Well, that was fast. A quarter of the 2022-23 NBA season has already been played, and the Toronto Raptors are 11-9 through 20 games.
Given that many people expected the Raptors to win 50-plus games this season, and they are on pace for just over 44, it’s natural to focus on the negatives of what has been a pretty up-and-down start to the year. After all, nobody has been healthy, with only O.G. Anunoby and Christian Koloko playing all 20 games, as the Raptors have missed the fifth most games in the league due to injury when taking into account contract size.
But when we take a birds-eye view of the Raptors season, it’s clear that there has been more good than bad on the whole — at least when it comes to the things that matter in the long term. Injuries happen, but they almost always subside. Upward development from your very best players, however, is not guaranteed. Nor is having legitimate depth or a clear identity that the team plays with on a night-to-night basis. Yet the Raptors have done all that and more this season, proving that when everybody gets healthy, they could be a scary team the rest of the way.
Here are five positives takeaways through the first quarter of the Raptors season.
1. Pascal Siakam has taken the superstar leap
It’s easy to forget what Siakam was doing for the Raptors to start the season, when he was playing at an MVP level and averaging 25-9-8 on .48/.34/.73 shooting, helping drag the Raptors to a top-10 offence and defence through the first eight games. Of the eight games that he played before slipping on a wet spot in Dallas on Nov. 4, there was only one where he didn’t both score at least 20 points and dish out at least six assists, proving that there was nothing a defence could do to stop him. When teams double-teamed him, he scored 20 points; when they played him straight up, he managed at least six assists. Siakam has become as consistent as they come, yet he is still getting better.
“I just have a lot of goals and ambitions,” Siakam said about his injury. “I've put a lot of work into what I do and I have all these plans in my head and I think that like most of the time, God is like, ‘I know you have this plan, but I got my own plans.’ And it always happens that way. But the good thing about it is his plan is better than mine, so I just follow it and I know that I'm always gonna come back and after that I'll be better than I was before.”
Siakam’s superstar leap matters more than anything else that has happened this season. After all, it historically takes a top-10 player to win several rounds in the playoffs, let alone a championship. And that was the biggest piece holding the Raptors back from being a legitimate contender to start the season. Now that they have Siakam playing at this level, their ceiling has been raised. And while they are still a piece or two away, the front office now has more flexibility — and urgency — in planning out their next championship team.
2. O.G. Anunoby is looking like an All-Star
As helpful as it is to have a superstar player, all great teams still need a great No. 2. After all, even Batman has a Robin; Jordan had a Pippen. And it’s looking more and more likely that O.G. Anunoby could be that for Siakam and the Raptors.
Anunoby is averaging 22-6-3 on .48/.34/.86 shooting in the month of November, when he has seen his efficiency rise even as his usage rating has skyrocketed from 17.2 in October to 24.8. What’s more impressive is that he has kept the team's offence afloat while continuing to be one of the best defenders in the league, guarding the best opposing players across the positional spectrum and leading the league in steals (47) and loose balls recovered (28). In fact, some of the advanced catch-all metrics consider him the most impactful defender in the league through a quarter of the season, propping up the Raptors' seventh-ranked defence.
But it’s the offensive development that has mattered most for Anunoby, who is becoming the exact type of secondary ball-handler beside Siakam that elite modern NBA offences are built around. Anunoby has learned how to leverage his strength and finish through contact, getting to the rim on 42 percent of possessions and finishing 69 percent of the time, a higher rate than historically good finishers like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. Plus, Anunoby is in the process of developing counters to punish opponents for sagging off him and daring him to drive, including his mid-range fadeaway and pull-up three. Once his three-ball stabilizes from his current 35.1 percent back towards his career-average of 37 percent, Anunoby could legitimately make his first All-Star team as one of the league's elite two-way wings.
“I just love his approach to the game and just laying everything out there on the line,” VanVleet said about Anunoby. “He's coming in early working on his game. He's been a complete pro this year and I'm just proud of him and how far he's come as a player.”
3. The Raptors dictate the identity of their games
Having an identity is one thing, but being able to actually force that identity onto your opponent and dictate the style of games on a night-to-night basis is another. And that is what the Raptors have been able to do this season, injecting a sense of fast-paced chaos into the games with their tall and lengthy roster, which helped them go 5-5 with Siakam and others out of the lineup.
For the third season in a row, the Raptors are forcing the highest amount of turnovers in the league while rarely turning it over themselves. They are also grabbing the third highest percentage of offensive rebounds in the league and ranking in the middle of the pack on the defensive glass, giving them a historically high number of possessions to play with — and their opponents a historically low amount. In fact, the Raptors are averaging 8.5 extra scoring chances per game than their opponent, which is 4.5 more than the No. 2 team and the same difference between the second team and the 18th team. Get that many extra possessions and the Raptors can live with having an effective field goal percentage of 50.4 compared to their opponents shooting 55.2 percent.
“We're getting there, I think, defensively,” Nick Nurse said about the team’s identity coming into shape. “I just know that that'll get you out of some nights when we don't shoot it well or don't offensive rebound it or whatever, that'll get you in games. And I just think that we can grab and seize momentum based on our defense in a lot of games right and just knowing that it's going to be hard to score [against us], I think has a bigger overall effect on the game.”
4. Scottie Barnes has learned how to shoot
While Barnes’ sophomore struggles have been well-documented, what hasn’t gotten enough attention is the way Barnes has shot the ball from distance this season, which might actually matter more than any of his deficiencies as a primary scorer do in the short term, at least.
Barnes is hitting 34.8 percent of his 3.9 three-point attempts per game, up from 30.1 percent on 2.6 attempts last season and 27.5 percent on 1.6 attempts in college. He has been lethal from above the break, hitting 38 percent of his 50 attempts, which is historically a much more difficult area to shoot from than the corners. And when you isolate for catch-and-shoot looks, Barnes is shooting 41 percent from three, the second-highest rate on the team (among players attempting at least 1.6 per game) behind only VanVleet and ahead of Anunoby and Trent Jr. Given that catch-and-shoot looks make up the vast majority of his threes right now and likely for the foreseeable future, as long as Siakam is running the offence, that is a huge development for Barnes and the team this season — one that should play dividends when teams pack the paint against Siakam in the playoffs and dare the others to shoot.
“I feel like that's what they want me to do, so they're helping off,” Barnes says about how defences are playing him. “But when I catch it, I feel confident in my shot, I'm going to shoot it with confidence every single time. It's something I've been working on. I feel good out there.”
5. The depth is vastly improved
It’s still a little early, but it appears that the Raptors front office got everything right this offseason — at least on the margins. Christian Koloko, the 33rd pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, has been able to play right away due to his overwhelming size and defensive awareness, blocking 1.2 shots per game and filling a hole for the Raptors as a traditional rim-protector. Otto Porter Jr. and Juancho Hernangomez both look like good fits within the Raptors switchable defensive scheme while injecting some much-needed outside shooting into the roster. While Thad Young and Chris Boucher appear to have been both signed to extremely team-friendly deals that will keep them beyond this season.
In fact, it’s hard to overstate just how good and impactful Young and Boucher have been this season, especially when injuries have forced them into bigger roles. Young is dishing out 2.1 assists and 1.2 steals in 18.2 minutes per game while somehow putting up a true shooting percentage of 57.5 on a diet of mostly floaters, which would be the highest mark of his 16-year career. Boucher, meanwhile, is doing a little bit of everything and injecting much-needed energy off the bench, shooting and rebounding in a role he has grown comfortable with. That depth is going to matter for the remaining 62 games of the season and into the playoffs, when the Raptors will have a litany of options against any given matchup, allowing mad-scientist Nurse to work his magic.
Nevertheless, the Raptors schedule only gets easier from here on out, with the 13th easiest strength of schedule remaining, the fifth most home games remaining, and the most games where they will have more rest than their opponents. Strap in, because the Raptors look primed to go on a run.
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