There have been some surprises so far in the Toronto Raptors pre-season – did anyone think they’d have chucked up 79 three-pointers through two games? – but other things have unfolded as expected.
• Long-term project Bruno Caboclo is pressing too hard and looks out of place at the NBA level for the moment. At the beginning of his fourth professional season he remains one year away, which is right on schedule given ESPN draft analyst Fran Fraschilla’s remarkably prescient “two years away from being two years away” instant analysis way back when.
• Kyle Lowry remains the fulcrum around which all things Raptors turn – his team easily trounced the other in the intrasquad scrimmage in Victoria; the Raptors won and looked pretty good against the Los Angeles Clippers when he played on Sunday night; they lost and looked ragged when he sat out on Tuesday (in Hawaii at least) against the Clippers.
• It looks like newcomer C.J. Miles will get the starting nod at small forward, which will be fine as soon as he can find his three-point stroke – he’s 4-of-20 if you include the intrasquad game – to this point. Let’s presume he’ll improve.
• And perhaps least surprisingly, there is a true battle for the minutes available at point guard behind Lowry for the 25-minute void created by the off-season trade of Cory Joseph to Indiana in large part to create the cap space to sign Miles. Least surprising to those paying attention at least.
Battle for backup PG spot heating up
From a distance it has always seemed like Delon Wright’s battle to lose and it still might be. With Lowry getting the night off in the Raptors’ stilted 98-84 loss to the Clippers (6-of-36 from three with 25 turnovers in one of those ugly nights that Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was presumably referring to as the Raptors make their transition to “space and pace” on offence), it was Wright that got the start.
That made sense. Even going back to last season it was Wright – once he fully recovered from his shoulder surgery in the summer of 2016 – who got the most of whatever minutes were available behind Joseph or alongside Lowry when Toronto did play three guards.
But Fred VanVleet is not one for accepting conventional wisdom. It’s why he’s in the NBA at all as a 5-foot-10 point guard without the elite speed or explosiveness that smaller guards typical offer as an equalizer in the NBA.
His opportunity in Toronto was – ironically – created by Wright’s injury a year ago. The Raptors needed an emergency backup and signed the four-year star from Wichita State as an undrafted free agent.
That they kept him after Wright returned to health and picked up the option on his contract this year says all that is necessary about what they think of VanVleet’s IQ, competitiveness and unwillingness to take whatever opening is presented to him.
For added confirmation there is always Lowry’s scouting report:
“I think Fred is a little bit smaller than me, but he has the opportunity to be that type of player,” Lowry said on the eve of training camp. “I think Fred was better than me at this point of his career.”
High praise but not that surprising given that VanVleet’s willingness to doggedly attack the Raptors star on both ends of the floor in training camp a year ago helped him earn a roster spot in the first place.
Wright brings something different to the table. At 6-foot-5 he’s several inches taller with a commensurate advantage in reach. He also plays with an apparent patience and calm that is rare to see and incredibly difficult to teach; combined with his quickness he’s like a pitcher that constantly changes speeds before punching you out with a fastball that seems to come out of nowhere.
“I think Delon is completely different than I am,” said Lowry. “He’s long, lanky, he uses his athleticism. He has a different pace.”
But this is a competition. It’s interesting to listen to how the two players – whose personalities are as different (externally at least) as their body types.
VanVleet’s intensity seems unwavering, his competitive juices at a perpetual simmer. In off-season pickup games he’s the one most likely to push things to the point that things boil over. He’s taken that energy into his battle with Wright for minutes behind Lowry.
“Being the competitors that we are, we’ve been coming in and competing against each other every day,” VanVleet said. “But to have that at stake makes it more enthusiastic, I’ll just say that.”
Having a guaranteed contract for this season has altered VanVleet’s approach: “I’m a little bit more confident, more assured, playing with assurance,” he said. “Last year, in my situation, I was trying not to mess up and just trying to be solid, but that limits your game to some extent. So now I’m a little bit more experimental and trying different things and letting my game go and living with the results.
“I would just say playing with more assurance, confidence and being more comfortable with the team.”
But Wright is in a different situation this year as well. It was his shoulder injury – suffered in Summer League – that opened the door for VanVleet in the first place. He worked to get himself back into the rotation and enjoyed a steady dose of minutes after the all-star break when Lowry was out with his wrist injury. And while he was productive – six points, 2.3 assists, two rebounds and a steal in 17 minutes a game – he feels like he’s hit the ground running this year.
“I’m much better,” said Wright. “I’m much more conditioned, I’m in way better shape. I feel stronger. I just feel like last year I knew I was going to be more of the third guard, now I know I’m going to have a role and I’m taking ownership of that role, I have a lot of confidence right now.”
Neither Wright or VanVleet has separated themselves through two exhibition games. It was Wright who got the minutes behind Lowry and he did well in the first game – 11 points on five shots with three assists in 28 minutes – although his four turnovers were a regret. But VanVleet was plus-7 in his 12 minutes of floor time.
In the Raptors’ second game, with Lowry sitting out, it was Wright who started but his impact was marginal with just six points in his 24 minutes. More significantly, the Raptors were badly outplayed in the first and third quarters with Wright logging minutes with the first unit, which in turn meant being harassed by the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley, which is never fun. Add in that Serge Ibaka and Miles combined to shoot 2-of-11 from three (Wright was 0-of-3), and it was hard for Wright to look good or puff up his box score.
That VanVleet was more effective – he got to the line seven times in 19 minutes, as one example – could have been because he was playing against the Clippers second unit and had his best moments after the game was well out of hand.
Those are questions that will get sorted out, presumably, through Toronto’s last three exhibition games and even in the early part of the regular season.
The Raptors have talked about using Wright and VanVleet together alongside Lowry in a smaller lineup which could ease the minutes crunch for both players, but barring that the competition to have a steady role behind and alongside Lowry is real and perhaps the most compelling battle to watch in between now and the Raptors’ Oct. 17 season opener.
Among those watching will be Lowry:
“I want both of them to be successful,” he said. “I believe both will be good. I want to help them as much as I can. Whatever that takes, whatever that means, I want to do it because I really respect those kids and I really like them and I think that they will be a big part of what we do and we’ll need them.”