Raptors rotation quickly coming into focus

Matt Devlin and Leo Rautins break down the Raptors preseason loss to the Nuggets, where JV looked like a beast on both ends and Terrence Ross had his 2nd consecutive great game.

After a week of training camp and two days spreading the good word of the NBA and basketball in Vancouver and Calgary, Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey will be looking to his team’s remaining five exhibition games to really dig in and figure out the 15 players he wants when the season tips off on Oct. 26 against the Detroit Pistons.

As it stands, of the 20 players on the roster right now there are nine locks for opening night, two rookies under contract who have a good shot at the rotation and nine more who will bounce between the Raptors 905 and the big club or won’t be with the Raptors in any capacity unless they make the team.

Here’s a little bit on each of these three tiers from what we’ve seen in pre-season so far.

THE ROSTER LOCKS
Who? Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Sullinger, Jonas Valanciunas, Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross, Cory Joseph, Norman Powell

The Skinny: No surprises here. The core from last season will all be trying to make a run at it again with a couple of new wrinkles.

Sullinger is the big new addition for the Raptors this season. According to Casey, he’s the frontrunner to start at power forward for the club this season and although he won’t offer the same level of defensive intimidation Bismack Biyombo brought to the club, his rebounding acumen and expanded offensive game is a promising sign.

The other new addition to the regulars is Powell, which also comes as little surprise. The second-year man out of UCLA more than proved himself to Casey and Raptors fans with his fabulous play during last spring’s post-season run. Seeing as the only way he knows how to play is that hard-nosed, gritty style that’s endeared him to just about everyone, there’s no way he’s going back to the D-League.

As for the rest, the all-star backcourt duo of Lowry and DeRozan haven’t been the sharpest, but it’s pre-season and they both looked good at the Rio Olympics so there shouldn’t be any concern there. Ross has been on fire, but until he proves he can string together multiple strong outings consecutively in the regular season what we’re seeing now remains all a moot point.

Finally, Carroll was great in Vancouver where he put up 14 points on six-of-nine shooting with four steals in 19 minutes. His knee still hasn’t recovered and the Raptors are going to continue to monitor his minutes and bring him along slowly, but it’s encouraging nonetheless that he looked to be moving fine on both ends of the floor and was engaged offensively.

THE ROOKIES
Who? Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam

The Skinny: The ninth- and 27th-overall picks of the 2016 draft both have a lot to prove, but they appear to be on the right track to cracking a rotation spot with the Raptors.

The departures of Biyombo and James Johnson leave holes that need to be filled in Toronto’s frontcourt depth chart. Poeltl and Siakam are likely the guys to do that.

Though neither have the kind of ball skills Johnson had in his ability to play the wing, the role he played as a type of No. 4 power forward could seemingly be filled by Siakam who may be a little undersized for centre.

At the five, Poeltl looks to be a natural fit as a backup to Valanciunas. Both play similar back-to-the-basket styles so that means Casey can still run the same things he would with Poeltl on the floor as he would with Valanciunas.

Should Casey want that change of pace that Biyombo offered, however, Siakam is the guy. He plays a very similar rim-running, shot-blocking, all-energy game Biyombo does and while he might be a tad too small to play the five proper, so was Biyombo and that worked out pretty well for the Raptors last season.

So far Poeltl has come up with 14 points and 11 rebounds on six-for-10 shooting combined in the two exhibition games, while Siakam has tallied nine points, 13 rebounds and three blocks, going four-for-13 from the floor.

THE OTHER GUYS
Who? Bruno Caboclo, Lucas Nogueira, Delon Wright, Brady Heslip, Fred VanVleet, Drew Crawford, Yanick Moreira, E.J. Singler, Jarrod Uthoff

The Skinny: This is where things get interesting.

If our calculations are correct and there’s 11 pretty-much-guaranteed roster spots locked down, what do you do with the remaining four up for grabs? Better yet, who do you go with for what’s actually the one remaining?

Why just one? Caboclo, Nogueira and Wright all have guaranteed contracts, meaning they will be with the Raptors even if it means they won’t be dressed and inactive for many of the team’s games.

Thus, the hardest decision Casey, general manager Jeff Weltman and president Masai Ujiri will have to make will be the 15th roster spot.

In the case of fringe forwards Crawford, Moreira, Uthoff and summer-league favourite Singler, it’s an uphill battle and a shot with the 905 is more probable – although, Crawford has been getting quite a bit of burn and has looked good in his floor time.

For guards VanVleet and Heslip, however, it’s an entirely different story.

Wright injured his shoulder in Summer League and isn’t expected to be back until about December. The injury’s a real shame as Wright could have vied for the vacant third point guard position on the team. With his injury, though, that vacant spot is now open game for one of the two guards on the bubble.

In the two exhibition games played, VanVleet has wasted no time trying to impress. Though his numbers may be modest (11 points, four assists on five-for-eight shooting in 26 minutes combined), VanVleet has looked poised and comfortable running the offence and directing traffic.

Comparing him and Heslip is a little unfair at the moment as Heslip hasn’t even gotten into a game yet, but seeing as he’s something of a Canadian attraction and couldn’t find floor time in contests held in Canadian cities might be all the evidence we need to understand where the Raptors are going with this decision.

Heslip is a remarkable shooter — like, Stephen Curry-level good just as a pure shooter — but being a six-foot-two shooter trying to convert into more of a lead guard with below-NBA average foot speed and ball-handling ability makes it tough to go with him over a guy in VanVleet who just spent the last four years running an efficient Wichita State attack.

He may not be the kind of sharpshooter Heslip is — again, not many are — but VanVleet is the more logical choice between the two given the role that needs to be filled.

As a Burlington, Ont., native, Heslip is still an intriguing guy to have within the organization. He’ll just likely have to work on those skills he’s still lacking in Mississauga with the 905.

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