Raptors pre-season observations: Barnes, Anunoby impress

Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes (4) reacts after a slam dunk past Philadelphia 76ers guard Shake Milton (18) during second half NBA pre-season basketball action in Toronto on Monday, October 4, 2021. (Nathan Denette/CP)

The Toronto Raptors have concluded step one of what promises to be an intriguing season as they reconnect with their home market following a 20-month interruption, a period in which the club transitioned from a defending NBA champion to the draft lottery.

With their win on Tuesday night in Washington, the Raptors improved to 3-2 in pretend games.

They open their regular season on Oct. 20 at Scotiabank Arena, hosting the new-look Wizards this time around.

While pre-season games are hardly a reliable predictor of future performance, that’s no reason to ignore them. Here are five things we know now — or at least have a better idea about — than we did before.

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1. Scottie Barnes is pretty darn good and is well on his way to being very, very good. This is hardly news-breaking given Barnes was the fourth overall pick, but seeing how he can consistently impact games at this stage — albeit in pre-season competition — has been eye-opening to say the least.

He had some good moments in Summer League, but he also was shaky in other areas, his shot-making and ability to attack effectively off the dribble looking like obvious areas for growth. But just two months later, Barnes is looking much improved, or maybe he’s benefiting from playing with more structure and better and smarter players.

Either way, there is plenty to be excited about, beyond that he’s a ‘fun guy’ and willing hugger. In five games, Barnes’ per/36 line is a very impressive 13.4 points, 7.7 assists, 6.8 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.6 steals. He’s shot a respectable 47 per cent from the floor and an encouraging 71.4 per cent from the line. Again, it’s pre-season, but he leads all rookies in FIC — ‘floor impact creator’ — an all-in-one stat that is meant to capture overall contributions.

His 53.6 mark far eclipses fifth pick Jalen Suggs’ 10.4 mark, for example. That he does it while averaging just 2.5 turnovers per/36 is perhaps most impressive, and defensively he’s already a factor with his length, movement, hustle and instincts. Meanwhile, when he has the ball he looks patient, poised, and strong against the NBA competition he’s faced so far.

At age 20, that’s no small thing. We probably won’t see glimpses of Barnes’ ceiling until he makes strides as a shooter, but if this is his floor the Raptors made a great pick.

2. OG Anunoby is a better player than he was last season. It’s not like the fifth-year wing lacked the ability to take his man 1-on-1 or work for his own shot in mid-range areas a season ago. This has been an evolution of his game that probably become most evident after the league took its hiatus for the pandemic.

Anunoby showed a new level in offensive confidence in the bubble and hit another level late last season when his usage rate spiked after Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry began missing time. But he seems to be far more adept at leveraging all his skills than he was previously.

He can use his size and strength to to take and make the kind of difficult shots that are needed in late-clock situations, late game situations and in the post-season. He is evidently a borderline elite three-point shooter – he’s shot 39 per cent from deep the past two seasons on a good volume of attempts.

But now he’s giving signs of leaping over that border: 27.6 points (per 36) on 52/54/92 shooting splits in four pre-season games might just be a guy on a roll against lesser competition, or it might be a 24-year-old turning into one of the most complete two-way players in the game.

3. The Raptors may have addressed one of their greatest weaknesses. So often last season, Toronto would have good defensive possessions derailed by poor rebounding. They ranked 27th with a defensive-rebound rate of 76.6, which isn’t automatically the end of the world — they were 20th in 2019-20 when they were on pace to win 60 games and 15th when they won it all in 2018-19.

But when the margin for error gets smaller — such as with a young team with multiple new faces – a good way to improve is to snatch the low-hanging fruit. Through five exhibition games, the Raptors rank 19th in defensive rebound rate, which is even more encouraging given they have been without Chris Boucher and Siakam — perhaps their two best returning rebounders — and had Khem Birch for only the last two games.

It looks like having a lot of long, mobile, athletic guys can help off-set having a single bruiser under your own rim. As a bonus, the Raptors look like they will be much more active on the offensive glass: they are fourth in offensive rebounding percentage in pre-season play after being 24th the past two seasons under head coach Nick Nurse.

4. The Raptors remain committed to being a deadly team in transition. It’s been an area of strength the past two seasons (Toronto has ranked first and second in percentage of points scored off turnovers the last two seasons, respectively) and looks like it will be again.

Sure, it may be an acknowledgement that the Raptors are worried about their ability to score in the half court, but Toronto certainly wants to be able to score otherwise, just in case.

In exhibition play, the Raptors are second in percentage of points scored off turnovers; third in creating turnovers; fourth in steals and fifth in fast-break scoring. Given their roster. it’s hard to see those rankings as a blip.

5. One thing we don’t yet have a clear view on is what the Raptors rotation will look like. There are several reasons for that, among them that Siakam and Chris Boucher have been out with injuries and will miss the beginning of the year.

For now we know Fred VanVleet and Anunoby will start and play heavy minutes, that seems certain. And second-year big man Precious Achiuwa has earned a starting spot based on an excellent summer league and even better pre-season, even with Birch healthy again. Nurse has indicated they’ll play in something approaching a platoon.

Taking Barnes out the starting lineup will be difficult given how well he’s played, but that might be revisited when Siakam returns in four-to-six weeks as he recovers from shoulder surgery.

But after that, it’s a bit cloudier.

Will Goran Dragic or Gary Trent Jr. start alongside VanVleet, or will Nurse opt to have Dragic steady the second unit? Maybe Trent Jr. joins him to provide more punch and shooting. Once they get Boucher and Siakam back, will Nurse opt for a ‘bench mob’ approach, where five or six players get used to playing a steady 20 minutes or so as a unit, or will we see more blended lineups with Dragic and VanVleet generally on the floor at all times? Where will Yuta Watanabe — who looked outstanding before he strained his calf — fit in? Or how about Malachi Flynn? We will ever see a super-sized line-up featuring some version of Siakam, Boucher, Anunoby, Achiuwa and Barnes?

One can dream.

The Raptors predictably waived Freddie Gillespie and Reggie Perry on Wednesday and will now be deciding between Sam Dekker, Ishmail Wainright and Isaac Bonga for the last two remaining roster spots.

The season begins in a week and some trends are emerging, but there still is plenty to be revealed.

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