Scottie Barnes, O.G. Anunoby lead Raptors' storylines heading into new season

It’s been a long summer for Toronto Raptors’ fans, who have had to wait patiently as the months passed between seeing their team be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in April and the start of the 2022-23 regular season in October.

Raptors’ fans have watched the playoffs come and go, with the Boston Celtics winning the Eastern Conference only to be eliminated by the Golden State Warriors; then, free agency was dull but expected, with the Raptors re-signing Chris Boucher and Thad Young and adding a veteran shooter in Otto Porter Jr.; and finally, there was a period of big trades headlined by Dejonte Murray, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, with the Raptors opting to instead hold onto all their future assets and bring back essentially the same group that went 48-34 last season — a squad with the least roster turnover in the entire league.

And so while much is the same in Toronto, there are still plenty of questions to ask and stories to follow as the Raptors get ready to host an open scrimmage on Sept. 30, their first preseason game on Oct. 2, and the start of the regular season on Oct. 19. Exciting times are ahead.

Here are five of the most interesting storylines to watch ahead of the Raptors 2022-23 season.

Who wins the backup point guard minutes?

Much has been made about the battle between Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton for the backup point guard spot, and rightfully so. While the Raptors have added depth and shooting to their roster in the offseason through new additions and internal development, they are still perilously thin in the ball-handling department. Sometimes you just need a guy to bring the ball up the floor, organize the team, and get them into their sets while defending the pick-and-roll on the other end of the floor.

That was a major problem for the Raptors with Fred VanVleet off the floor last season, which is a large part of why he led the league in minutes and why his body gave out in the playoffs. The Raptors are going to need one of Flynn or Banton to make a jump in order to lessen the load on VanVleet. And there is good reason to believe one or even both of the young guards could be ready for some added responsibility.

Flynn made headlines this summer for his monster scoring outburst in Pro Am games. But his problem has always been less about scoring (although making more than 33.3 percent of his threes from last season would certainly help) and more about his ability to lead a team, balancing the scoring and playmaking responsibilities that come with being an NBA point guard. Still, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse spoke positively about the confidence of a successful summer carrying over to the opening days of training camp.

“What I’ve noticed from him just in the times we did see him this summer is just a guy carrying himself with a little more confidence. The way he played and scored in some of those leagues just gave him a feel and that’s what summer league can do,” Nurse said about Flynn. “That’s what you want to see: you want to see some of that carry over to now. You don’t want to see a guy that goes out, has a great summer, works like crazy, plays in these games, and all of a sudden none of it shows up in the fall. So, it was good to see here today.”

On the other side of the battle is Banton, who is younger and more raw than Flynn but who’s skill set is a more seamless fit with how the Raptors want to play. At 6-foot-9 he has the size, length and athleticism to switch across the positional spectrum and cause deflections that fuel the Raptors fast-break, where he himself is most dangerous. A good NBA Summer League followed by an even better FIBA AmeriCup, where he led Team Canada in points, rebounds and assists while limiting his turnovers, gives Banton a leg up in the competition at the start of camp.

“For me that thing almost couldn't have went any better,” Nurse said of Banton at the AmeriCup, where Canada finished fourth. “He played great, did his daily workouts, his weight room, his shooting, all that stuff got done to a tee. He had a ton of late game situations and opportunities against grown men, good basketball players and good teams. So it really helped him… he's probably ahead of everybody just because of all the rhythm he got spending three weeks with the team.”

With training camp well underway in Victoria, B.C., the Toronto Raptors have some looming questions that will need answering once the season kicks off very soon. (Reuters)
With training camp well underway in Victoria, B.C., the Toronto Raptors have some looming questions that will need answering once the season kicks off very soon. (Reuters)

How quickly do Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa develop? And what does that growth look like?

Twenty-year-old Scottie Barnes is often singled out as the key young player on the Raptors, but 23-year-old Precious Achiuwa belongs in the same conversation given his rapid upward trajectory and the major holes he fills on the roster.

While Achiuwa might be similar in size to a number of Raptors, he is their best centre and the only player on the team that combines rim protection, switchability and maybe even three-point shooting in a league that covets those skills at the centre position. Achiuwa held opponents to just 55.5 percent shooting at the rim last season, by far the best mark on the Raptors, while also shooting 39.2 percent from three on 3.9 attempts per game after the All-Star break. He’s getting better at an alarming pace while playing a position that the Raptors are thin at, and while everyone wants to outsource their centre options, Achiuwa could be the long-term answer at that position.

“Night and day as [far as] who I saw for the first time last year in the gym to who he is today. You’ve got to give credit to Precious and his work, his work ethic and his dedication, to continuing to get better,” Fred VanVleet said about Achiuwa.

Barnes, meanwhile, is the obvious pick to have a breakout year for the Raptors, and rightfully so. The second-year player is listed at guard/forward for the Raptors because he can already do so many things on a basketball court, with Raptors president Masai Ujiri essentially calling him a player of the future, saying, “I don’t know what position that guy plays.”

The question is how long it takes for him to improve as a creator for himself and his teammates, bumping everyone down a peg in the offensive pecking order, even if nobody knows what that will look like. Still, for the reigning Rookie of the Year, breaking out could mean keeping it simple: locking in better on the defensive end, where he was beat too often on the perimeter last season; continuing to stay aggressive and using his physicality to score inside, where he has shown that he can score over everyone, including Joel Embiid; getting more comfortable with his dribble in order to unlock some of his half-court passing chops, because we know the court-vision is there; and starting to shoot the ball better from three, improving on his 30.1 percent mark from last season.

If he does even half of those things, we could be in for a special season from Barnes. And if both him and Achiuwa take a leap at the same time, watch out, league.

Where does O.G. Anunoby fit into everything?

Anunoby was in the rumour mill this offseason for reportedly being unhappy with his role in the Raptors offence, and while he doused the fire on those rumours at Media Day, saying, “Even when the report came out I was kinda surprised by it.” He could just be paying lip service, but the reality is that Anunoby has every right to want more touches. It’s just hard to see where they would come from.

Despite improving every year as an on-ball creator, shooter, and passer, Anunoby will likely see his touches go down with the emergence of Achiuwa and Barnes alongside VanVleet and Siakam. He projects to be the No. 4 option on this team behind the latter three players, and that is an extremely big ask from a young player as talented and ambitious as Anunoby. When asked about having so many mouths to feed, the Raptors repeatedly said that winning cures all, which is true to an extent. But they better hope Anunoby agrees, because if he does grow unhappy and forces their hand, they will either have to restructure the offence or the team, and none of those are ideal outcomes... right now.

But what if Anunoby himself takes a big leap this year? The NBA moves quickly, but it was just a year ago that Raptors fans were pegging Anunoby as a potential Most Improved Player award winner and All-Star candidate. Why can’t he make that jump this year, his sixth as a pro? After all, the best way to demand more touches is to necessitate them, like he did in the playoffs against the Sixers, when he was the Raptors' second-best player. Do that over the course of the season and maybe all these potential problems go away.

“I expect a big jump from O.G.," Masai Ujiri said. "He played 48 games last season. I think O.G. put in some incredible work this summer. I know he had all those rumours last year, but I think O.G. is in a good place. We have almost, it's intentional that we have the same type of big-wing players to come play. He's just such a dynamic player that plays a lot of positions, can shoot the ball. I think his role is coming. We saw the impact he had in the playoff opportunity we had, and I think it's going to be even bigger this year.”

How much can newcomers Thad Young and Otto Porter Jr. bring to this team? And how good is the depth as a result?

The Raptors had one of the worst benches in the league last season and, as a result, leaned on their starters more than any team in the league. That’s not sustainable if they want to go deep into the playoffs, which is why they have been slowly but surely reinforcing the bench.

Young and Porter are both savvy veterans with several years of experience on several successful teams — even playing together at one point in Chicago — and they bring a level of maturity to the bench while also having skill sets that are going to be key to the Raptors success.

Young was acquired at the 2021 trade deadline but says he feels “ten times different” now with a full training camp to get acquainted with the team.

“Last year when I got here, I was kind of, like I was fine. But that's because I'm a tough individual. But mentally I was burned out, just for the simple fact that I didn't play the first half of the season, I spent a lot of time conditioning myself and burning myself out to try to be ready for the second half of the season. And then I think when I got here, I wasn't able to really play to my full potential and my full reach, so now I get a fresh mind, a fresh start, come to training camp to really figure everything out in the beginning,” Young said.

Young will likely be used as a connector off the bench, making plays for his teammates from the post and the top of the key, which he showed he was capable of in Chicago in 2020-21, when he averaged a career-high 4.3 assists per game. He’ll be flanked by Chris Boucher, who’s rim-running and rebounding will be crucial in those groups, and Otto Porter Jr., who’s three-point shooting will give everyone more space to work with inside the paint, hitting 39.8 percent in his career. Those three could be an extremely complimentary grouping off the bench, with a good blend of size, length, passing and shooting.

“Me and Otto are guys that are like stabilizing forces. Guys who can come in and keep everything stable from what the first unit is doing. Make sure that we’re facilitating and not giving up leads but building onto leads or keeping leads where they are and just not letting the game get out of hand. Just bringing that savviness to the group of guys that are going to be out there with us,” Young said.

How do the Rico Runs and improved team chemistry translate to the start of the season?

By now, everybody knows that the Raptors were together almost all summer participating in scrimmages in Las Vegas during NBA Summer League and in Los Angeles during the Rico Hines runs. But what you may not know is that before each of those scrimmages, they held a practice and went through organized drills for a couple of hours. Or that they are currently doing two-a-days in Victoria during training camp, practicing in the morning and at night, working extremely hard to learn the system and form chemistry.

“I think it [was] back to regularly scheduled programming. We got our asses kicked. We can make excuses all day and injuries and whatever, but we lost to a team that we thought we could beat and so it was time to get back to the drawing board,” VanVleet said about the offseason. "COVID slowed down, we got out of Tampa, so it was like our first real offseason back together that we're used to having… So we really had most of our whole team together for some time; a couple of days, throughout the summer and I think that's valuable reps and just time together to build towards the season.”

The question is how will those long hours together in the offseason translate to the start of the regular season? Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George has already called out the Raptors coaching staff if the team doesn’t jump out to a quick start, and the Raptors, for their part, have said that the added time together is making training camp a lot easier than it was at this time last year, when a brand new group was strung together, with Boucher saying, “we got most of the core and young guys back so you get to the drills pretty quick. So I think it's really helpful that some of us have been together all summer. So we've gotten to know each other a lot more.”

We’ll see how much it all translates to the real games when the Raptors open their season at home versus the Cleveland Cavaliers on October 19th.

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