Raptors roundtable: With Lowry gone, who's the most important player?

Sportsnet's Arash Madani takes a look at the Raptors finally playing their first home game in Toronto since February 28th, 2020 and how a new era with the franchise is set to begin after the departure of Kyle Lowry.

After a down season that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, the Toronto Raptors are entering the 2021-22 campaign a much different looking squad than before.

Some of the core players from their 2019 title still remain, but for all extents and purposes, the team this season is brand new, and Wednesday night’s game will represent the dawning of a new era of Raptors basketball.

So, with Toronto’s season about to kick off, Sportsnet has assembled a group of its basketball experts to answer five big questions about the team.

Without Pascal Siakam to begin the season, who do you think will emerge as the Raptors' top offensive option?

Donnovan Bennett, staff writer and digital host: OG Anunoby.

The real answer is whoever has the matchup, as I think the strength of this team is any one of seven or eight players could lead them in scoring on any given night. However, Anunoby has the best ability to get his own shot in the flow of the offence.

Don’t be surprised when he takes and makes a step-back three. Expanding his offensive bag has been a work in progress that is steadily coming to fruition.

Michael Grange, senior basketball insider: He would appreciate the brevity here: OG Anunoby.

William Lou, Raptors Show host on Sportsnet 590 The FAN: It depends how you define top offensive option. If it means the player who will control the most possessions, that will be Fred VanVleet. If it’s the player who takes the most difficult shots, then it’s likely OG Anunoby.

Steven Loung, NBA section editor: The ball will be in Fred VanVleet’s hands the most and OG Anunoby will likely get the most “go-to guy” opportunity, but while Siakam is out, the Raptors will like try to use their offensive scheme to generate scoring chances for themselves meaning there could be many players who take the mantle on a night-to-night basis with a player like Gary Trent Jr., in particular, who could get a big chance to prove himself worthy of the big contract he signed with Toronto in the off-season.

Blake Murphy, co-host of the FAN Morning Show on Sportsnet 590 The FAN: Fred VanVleet.

I know Fred claimed OG Anunoby is their No. 1 option, and I’m excited to see Anunoby’s offensive usage grow. Still, even in a usage-heavy pre-season by his standards, Anunoby only used 23.8 per cent of the Raptors’ possessions. That’s less than VanVleet’s offensive share last season, and that’s before accounting for the likelihood that VanVleet will also be the team’s leader (or co-leader) in assists.

Anunoby’s jump is the most important piece for this Raptors team, VanVleet will just have the largest share of the offence.

Eric Smith, Raptors play-by-play announcer on Sportsnet 590 The FAN: OG Anunoby.

However, I don't know that he'll be “the man” every night. I don't know that the team will necessarily look to him all the time. The offence is free-flowing and unselfish and is very much “by committee.” Toronto has many scoring options; enough that it may not need a go-to guy each and every night.

Scottie Barnes has impressed during the pre-season, what are reasonable expectations to have of him in his rookie season?

Bennett: Barnes will flirt with a triple-double every night if his usage rate is high enough. Right around the time he’d generally hit a rookie wall, Pascal Siakam will return from injury and ease the offensive playmaking burden and take away some of his minutes.

If Barnes isn’t one of the most purchased Raptors jerseys this season, then something went terribly wrong.

Grange: It looks like he’s going to be the rare 20-year-old who impacts the game in ways beyond scoring.

His ability to make plays in transition and as a distributor in the half-court along with his on-ball potential on defence make him a lock for plenty of playing time, an all-rookie selection, and a very good chance at Rookie of the Year.

Lou: Barnes should play no less than 25 minutes per game, make at least a dozen starts, and be one of the top defenders in the league.

The scoring will be modest until he masters the three-pointer, but expect to see Barnes fill the stat sheet in every other category. Something like 10 points, five rebounds, five assists, a steal and a block on 50 per cent shooting would be the ballpark for his production.

Loung: He still has a ways to go as a legitimate scoring threat in the NBA – particularly as an outside shooter – but if you ignore the parts of basketball that sees a player putting the ball through the hoop then you can see why the Raptors seem so excited about Barnes and why they took him No. 4 overall.

He already looks like a legitimate NBA defender, he has innate playmaking skills, can make passes with both hands, has a decent handle for a man of his size and is veritable bundle of energy looks like it rubs off his teammates very positively.

If he can keep all that up then his rookie season will be considered a success.

Murphy: “People are no longer mad.”

In seriousness, Barnes is going to be a lot of fun, and he’s going to be empowered to do a lot of things that make you sit up, take notice, and dream on what the package looks like when things start to come together for him.

With that is going to come some frustration as he learns on the fly. Development isn’t linear, and Barnes’ scoring package, in particular, is going to take some time. The bar I’ll be measuring Barnes by is whether you’re comfortable with him on the court late in games by the playoffs, and not comfortable in a “he needs the reps!” sense but a genuine, “you can’t not have one of your five best players on the court” sense.

Smith: I think the sky's the limit. He'll play a ton while Siakam is out and will still play a prominent role once the team is healthy, too. I’m not worried about his scoring numbers. I want to see him rebound, defend, move the ball on the break, etc. He's a special player and I don't think it would be unrealistic to think that he should make some noise (among a group of 3-5 guys) for Rookie of the Year.

The Raptors have a lot of new faces. Who among them do you think will have the greatest impact on the team this season?

Bennett: Barnes is the easy answer long term, but don’t sleep on Precious Achiuwa. Achiuwa didn’t have the pathway to reach his potential in Miami playing behind Adebayo. In Toronto he’ll play a large role and given the license to expand his game on the offensive end.

Grange: After Barnes, it looks like Precious Achiuwa has a chance to break out in a system and role that will suit him better than the screen-and-roll box he was in during limited minutes in Miami. His motor and athleticism, along with the pace the Raptors want to play at could make him a double-double guy.

Lou: Barnes. He is the most important player for the Raptors’ future.

Nurse vowed at Media Day to give him as many reps as he can handle, and we should hold him to that. Barnes does all the little things that affect winning, whether that’s bringing a high level of intensity to every single practice and game, to his playmaking and defending.

Loung: Obviously Barnes and Achiuwa are names that instantly come to mind, but I think the most impactful newcomer will be Goran Dragic for two reasons.

For one, as a veteran presence on a team full of youngsters, he’ll be invaluable to help the Raptors find their feet in the early goings, plus as an older point guard, the wisdom and advice he’s dropping on players like Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton will have a long-lasting impact.

And secondly, it’s no secret that Dragic is on an expiring deal and at age 35 he likely still wants another shot at a championship this season. Therefore, he could be a major asset that the Raptors use at the trade deadline this season, meaning Dragic’s tenure with Toronto could be a catalyst that we look back on a few years from now as a major trigger to a greater move the Raptors made.

Murphy: I’m tempted to say Svi Mykhailiuk after a strong pre-season (and finding out he shot 90-of-100 on a corner three-point shooting drill).

With Mykhailiuk on a one-and-one deal, though, the more notable new face is Precious Achiuwa. The Raptors are going to let Achiuwa expand his game and see where that takes him. Pushing in transition, taking jumpers off the dribble, switching on to ball-handlers far from the rim, it’s all on the table for him. If Achiuwa can establish himself as a starting-calibre centre within this system, that really helps a lot of other rotation pieces line up.

Smith: Precious Achiuwa. Defensively, he provides much of what the Raptors were missing last season. Offensively, he'll have more of a role – more freedom – than he did in Miami. I expect him to play heavy minutes and, thus, have a big impact on the Raptors.

With Kyle Lowry no longer around, who do you think is the most important player on the team now?

Bennett: Pascal Siakam. He’s their highest paid player. He’s their only all-star. He’s been the third best player on a championship team in impressive fashion. The team’s future depends on the assessment of if he can be the best player on a championship team one day. That answer will dictate what the roster-building scenarios become moving forward.

Grange: Pascal Siakam.

There’s a lot of upside on the roster and Anunoby looks ready to break out and Fred VanVleet will get a chance to shine as the clear leader of this young team, but if Siakam can come back and play at an all-NBA or all-star level, the ceiling for this team will rise. If he can’t regain that level he becomes a limiting factor and could find himself in the midst of trade rumours again.

Lou: VanVleet steps seamlessly into Lowry’s shoes as the leader for this team. The Raptors need his shooting, his passing, his steady ball-handling, and his fearlessness when things get tough. If he misses any extended time, the Raptors will struggle mightily.

Loung: While Fred VanVleet is almost assuredly the emotional leader of the team, I think the most important player on the team has to be Pascal Siakam.

He’s the team’s all-star, he’s making the most money and, as comments he made before the season started alluded to, it looks like he wants to be “the man.”

Now all he has to do is go out take that mantle for himself.

Murphy: VanVleet. I explained a bit earlier, but he has a combination of a high-usage scoring role, the most steady pair of hands to create for others, a monster defensive impact, and the primary leadership reins on and off the court.

Pascal Siakam is the team’s “star,” if you had to name one, Anunoby their most notable potential leap, and Barnes their biggest determinant of long-term ceiling. If they want to win games this year, though, there’s a lot on VanVleet’s shoulders.

Smith: Fred VanVleet. Leader, scorer, facilitator, defender, coach, mentor and so much more. He’s the heart and soul of the new-age Raptors.

The Raptors appear to be a team that's trying to thread the needle of simultaneously re-tooling while also keeping a competitive window open. How effectively do you believe they can navigate this?

Bennett: Effective as in they’ll be an exciting, intriguing team that Canada will cheer for, but not effective enough to challenge for a ring.

They are very young which means growing pains and on-the-job training. The institutional knowledge from their 2019 team is almost completely gone. However, people are so happy they’re back in Toronto this honeymoon period will allow them to develop and not chase wins due to public scrutiny.

Grange: If Barnes turns into a future star and Anunoby takes a giant leap forward offensively and Siakam can find his missing three-point stroke, they will be able to navigate it pretty effectively.

If not enough of those things happen, their best strategy will be angling for another lottery pick. Once you’re on the mid-pack treadmill in the NBA, you’re more likely to fall back than rise.

Lou: We shall see.

History says the Raptors have done it successfully over the past decade, but that was also under different circumstances with Lowry as the ultimately floor-raiser.

The Raptors have just enough talent to be competitive, especially with how strong they project to be defensively, but they need a clean bill of health for their main players. As for re-tooling, the Raptors have already done a very good job of stockpiling talent over the last year.

Loung: It’s going to be tough for the Raptors to win while continuing to develop this season.

Yes, they’ve done it in the past, but that’s mainly because they had Kyle Lowry who is capable of raising the floor of just about anyone he plays with. Without Lowry anymore, though, there could be some bumps along the road as the Raptors try to navigate this path they’ve taken.

The result will likely end in a team that’s very competitive and fun to watch, but whose ceiling probably isn’t much higher than a play-in tournament appearance this season.

Murphy: I’ve tended to be an optimist when it comes to developing while winning. The Raptors are the model for just that.

It’s, perhaps, an easier thing to accomplish with a star-calibre driver of performance like Lowry, who raised the floor around him so significantly. I don’t doubt the Raptors can be a .500-ish team while developing, thereby improving their outlook for future seasons.

My bigger question is whether the front office has the appetite for a methodical ramp-up like that as Siakam and VanVleet enter their peak phases, or if they’ve maintained their pivot foot here.

Smith: I think there's every reason to think Toronto could be a playoff team. I think they could lock down a seed on its own, but the creation of the play-in tournament certainly puts the Raptors into the post-season mix even more. I don’t see them as a bottom-five team in the East. So I expect them to be in the playoff mix and looking to prove people wrong all season long.

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