How Raptors’ Baynes could push VanVleet’s game to new heights

Fred VanVleet talks about how the Toronto Raptors will need to follow COVID-19 protocols because it can impact the entire team.

The Toronto Raptors aren't a contender right now.

NBA championships are most often achieved by teams housing league-sculpting superstars, and Toronto's roster has none — a pair of truths club architect Masai Ujiri appears to know, given his off-season maneuvering to preserve fiscal flexibility for next summer. The lone long-term move Ujiri made was re-signing Fred VanVleet, who, despite all his strengths, is still far from a finished product.

For the parts of his game that are indisputably potent (forcing deflections, digging on defence, shooting off the catch, roaming and relocating off-ball, etc.), there are just as many elements that require significant improvement (pull-up shooting, floaters, running the pick-and-roll, etc.).

But out of all the skills that could add an immediate upswing to VanVleet’s game, refining his ability to finish at the rim might just be the most notable, if not obvious.

Last season, VanVleet took a massive 30.7 per cent of his shot attempts from within 0–3 feet of the basket, where he finished at a mere 54.9-per cent clip. Per Cleaning the Glass, he ranked in the 18th percentile amongst all guards in the league at finishing at the rim.

Despite this, he attacked the hoop far more than any other Raptors teammate, averaging 14.3 drives per game (Pascal Siakam was second with 10) in 2019–20. Out of those drives, he shot a putrid 37.1 per cent, worse than every other rotation player who took a meaningful amount of drives aside from Patrick McCaw (37 per cent).

Enter, Aron Baynes.

Brought in to replace Marc Gasol as the team’s starting centre, Baynes rounds out as a minor downgrade. He isn’t the playmaker the former is, though he can make the essential passes; he isn’t the defensive anchor, though he is physical and a hustler; he’s not the threat to damage opposing defences from anywhere on the floor, though he can drain threes at a respectable rate.

A specific area where Baynes does a superior job superseding both Gasol and Serge Ibaka, however, is in clearing space right at the rim.

While the former Raptors centres created space in the half-court due to their sheer ability to stretch the floor, Baynes (who only developed a dangerous three-point shot this past season) is adept at using his bulk and strength to force-generate clearings, particularly for pick-and-roll initiators (something that VanVleet projects to be more of going forward).

Here, Devin Booker runs a high pick-and-roll at the top of the arc. Baynes slips down into the paint, and Al Horford follows in order to cut off a pass that would lead to an easy two. Booker then takes Ben Simmons off the dribble, meandering his way inside, where the battling duo of Horford and Baynes could make things clogged and difficult to finish.

Instead, with Simmons on Booker’s left side, Baynes turns and seals Horford out of the play and, in effect, removes Simmons from it, too, who would have merely run into his teammate or Baynes had he kept going.

By the time Booker nears the restricted area, he’s got all the space in the world to finish.

In his lone year with the Phoenix Suns last season, Baynes played with veteran guard Ricky Rubio, a notoriously poor finisher at the rim. Rubio has shot 50.3 per cent from within 0–3 feet of the basket for his career — even worse than (but comparable to) VanVleet’s 53.8 per cent.

Per (keeping in mind here that Baynes missed 31 games to injury last season), in the 1,392 minutes Rubio played without Baynes on the floor, he made a measly 49.3 per cent of his attempts at the rim. In the 625 minutes with Baynes, however, that percentage skyrocketed to 60.8 per cent.

There’s reason to believe, then, that Baynes’ presence can similarly help VanVleet — a younger, savvier scorer than Rubio.

In fact, VanVleet’s finishing game was similarly bolstered by the presence of Ibaka on the floor last season (not so much with Gasol), as he shot 48.5 per cent at the rim in the 1,113 minutes he played without the veteran big man and 56.6 per cent in the 815 minutes he played with him.

But the advantage Ibaka helped create for VanVleet was a product of his ability to not only stretch to the arc, but also his shooting gravity in the midrange.

Here, Ibaka screens for VanVleet at the perimeter, forcing the switch. The latter hits Nicolo Melli with a hesitation, then blows past him to accelerate directly to the rim for the simple finish.

At the same time, Josh Hart remains glued to Ibaka, wary of his lethality as both a roller and pick-and-pop sniper. By the time Hart reverses far enough back into the paint, he’s too late to make a useful contest.

Baynes’ approach to clearing space is much more purposeful — rather than passively relying on his shooting touch to keep defenders nearby at all times, he actively looks to use himself as a barricade to open up lanes that were previously nonexistent, with a distinct focus on the area beneath the basket.

This isn’t to say that Baynes’ relatively newfound touch from distance won’t be useful to fabricate space, too, of course. Any centre who can pragmatically launch from three and make defences sweat is idyllic in the modern NBA, and Baynes’ 2019–20 numbers ranked right up there with the best of them.

He was ninth in the league in catch-and-shoot three-pointers attempted (3.9) amongst centres last season, three spots ahead of Gasol (3.2) in about four fewer minutes of playtime. His 35-per cent rate on those looks had him in the same ballpark as the likes of Horford (36 per cent on 4.0 attempts) and Myles Turner (37.1 per cent on 3.8 attempts).

It remains impossible to know, for now, just how impactful Baynes’ overall on-court arrival will be, and even when considering him as a specific pairing for VanVleet, questions remain: Will he be durable enough in this role to stay on the floor? Will the rotation allow him to work with VanVleet a significant amount of the time?

Yet, at the very least, when one zooms in on the minutiae of what Baynes provides, there are certainly reasons to be optimistic, and reasons to believe he can realistically help a player like VanVleet along in his development, acting, in some small way, as a component in the Raptors’ hopeful path back to contention.

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