Raptors could need more offence from Marc Gasol with Leonard gone

Toronto Raptors head coach discusses his takeaways from their trip to Tokyo, was impressed with some of the young players trying to make the team's rotation.

It was a long way to go for two exhibition games but the Toronto Raptors didn’t waste their time in Tokyo, Japan. There were plenty of encouraging signs in their win over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday and even in their 118-111 loss Thursday morning. Toronto returns from Tokyo Friday and play their only home exhibition game on Sunday against Chicago at Scotiabank Arena.

Some takeaways from Thursday’s loss:

1. New look for Marc Gasol:
In his brief career as a Toronto Raptor, the versatile Spanish big man has been a role player, a guy who was just trying to fit in on a team he joined in February and was already established.

He took just enough shots to remind defences he could shoot, brought his expert brand of defence and passed the ball – probably too much. He averaged only nine points a game in Toronto, but before being traded by Memphis he was averaging 16 points and nine rebounds a game in 34 minutes. He’s only two seasons removed from averaging 19.5 points a game, shooting 39 per cent from three and being a Western Conference all-star.

Can Gasol be more of an offensive factor for the Kawhi-less Raptors?

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It’s probably too early to tell given his 18 minutes off the bench was his first action since leading Spain to a gold medal at the World Cup in China just a month ago, but he did put up four shots and he did get to the line six times. You know he’s going to screen, pass and always seem to get in the way defensively.

You could make the case that the Raptors’ hopes of claiming a home seed in the first round of the playoffs will rest on Gasol getting up 12 shots a game this season. Something to watch.

2. Fred VanVleet can play:
You may have seen the clip. A diminutive Japanese reporter asking Fred VanVleet what advice the diminutive Toronto Raptors point guard had for other aspiring players hampered by their size. Pascal Siakam laughed and laughed.

VanVleet took the question seriously. “I mean there is a million different things you can do, obviously at the NBA level you gotta be able to shoot threes, so work on your shooting,” said VanVleet, who has shot 39.4 per cent from deep for his career.

“[But] just be fearless. It doesn’t matter. If you’re good enough, you’ll find a way. You’ll have an opportunity; height doesn’t always mean everything.”

I’m as guilty of underestimating VanVleet as anyone. I never thought he’d make the roster as a rookie and even in his second year thought his struggles to finish in the lane would do him in. Even now I wonder if he’ll be able to thrive as an NBA starter. It seems like he has to play too close to edge to last long enough physically. But I’m happy to be wrong.

I’m not sure VanVleet will start regularly this season – I still see Nick Nurse going with Norm Powell at the two-guard spot and bringing VanVleet in for heavy minutes at both guard spots off the bench. But with Kyle Lowry still out, VanVleet is making his case. He had 10 points and 10 assists and was a team-best plus-seven in 22 minutes of action. Scrub a couple of careless passes and it was a near perfect game, even if he was just 2-of-7 from the floor.

The Raptors’ best moments came after half time when VanVleet made a steal on one end, pushed to find Siakam open for three and then pushed again to find Siakam, who found Powell. Poor Ben McLemore is still wondering what happened after VanVleet stripped him at centre in the second quarter to turn defence into offence again. Hard to argue with Kevin Durant when he said in a recent radio interview: “VanVleet is stamped to me. He’s a dog in the league and he’s going to be in the league for a long, long time … however long he wanna play he’s going to be in the league. And as an undrafted player, a lot of young guys should be looking at Fred VanVleet as an inspiration.”

3. Can Stanley Johnson play?
The Toronto Raptors won an NBA title without a single lottery pick on their roster, the first team in league history to pull off that feat. Safe to say if there is one organization that isn’t about to be impressed by draft pedigree, it’s the Raptors.

By that standard Johnson may be fighting an uphill battle to carve out a roll with his new team. He was drafted No. 8 by the Detroit Pistons in 2015 at just 19 years old. He looks the part of an NBA lottery pick – six-foot-five, lean and powerful. Everything about him screams elite. But Johnson was traded by the Pistons and the rebuilding New Orleans Pelicans didn’t want to make him a qualifying offer for $5.3 million after they had him for a third of a season – not a great sign.

In the intra-squad game in Quebec City last week and the first exhibition game against the Rockets – three turnovers in seven minutes — Johnson gave little indication why the Raptors saw it worthwhile to invest a two-year deal worth $7.5-million in a player who shoots 29 per cent from three for his career and hasn’t shown great offensive feel in general.

On Thursday, he had some good moments defensively on both Russell Westbrook and James Harden – he gets low, has active hands and moves really well laterally. He’s hard to blow by and strong enough to bump ball-handlers off their line without fouling. But offensively he looks beyond lost. The Rockets left him alone in the corner whenever he was on the floor, meaning the Raptors played 4-on-5 a lot. He passes up open threes and drives tentatively into the defence, mostly in a straight line. Presumably the Raptors saw something in him when they signed him but he has yet to show it as his three fouls and a turnover in nine minutes would attest.

4. Norm Powell heating up:
I’ve always been a Powell want-to-believer.

It only seems right that someone who’s so serious about their craft can have success at it. Powell – as any Raptors fan knows – has had some. He deserves his place in Raptors lore if only for his playoff moments. Three times he’s changed the tone of a series – as a rookie against Indiana; in his second year against Milwaukee and last year against Milwaukee again.

But heading into year five with a ring on his finger and an open spot in the starting lineup where Danny Green used to be, now is the time for Powell to deliver on a consistent basis. What he showed against the Rockets on Thursday was pretty much the total package. He’s looked comfortable shooting the three (5-of-7); made good decisions creating offence for others and was active and aggressive defensively and in the open court.

You can’t expect 22 points on 11 shots every night, but it’s not an anomaly. The key is eliminating the games where he’s lost and confused, or at least minimizing them. You can’t under-estimate the loss of Green, but it’s not outrageous to think with some passable three-point shooting and sound defence, Powell’s ability to push the ball, slash and score makes the Raptors a more dynamic team than they were with Green on the floor.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

5. Will Anthony Bennett ever play?
In a perfect world, the Houston Rockets’ pre-season would be the stage for one of the NBA’s potentially feel-good comebacks. Former No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett was with the team in Houston before camp opened and was thought to have a real chance of cracking the roster. It was believed Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni would see Bennett as the kind of piece he’s had a history of making good use of in his career.

After cycling through four different NBA teams and a quick stint in Europe, Bennett has worked hard at recreating himself as deep-shooting, small-ball five with the kind of length and hops that helped him be taken at No. 1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2013.

Over his past three seasons – played almost exclusively in the G-League — Bennett has made himself into a modern big. He has shot 43 per cent from three on nearly six attempts a game while grabbing eight rebounds per 36 minutes and 1.5 steals. His longtime agent, Mike George, was telling Bennett that the Rockets were his chance to change rewrite his story. But his knee began acting up and eventually required minor surgery this past Monday and Houston waived him on Wednesday.

The LA Clippers have Bennett’s G-League rights, so there’s a reasonable chance he’ll surface there eventually. This is not a tragedy – Bennett has earned $16-million playing basketball. But it seems impossible that someone with his athleticism and skill can’t find a role in the NBA. He’s still 26. There’s still time, but it wasn’t with the Rockets. Not now.

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