It’s almost surprising how little success it takes for a team to be assembled through the draft.
Not to understate the work that the people charged with scouring the world for potential NBA talent do. It can be a thankless task that requires countless hotel nights and too many air miles to be conducive to a healthy lifestyle, and, for the most part, the Toronto Raptors have done it well.
But the trickle-down effect from even a couple of ‘off’ years can be significant.
There are plenty of reasons the Raptors’ 2022-23 season has boiled down to a race to avoid 10th place, but the drying up of a once steady stream of talent gained through the draft is a big reason why.
When the Toronto Raptors were ascending to their competitive and eventually championship peak, their success in the draft was the engine that drove it.
From 2015 to 2017 Toronto had an incredible off-season run, particularly given that they were already a playoff team and picking in the bottom half or third of the process, where the talent pool is theoretically shallower. The Raptors defied the odds.
In 2015 they drafted Delon Wright (20th overall); Norm Powell (46th overall, acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks). In 2016 it was Jakob Poeltl (9th overall, a pick acquired from the New York Knicks); Pascal Siakam (27th overall) and Fred VanVleet as an undrafted free agent. In 2017 they chose O.G. Anunoby 23rd overall.
Most ardent Raptors fans can recite the above from memory, but when it gets laid out like that it is still a pretty encompassing explanation for Toronto being one of the best teams in the NBA over an extended period. In three summers, with one late lottery pick at their disposal, the Raptors added a two-time all-NBA selection (Siakam); an all-star (VanVleet); an all-defence-level wing with upside (Anunoby); a quality starting centre (Poeltl); one of the best sixth men and best shooters in basketball (Powell) and a rotation-level point guard (Wright).
As well those additions were stacked on top of some other drafts that turned out very well organized by previous management: DeMar DeRozan (ninth in 2009); Ed Davis (13th in 2010); Jonas Valanciunas (fifth in 2011) and Terrence Ross (eighth in 2012). That’s 10 very good NBA players chosen in nine years. It’s hard to do better.
The result of it all was the deepest team in the NBA in 2017-18, a collection so overflowing that Powell was the 11th man and which won a team-record 59 games. And a team deep enough that they could make trades for a pair of Hall-of-Famers – Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol – and still have enough pieces around them to win a title in 2018-19 and then play at a 60-win pace a year later (2019-20) even after Leonard left in free agency.
But the reverse is also true: unless it’s replenished, the cupboard gets empty pretty quickly.
That’s what was running through my mind as the Raptors dropped an important game to the visiting Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night.
The Raptors were down a key starter (Scottie Barnes, wrist) and two rotation pieces (Gary Trent Jr., elbow; Precious Achiuwa, hamstring) and looked completely ordinary against a young Pacers team that has punched above its projected weight all season.
Toronto’s depth might not be any better when they host the Detroit Pistons Friday, as none of Barnes, Trent Jr. or Achiuwa practiced Thursday. Barnes did some shooting but had his left wrist heavily wrapped. They are all listed as questionable.
The Pacers were without all-star guard Tyrese Haliburton, but depth was not an issue. The best player on the floor for either team (with apologies to Siakam, who had 31 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists for Toronto) was Andrew Nembhard, the rookie point guard from Aurora, Ont. Nembhard enjoyed a career-type night with 25 points and 10 assists in his first game in Toronto against his hometown team and has thrived with a more central offensive role since Haliburton has been injured.
Meanwhile, the Raptors were grasping at straws to fill the gaps as they have been most of the season whenever they go down a rotation player or two.
Starting in place of Barnes was Will Barton, a well-respected veteran who has shown in his brief time as a Raptor why the Denver Nuggets were willing to trade him last off-season and why the Washington Wizards were willing to buy out the remainder of his contract: he’s probably not good enough to be an important rotation piece anymore and at age 32 there’s a good chance he won’t be again.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse then turned to Jeff Dowtin Jr. – a point guard with some interesting qualities, but one that’s on a two-way contract and soon to turn 26. It was Dowtin’s first NBA action in three weeks and, not surprisingly, he wasn’t able to impact the game. Then it was Malachi Flynn’s turn and, while he was moderately effective with eight points on five shots in 18 minutes, the only thing that’s been reliable in his three-year tenure as a Raptor is that there is nothing to predict about his future based on his recent past. Flipping a coin would be a better way of determining whether the 29th pick in the 2020 draft will be in the rotation from one game, week or month to the next.
Which is emblematic of where the Raptors are as their championship season fades to memory and they face a future where lifting themselves from the muddy middle could prove difficult.
As the top of their roster either moved on (Leonard), aged out (Gasol and Serge Ibaka) or wanted to try something new (Kyle Lowry), the only roster piece left to show for it is Achiuwa, the enigmatic big man Toronto acquired in the sign-and-trade for Lowry who sometimes looks like a star in the making, combining Anunoby’s defensive versatility with a more dynamic offensive package, but more often seems like everything is moving too fast for him. He’s just 23, so plenty of time yet, but he’s yet to prove himself a reliable player as his third season winds down.
Elsewhere, the talent pipeline seems to have run dry. Outside of taking Barnes fourth overall in 2021 thanks to the ‘Tampa Tank’, the Raptors have nothing meaningful to show from the draft from 2018-2022 which – to be fair – is part of the price that comes with having one of the NBA’s best regular-season records for three straight seasons.
And the book isn’t entirely closed. Dalano Banton (46th in 2021) has fans in the organization and the 6-foot-9 point guard is a player talent evaluators from other organizations remain intrigued about. He’s had a tough run of injuries in his second professional season, so we’ll see. Similarly, Christian Koloko (33rd in 2022) has shown promise as a rookie. He’s impressed with his intelligence and work ethic and has the length and quickness to be a big man who can survive when switched to the perimeter but also serviceably protect the paint. But he doesn’t shoot well, has a narrow frame that hurts him as a rebounder and finisher and doesn’t have the kind of hops that make him a lob threat.
No organization is perfect, and the same people running the Raptors now were in charge when they mined gold from unexpected places in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
But it’s been pretty dusty since. Even ignoring that instead of drafting Flynn 29th in 2020 they could have had Desmond Bane who was taken 30th and is an emerging two-way star at shooting guard for the Memphis Grizzlies – so could have 28 other teams – it’s become clear that the decision last year to trade down in the 2022 draft in the deal that brought Thad Young at the trade deadline was an error.
The logic at the time — flipping draft positions with the Spurs wouldn’t materially impact the quality of player Toronto could choose from — has been proven wrong. Young has been a good soldier for the Raptors, but he has contributed marginally and given he didn’t get off the bench when Toronto was down both Barnes and Achiuwa it seems safe to presume he’s unlikely to be a vital part of the rotation any time soon.
Moving down 13 draft spots for a veteran player who doesn’t play is bad business.
Toronto could have picked 20th overall, and just waiting for them there was rookie centre Walker Kessler (22nd overall, Utah) who is averaging a double-double with nearly three blocks a game since being made a starter at mid-season — and has the best advanced stats of any rookie in the league. He’s a bigger, stronger, better version of the player the Raptors hope Koloko might be one day, but he’s been doing it all season and has more upside.
Or they could have picked Nembhard. Passport aside, he’s a tough-minded combo guard with good size, plus character who oozes basketball IQ. He’s proven himself a multiple-position defender and has shown flashes of being a significant offensive player, his double-double Wednesday showed, or the 31 and 13 night he had against the Golden State Warriors earlier this season or the 24 points and five assists he had against the Milwaukee Bucks just last week. If Nembhard was a Raptor instead of Pacer last night, Toronto wins. If Nembhard had been part of the Raptors guard rotation all season, there would have likely been a few more wins on top of it.
At the time it would have been a reach to take the Gonzaga star as high as 20th. He wasn’t getting a ton of traction as a first-round prospect, but isn’t that what strong talent evaluators do?
Nembhard was well-known to the organization, having played for Nurse in the national team program and sharing representation with Siakam. He had an excellent pre-draft workout for Toronto, and who knows what choice the Raptors might have made had he been available at No.33.
But the Pacers took him 31st overall and look prescient for it.
Obviously hindsight makes all this easier, but the experience, intelligence, and resources a top-flight organization like the Raptors can bring to the talent evaluation and development process is supposed to help them see things before the rest of us do.
Naturally it doesn’t always work out that way, and the Raptor track record – on the whole – would be the envy of many clubs.
But for three years the Raptors couldn’t miss on draft night and they ended up with a title to show for it.
They’ve since been a while between ‘hits’ and the results are playing out during a difficult, topsy-turvy season.