The Toronto Raptors were winners in the 2021 NBA draft lottery, jumping up to the fourth pick despite holding the seventh-best odds.
The fourth pick is especially valuable given that the consensus around the 2021 class is that four prospects have distinguished themselves from the pack. This leaves the Raptors with some consolation following a disastrous year in Tampa that was sidetracked by COVID-19, which led the front office to pivot towards a rebuild by resting key players which maximized their lottery odds.
But the decision for the Raptors isn't as clear-cut as taking whichever one of the four prospects is left over after Detroit, Houston, and Cleveland draft in the first three slots. As general manager Bobby Webster mentioned following the lottery, the Raptors will explore all options with their pick, and those options break down into three general strategies.
Keep the pick
The simplest move is to just keep the pick. The fourth selection is relatively stress-free in that the first three teams to draft and the talent itself would dictate the selection. Cade Cunningham, a 6-foot-8 point forward is a lock to go first overall to the Pistons, leaving three possible options that will fall to the Raptors at four. All three prospects would fit a need for the Raptors.
Evan Mobley, the 7-foot shot-blocker with the nimble feet of a dancer, would be the best fit positionally for a Raptors team that has no long-term answers at center. On first impression, Mobley looks to be the standard high jumper in the middle who catches lobs and protects the paint in the mold of a Tyson Chandler. What sets Mobley apart is the fluidity in his movement. Even as compared to prime NBA athletes, Mobley is unique in how quickly he can shift his body and his feet to always station his 7-foot-4 wingspan as a deterrent, and he offers great instincts to go along with his effortless athleticism. His offense is behind his defense as of now, but it's easy to imagine him succeeding on that end between his ability to play above the rim, and his emerging perimeter game. The prospect of Mobley anchoring the Raptors' defense is tantalizing and the fit is seamless.
Jalen Green is the most explosive athlete in the draft, and the 6-foot-7 wing is ahead of most other players because he opted to play in the G-League rather than going to college. Green showcased his scoring talents against professional players, averaging 18 points while shooting a respectable 46 percent from the field and 36 percent from deep, and while the raw numbers aren't necessarily eye-popping, the film is genuinely captivating. Not only does Green have the quick-twitch athleticism of a future dunk champion, but he also showed advanced footwork and skill pulling off moves like stepback threes and eurosteps that lend confidence to his projection as a high-volume scorer in the NBA.
There are some concerns that Green is too willing to settle for difficult shots, or that the pass is always a secondary thought, but scoring is the hardest skill in basketball, and it's arguably the biggest weakness on the Raptors at the moment.
Finally, Jalen Suggs is the most well-known of the three because of his unforgettable buzzer-beating heave from halfcourt in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament. Suggs is the most balanced player of the three with no flashy trait like Mobley's mobility, or Green's scoring, but Suggs may end up being the best player just based on his feel of the game.
Suggs has a knack for getting downhill, either in transition or in a half-court setting, and he's a willing passer who is already comfortable being the main playmaker running a steady diet of pick-and-rolls. Despite being only 19, Suggs already shows great awareness in how he finishes at the basket with either hand, on top of his physicality and his leaping ability which helps him get to the free-throw line. Defensively, Suggs loves to aggressively pressure the ball to create open-floor opportunities, which fits right in with the Raptors' defensive approach.
The key to note is that the choice will be outside of the Raptors' hands. One of the three will be available at the fourth pick, and the Raptors will be able to add a valuable player no matter what. Any one of Mobley, Green, or Suggs will address a weakness on the roster. The most likely outcome on draft night is for the Raptors is use the fourth pick and to rely on their player development system, which has consistently churned out core pieces bringing sustained success.
Trade up or down in the draft
Not all prospects are made equal, and the Raptors may very well have a differing opinion from the consensus projection. That gives them the chance to either move up to ensure they can grab the one prospect they see as a difference maker, or if they're pessimistic on who is available at four, the Raptors could look to trade down and grab some extra assets.
Trading up is always possible just because of how teams may look to angle themselves. If the Raptors like one prospect in particular, and if that becomes known by Cleveland or Houston (Detroit is not moving off the first pick) then it would make sense for Cleveland or Houston to bluff towards that player and bait the Raptors into making a deal. You see deals like this all the time, with recent examples of Atlanta selecting Luka Doncic third overall only to swap him for fifth pick Trae Young and a future first (Cam Reddish) from Dallas, or Philadelphia moving up from three to one for Markelle Fultz while the Celtics got Jayson Tatum and a future pick.
But the Raptors would also be in prime position to trade down if they saw another player to be of equal standing as one of the consensus top-four prospects. Jonathan Kuminga's showing in the G-League might have been underwhelming on the whole, but his size and athleticism still sets him apart. Scottie Barnes is another athletic marvel who carries roughly the same measurements as OG Anunoby. The Raptors were also known to have sent envoys to Australia to scout 6-foot-8 passing wizard Josh Giddey. The Magic hold the fifth and the eighth selections, which could put them in position to bundle picks to move upwards, and the Warriors at seven and 14 are logical targets as they're on a more immediate timeline to contend given the age of their former championship core. It will not be a quiet draft night in the NBA.
Flip the pick into a star player
The third option would be for the Raptors to use the fourth pick as the centrepiece of a win-now trade for a player to help them return to contention. Toronto has a handful of expiring deals that could be used to match contracts, and all of their core pieces (Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Anunoby) carry positive value as they are all in their prime and signed long-term.
The question is who are the disgruntled stars that will be available. Ben Simmons and C.J. McCollum look to be the fall guys for their team's respective playoff flameouts, although both teams would be looking for win-now pieces in return so the fourth pick would need to move in a three-team trade. There's always speculation around Bradley Beal since the Wizards are perpetually mediocre, but the introduction of Russell Westbrook and a strong finish to the regular season might have been enough to keep Beal satiated.
Washington may look to move off Beal anyway since he's only guaranteed for one more season, but the recent trade history involving star players in their primes have returned much more than one pick, with Anthony Davis fetching three first-round picks and two former No. 2 selections, Paul George netting five picks and Shai Gilegous-Alexander, while James Harden was just moved for four picks and an additional four pick swaps.
It doesn't quite make sense for the Raptors to push all-in. The Raptors have a solid core, but this is not the Kawhi Leonard situation where they can trade from a surplus of talent for one player that magically completes the puzzle. For one, there is nobody as good as Leonard who is available, and two, a fully healthy Nets team is clearly a cut above in the East. The Raptors are in a reloading phase, and their main contribution of the offseason would be using the fourth pick on another core piece.
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