No matter which way you spin it, this has not been the most inspiring offseason for the Toronto Raptors.
After drafting Kansas guard Gradey Dick with the No. 13 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft (good), the Raptors re-signed centre Jakob Poeltl to a four-year, $80-million contract (pretty good) before watching Dalano Banton (bad) and Fred VanVleet (very bad) walk away in free agency. Now there are reports that All-NBA forward Pascal Siakam might be on the trading block.
The Raptors find themselves at a bit of a crossroads, with no clear direction or plan moving forward. But at least they have very good, very young talent. And doubling down on that might be as much of a direction as any.
Nineteen-year-old sharpshooter Dick will be flanked by two-way signee Markquis Nowell and Exhibit 10 signee Kevin Obanor at Summer League in Las Vegas, along with returning Raptors Ron Harper Jr., David Johnson, and Joe Wieskamp. In fact, this is an all-American roster for the Raptors, which will look dramatically different from their incredibly international NBA roster.
An all American roster for the Raptors at Summer League. Very different than the big club's international identity.
An underwhelming group on paper at least, with JDJ and Koloko both sidelined due to injuries. https://t.co/vikmRFHEiS
— Oren Weisfeld (@OrenWeisfeld) July 4, 2023
Unfortunately, Christian Koloko (respiratory issue) and Jeff Dowtin Jr. (ankle) will both be unavailable for the Raptors at Summer League, although they will participate in team activities in Vegas.
The Raptors tip off their action against the Chicago Bulls on Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET. They also play Cleveland on July 9, Detroit on July 12, and Brooklyn on July 13.
Here are five of the most interesting Raptors storylines to follow at NBA Summer League:
1. Is Gradey Dick ready to be more than just a meme?
Regardless of if the Raptors “run it back” and try to be competitive or go in a younger direction, Dick is going to play an important role for them next season. The Kansas wing appears to be one of the most ready-to-play freshmen in the draft, and he is going to get minutes to prove himself right away. But can he meaningfully contribute?
The Raptors have a lot riding on Dick. He’s the highest selection they have had in the draft since taking Poeltl ninth overall in 2016, not including Scottie Barnes during the Tampa Bay season. He also addresses their single biggest need: shooting. And whether or not he can play upwards of 15 minutes a game next season could have big ramifications in both the short and long term. After all, his readiness will help determine whether the Raptors have enough spacing to run a functional half-court offence next season, and just how important fellow shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. is to the Raptors going forward, with the two sides reportedly working toward a long-term extension.
The challenge begins in Summer League for Dick, who will have to prove he can hold up on the defensive end of the floor against bigger and more athletic players than he played in college, while continuing to shoot the ball well from long distance despite the NBA’s more distant 3-point line. While the Raptors have plenty of shooters on the Summer League roster, there is a concerning lack of playmaking from both the guard and big positions, which could potentially make it difficult to get Dick open for shots out of the pick-and-roll or dribble-handoffs.
In fact, Dick could be asked to create for himself more than he is used to at Summer League, in part because of the lack of other shot creators and playmakers and in part because we know new Raptors head coach Darko Rajokovic likes to expand peoples’ games.
We’ll see how much freedom Dick gets in Vegas.
2. Is Markquis Nowell the next Fred VanVleet?
The second-most exciting Raptor at Summer League might be Nowell, the 5-foot-8 point guard who captivated the basketball world in the March Madness tournament when he led the Kansas State Wildcats on a surprising run to the Elite Eight. Nowell averaged 18 points, eight assists and four rebounds on 39/36/89 shooting splits in the Big 12 last season, using his quick feet to get into the paint and spray it out to shooters while being unafraid to shoot from anywhere.
Nowell is the only player to sign a two-way contract with the Raptors so far, proving they believe in his ability to help the Raptors 905 at the very least. The Raptors still have two more two-way contracts to hand out.
Nowell is always going to be fighting an uphill battle due to his limited size and strength, but the New York native is not short on confidence, calling VanVleet his “twin” and tweeting “I Will Go From Being Underrated To Undeniable.”
Nowell could be a fun, cult-hero success story for Raptors fans to root for, and lord knows they need it right now.
3. Will someone else pop?
While Nowell has gotten the most attention of any undrafted Raptor, there are a number of young guys on the Summer League roster who have the potential to pop given the right circumstances. And knowing that the Raptors still have two-way roster spots to hand out, there will certainly be a fight for those contracts starting at Summer League.
For starters, Johnson, Harper Jr. and Wieskamp are all returning to the Raptors without guaranteed deals, and the three of them will be asked to play big roles on the team given their experience in the organization dating back to at least last season. Of the three, Harper Jr. seems the most likely to stick around given he is a little ahead of Johnson developmentally. He also has a more versatile skill set than Wieskamp, who is a shooting specialist that could be replaced by Dick moving forward.
When it comes to new faces, Moses Brown might be the most interesting. The 7-foot-2 big man was a five-star high school recruit before averaging nearly a double-double as a freshman at UCLA in 2018-19. After going undrafted, he has bounced around six different NBA teams, averaging 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in just 12.4 minutes per game. Brown doesn’t shoot the ball but he is long and very mobile for his size. He could be a decent developmental project for the Raptors 905, who are in need of a starting big man next season since Koloko projects to play with the NBA team.
D.J. Hogg is another name to watch. The 26-year-old Texas A&M alum played three seasons there before going undrafted in 2018. He bounced around the G League for three seasons before moving to France and then Australia, a big, physical league where he averaged 17.6 points per game for the Cairns Taipans last season. Hogg is a good shooter with a lot of size at 6-foot-9 who could play a big role for the Raptors at Summer League.
Ahmad Caver was a big part of the Memphis Hustle organization from 2019-22. Given that he crossed over with Rajakovic for each of their three seasons in Memphis, Caver is a player the coach is at least familiar with and likely had some influence bringing to Summer League. The 6-foot-2 point guard out of Old Dominion just won MVP of the Lithuanian Basketball League with BC Wolves, so he should be full of confidence entering Summer League with the Raptors.
4. What kind of system will the new coaching staff run?
Now that we are done with the players, how about introducing a completely new coaching staff to the mix?
Following reports that former head coach Nick Nurse and his team of at least 10 assistant coaches were not all on the same page last season, the Raptors have completely revamped — and shrunk — their bench.
Longtime NBA assistant coach Pat Delany will coach the Raptors at Summer League. He joins the team after spending 12 seasons with the Miami Heat before moving on to Charlotte, Orlando, and most recently Washington. Joining Delany at Summer League will be all of the remaining seven Raptors assistant coaches, including Jama Mahlalela, James Wade, Mike Batiste, Vin Bhavnani, Rashaun Broadus, Drew Jones, Ivo Simović, and returning developmental coach Jim Sann.
This is a significantly younger coaching staff than the one we saw last year, which will ideally help them relate better to the young players the Raptors are developing. But it’s also a less-experienced staff, without a single former NBA head coach.
What will be just as fascinating as how the new coaching staff meshes with the players on a personal level — something Rajakovic said was important to him — will be the new system the Raptors implement at Summer League. It could look drastically different from the way they played last season on both ends of the floor.
Will they play a more conservative style of defence? And will they really move the ball quickly from side to side instead of playing in isolation? Whatever the Raptors run in Vegas is likely to be the same system we see at the start of the NBA season in October.
5. Which (real) Raptors will show up in Vegas?
And now, to end on a sour note, who will actually show up to watch the Summer League Raptors?
In years past, the Raptors have been one of the most cohesive groups in the league, showing up at Summer League 15 players deep to watch the young guns try to make a name for themselves. The Raptors would sit courtside in their fancy summer outfits and crack jokes to each other as they watched the games. They would also participate in informal practices throughout their time in Vegas, getting an early start to training camp. But will that be the case this year?
With no clear successor to VanVleet as the emotional leader of this team — and with Siakam, the most likely successor, hearing his name in trade talks — who will rally the troops? Who will organize team dinners? And, honestly, how many of them even show up to Vegas in the first place?