Raptors developing good habits for young core with new style of play

Toronto Raptors' President Masai Ujiri joined the Starting Lineup to talk about how the team is adapting to the changes on the court and that individual growth will lead to their goal of winning a championship.

Watch just a handful of possessions during any given Toronto Raptors game during this 2017-18 season and it doesn’t take long to notice how differently the team is operating on the offensive end.

It began with a mandate from team president Masai Ujiri following a crushing playoff exit at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers — the “culture reset” — and was echoed by head coach Dwane Casey and the team’s leaders throughout the summer leading up to the season. To reach their goals, the Raptors would have to change the way they played the game.

They’re making good on that vow 22 games into the season. As promised, Casey and the Raptors have made massive strides in modernizing their offence. Like the rest of the NBA, they’re moving away from a reliance on mid-range shots. Last season they ranked fifth in shots from 10 to 14 feet from the rim compared to 16th this year, and from 15 to 19 feet they’ve gone from nearly 12 attempts per game to just 6.3, the sixth-fewest of any team this season (all stats via NBA.com).

And of course, the three-point attempts are way up with the Raps going from 22nd to sixth in attempts per game to this point, with no sign of slowing down.

Apart from helping the team to a 15-7 record (not to mention making for a far more exciting watch) Ujiri, who appeared on the Sportsnet 590 The Fan’s Starting Lineup show Wednesday morning, spoke about the impact that the Raps’ new approach could have when it comes to developing habits of the team’s long list of impressive prospects.

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The mid-range shot still has its place in the game, but by now it’s practically become gospel that a team and its players are better off working to either get higher-percentage shots at the rim, or more valuable shots from beyond the arc. And the Raptors’ young players have been putting adage this into practice. Rookie OG Anunoby, for example, has attempted just four mid-range shots the entire season, instead turning himself into a bona fide threat from three-point land.

But for Ujiri, the three-point line isn’t where he’s tracking his players’ growth.

“Everybody talks about the three-ball,” Ujiri said, “but it’s more a concentration on moving the ball and man movement. We all know when the playoffs come the game slows down and you have to have other options — a plan B, plan C. We had to change it up. We had tried stuff for a few years, and we had some limited success. But especially with the young guys coming, with habits and how you want them to grow, this is the way to go.”

Tuesday’s win over the Phoenix Suns affirmed that this, too, is working for the Raptors. Kyle Lowry led the way with 10 assists, while DeMar DeRozan — averaging a career-high in assists this season — added eight of his own, and Fred VanVleet dished out six off the bench.

On the whole, the Raptors are averaging 23.6 assists per game, which ranks fifth in the NBA. Last season they were infamously dead last in that category. What’s more, the team has been successful in moving the ball while the players are far more active on any given offensive possession. In short, there are far fewer plays in which a player (like DeRozan) dribbles out the shot clock trying to create a shot for himself. The Raps are seventh in the league in field-goal attempts in which the shooter had the ball in his hand for two seconds or less.

These are all positive signs for what the team hopes to accomplish. But just because it’s working so far, Ujiri remains wary of his team getting too comfortable, a problem he identified when first clarifying what, exactly, a “culture reset” entailed.

“One of the things when I said ‘culture reset’ was complacency. We can’t be complacent. We’re not good enough. We’ve not done anything to be complacent. We haven’t achieved anything. The goal is a championship and to build towards that. Not to make the playoffs, or be at the top of the East. Last year there was a level of complacency — from all of us … We have overcome that, and need to go out and challenge and compete.”

There’s still a lot of ball to be played, he warned, adding that the 2017-18 Raps still are “not anywhere close … [but] in terms of progress hopefully, slowly, we continue to build as a team and individually as players.”

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