Raptors coach Casey: Starting PF spot is Jared Sullinger’s to lose

Toronto Raptors' Jared Sullinger poses with a ball for a photo shoot during a media day for the team (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – It was a question asked at the beginning of camp last year and it came up again as we head into the 2016–17 season: Who will start at power forward for the Toronto Raptors?

Well, according to coach Dwane Casey, newcomer Jared Sullinger has the very-early inside track on the job.

“I’m not gonna commit to it, but right now today I’d say Jared Sullinger—it’s his to lose,” Casey said Monday during the Raptors’ media day.

Sullinger came to the Raptors in the off-season, signing a reported one-year, $6-million contract after having his qualifying offer renounced by the Boston Celtics. He’s a solid offensive contributor (both in the post and out on the perimeter) and a gifted rebounder (he led the Celtics last season in hauling down 8.3 boards per game). But there are concerns on the defensive end, particularly should he be paired with Raptors starting centre Jonas Valanciunas in the team’s frontcourt.

Casey addressed this issue.

“We’ll score offensively but our transition defence is gonna have to be on-point, and that’s gonna be the measuring stick of how well they [Sullinger and Valanciunas] play, not the offensive part,” Casey said. “We’ll figure out the offence but the defence in transition—[along with] pick-and-roll defence—is gonna be the measuring stick for those two playing together.”

Sullinger says he’s spent the summer working on his foot speed, but hedging out on the pick-and-roll and recovering back to the paint isn’t an instinctual skill of his. Which is unlike Patrick Patterson, the other man in the running for the starting power forward job.

Patterson has proven himself an invaluably versatile defender for coach Casey over his two and a half seasons with the Raptors and could make for a better balanced combination with Valanciunas. However, his fit with others on the second unit and the energy he provides coming off the bench has been a major part of the success the team has enjoyed.

As such, while Casey did say Sullinger is the starter for now, that can definitely change over the course of this week’s training-camp schedule.

“I’ve gotta see how [Sullinger] and Pat [look in camp] because Pat is such an important part of our team as far as what we do, how we play and he’s gonna be in there,” Casey said. “Pat’s gonna play starter minutes. I consider Pat the sixth starter for me, but for the balance of the minutes, the balance of the first unit, second unit, I would say Sullinger is the guy now…. But I reserve the right to change my mind.”

And while it appears the starter at power forward will come down to Sullinger or Patterson, there’s still lots of opportunity for some of the other bigs on the roster to get minutes at that spot with the departure of Bismack Biyombo in the off-season.

Like, for example, the two rookies Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam.

“I’ve been totally impressed by our young guys Poeltl and Siakam—two young guys that really impress me with their speed, athleticism, thinking the game,” says Casey. “They’ll give it to us a little bit by committee and in different ways. I don’t know if they’ll do it with the pizzazz that Biz did, but there’s other ways to skin a cat is the way I look at it, and those young guys have the ability and the potential to do that.”

The ninth- and 27th-overall picks in this past June’s draft, Poeltl and Siakam are particularly intriguing in the sense that Poeltl’s game is very similar to that of Valanciunas’s as a back-to-the-basket bruiser and Siakam is a shot-blocking, rim-running ball of energy very reminiscent of Biyombo.

Of the two rooks, Siakam is more likely to see time at power forward than Poeltl is, and he could also slot into the centre position, particularly if Casey opts to go to a small-ball lineup.

Last season, when the Raptors went small, they experimented with trying DeMarre Carroll and James Johnson at power forward. With Johnson now plying his trade for the Miami Heat, Carroll seems like the only wing left on the roster who could fill that role—but he’ll first need to get healthy.

Carroll underwent right knee surgery in January and he confirmed Monday that it still isn’t 100 percent. The Raptors will be monitoring his minutes to bring him along slowly, and given the physical toll playing out of position can take on the body it’s unlikely we see him banging in the post against power forwards for the time being.

Though they don’t look to have any potential all-stars at the position, the four spot is an area of relative depth for the Raptors, as evidenced by all the names that could fit into the role. This depth should lead to a relatively interesting battle for the starter spot as camp kicks off.

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