Raptors make time for development in victory over Hornets

OG Anunoby and Terence Davis set career-highs in points while Dewan Hernandez and Oshae Brissett made their NBA debuts Monday night. That should tell you all you need to know about how the Toronto Raptors fared against the Charlotte Hornets.

The first game home after a long west coast swing can often prove a challenge, but the Hornets just weren’t up for it.

Realistically, teams facing the Raptors right now should be relishing the opportunity to face an undermanned squad lacking five-time All-Star Kyle Lowry and their sixth man, Serge Ibaka. Yet, Charlotte was beaten up on the defensive glass by a team that ranks second from the bottom in offensive rebounding, Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson accounting for 11 of the team’s 16 second-chance opportunities. The Hornets were consistently caught sleeping on backdoor cuts which centre Marc Gasol took full advantage of as he tallied a season-high nine assists, and Anunoby saw the opportunity to test out some new moves that would add a level of roundedness to his game this season that would have him flirting with the Pascal Siakam trajectory.

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So, what does one take away from a game where the Raptors were literally free to do as they pleased?

Process.

Charlotte is in the midst of trying with all their might to fill the vacuum left by All-Star Kemba Walker. They are giving their young players every opportunity to prove themselves, and players like Devonte Graham and PJ Washington have grabbed their chance and have led the team to a surprising 6-7 start. Nights like these against a superior team are bound to happen, but the Raptors have to do their part in ensuring so.

The Raptors themselves had their backs against the wall when Lowry fractured his thumb and Ibaka sprained his ankle against the New Orleans Pelicans. After three weeks of tough love for those outside the championship core, head coach Nick Nurse was left with no choice but to trot out his bench players and hope they could give the team any kind of lift.

Much of the frustration for the head coach stemmed from his new players struggling to come to terms with just how hard the reigning NBA champions play. Nurse did clarify pre-game that Hollis-Jefferson wasn’t necessarily a part of that group that was criticized as he was nursing a groin injury, but with the hand he’s been dealt, Nurse is showing he’s fully willing to invest in these players and help them grow their games.

In the second quarter, Nurse trotted out a lineup of Davis at the point, Matt Thomas as the two-guard, Hollis-Jefferson and Siakam as the two forwards, and Chris Boucher at centre. For five minutes of game time, they played to a minus-1. That would have seemed unfathomable a week-and-a-half ago, and while the basketball played was well below championship standard, Nurse was getting exactly what he wanted out of them in terms of heart and hustle.

Right from the first inbounds to open the frame, they engaged in a full-court press, scrapped for loose balls, picked up extra possessions, and allowed just 10 points in those near-5 minutes. The baseline for these units is minimize the bleeding, and they did that.

55 bench points on this night and the manner in which those on the outside looking in have seized their opportunity over the past week shows that Nurse’s message was received loud and clear. They are not going to play unless they absolutely have earned it, and with the tiny window that opened due to injury, it was established that this was their chance to stake their claim.

On the surface, it’s easy to look at that lineup that stepped onto the court to begin the second quarter and wonder what Nurse was thinking. That there were surely better ways to help the spacing on the floor and give them a better chance offensively. But early second quarter against the Hornets in November is about as low leverage a time to give players an opportunity to grow.

Davis is clearly better playing off the ball at this stage of his career — it gives him less to think about and manage — but to assist the development of his game, there need to be opportunities for him to grow into the role he’s likely best suited for in time.

“I'd like to get him to the point guard position eventually,” Nurse said after the game. “I think he's a combo guard now, he can play point, obviously, but I think he's much more comfortable at the two, and I think everybody is, it's just a much easier ... you know, calling plays, running the team, all that stuff, that's a lot of extra duties when you're a point guard, and he's young, so we're trying to get him out of ... just let him think a little more freely and use his talents right now than have him do all that extra stuff yet.”

The modified bench mob wasn’t the only one to have time for development.

Anunoby scored a career-high 24 points, but the moments that were the biggest signs that he’s looking to round out his game were the mid-range jumper off a high screen, and a couple of side-step 3-pointers that showed he can be more than a catch-and-shoot player.

In the play below, as Anunoby takes a dribble to his left, he understands that once he rises, the defender is going to want to avoid the foul. The emphasis on ensuring he’s stepping into the three and ready for a full follow-through ensures the defender can’t get back in his space and that he’s taking a well balanced shot.

“You can remember all those times he’d catch it and always pump fake and they’d stay closed short on him so he’s still able to take it again,” Nurse said after the game.

“He’s worked that out of his game for the most part where his feet are ready and it’s a tribute to him working on getting his feet and his hands … I always say you need to have your feet ready, your hands ready and between your ears ready to shoot and he’s worked on all of that.”

The defence has always been there, and while it continues to grow, the expansion of his offensive game is what continues to rightfully hog the headlines. He’s now shooting 53.2 percent from 3-point range, but it’s the variety of threes he can provide that will take him furthest. Siakam has shown the value of that with his above-the-break 3-pointers this season, and Anunoby is steadily following suit.

Games against weaker competition will always present the opportunity to display thorough professionalism, but in keeping with what has been their greatest competitive advantage in the Masai Ujiri era, the Raptors showed on this night that these little windows of development are what can give them crucial gains later.

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