of the rim with a reverse lay-up, spun high off the glass. The kid is not one dimensional.

• That Anunoby was available and playing was a bit of a surprise. Although once he participated in the intra-squad scrimmage in Victoria a week ago it was apparent his return was close. Casey said he’s on a minutes restriction (He played 11 minutes against Detroit) but there was no detail about how long that will last.

Norman Powell got the start for the second time in four games but his first at home since signing his four-year, $42-million contract extension on Friday. It will be interesting to figure out, exactly, where he slots. His strength is his aggressiveness attacking the basket but he overdoes it on occasion and Tuesday night was one of those – too many dribbles while figuring out to get to the rim at all costs. An encouraging sign? Three assists as he’s working on finding his teammates while powering to the basket.

DeMar DeRozan too, was good in this regard, counting eight assists in his 28 minutes.

• The Raptors’ first three of the game came on a shot from ‘above the break’ – the curved part of the line above the corners – by Serge Ibaka, who was following the ball in transition. It’s exactly the kind of shot that the Raptors are looking to take more of – wide open and in rhythm – as they look to up their overall volume of triples.

Gone are concerns about when in the shot clock the Raptors put up a three-ball. The primary concern is how open the shot is and who it taking it. By that measure a three by Jonas Valanciunas was also good – even though he missed his first three-point attempt of the pre-season – and a wide-open corner three by DeRozan off a smart touch pass from Powell was even better. That one didn’t go in either – not many of them did.

After averaging 41 attempts from deep in three pre-season games and connecting on just 24.4 per cent – compared with 36.7 per cent on 24.7 attempts last year – Raptors head coach Casey said he expected his team to pare down the number of attempts and who was shooting them with the regular season approaching. Not Tuesday night, however, as they were 7-of-24 in the first half although a more respectable 13-of-37, overall.

Casey was happy with the ball movement though: “What, 30 assists tonight? I know it’s pre-season but it’s a game of habits and we’ve got to have a hybrid between 40-some three-point attempts versus what we had tonight, 37. Somewhere in the middle, it may not be 37, somewhere near 25 or 30.”

Valanciunas’ second missed three-point attempt lit up Twitter as video circulated of the Pistons’ Andre Drummond waving his arm at Valanciunas and walking away from him rather than guard. The big Lithuanian did miss, but otherwise won the matchup with 18 points and 11 rebounds in 22 minutes to 14 and 11 from Drummond.

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• As a 12-year veteran it only made sense that C.J. Miles would ease into things even if Raptors fans might have been impatient to see their new toy in full flight. Through three pre-season games Miles was shooting just 3-of-10 from three in two games, both starting.

While I’d still bet that he ends up starting he came off the bench against the Pistons Tuesday and flashed the form that made him the Raptors’ primary off-season target after he shot 41.3 per cent from deep on 8.3 attempts per 36 minutes for Indiana last season. He knocked down 5-of-8 from deep and showed himself more than a catch-and-shoot target as the six-foot-eight lefty put it on the floor and got to the rim more than once after the Pistons ran him off the three-point line.

He finished with 19 points and meshed well both with the second unit and in some minutes he shared with all-stars Kyle Lowry and DeRozan.

• Can you feel the excitement? Even with the Raptors playing only one pre-season game at home, the Air Canada Centre was conspicuously empty prior to the tip and barely filled in after that. There were some ‘Let’s go Raptors’ chants but they echoed. The crowd was announced at 16,893, but seemed well south of that.

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• Before the game Casey said he planned to tighten his rotation somewhat, at least in the first half, as he’s feeling some urgency to get his team a little more game ready.

The NBA season starts Oct.17 – the Raptors’ first game is Oct. 19 – which is about 10 days earlier than has been the norm as the league has injected more days of rest into the schedule. The result is a shortened pre-season. The Raptors will play just five games – down from seven or eight – closing their exhibition schedule Friday in Chicago.

The casualties Tuesday were Bruno Caboclo, who didn’t play, Lucas Nogueira, who played two minutes, and Pascal Siakam, who got just six minutes. Camp invite K.J. McDaniels got just nine minutes as he battles for a roster spot, while Alfonzo McKinnie got two minutes.

“Some years you want a short training camp but some years you beg for a longer one,” said Casey. “And this is one of those years where we’ve got so many new guys and young guys coming in that’s gonna get an opportunity to play, and you’d like to have more time. But it is what it is. We’re not complaining about it, everybody’s going through it. We’d like to have another couple weeks but we don’t have that luxury.”