Can the ceiling of the 2022-23 Raptors be raised?

Amit Mann and Sean Woodley discuss ways the Raptors' ceiling could increase if a few players found their stride in key areas. Listen to the full episode on the 'Raptors Over Everything' podcast feed.

Video Transcript

AMIT MANN: In terms of starters, in terms of crunch time, whatever the case is. But are there a few things that come to mind for you that think, you know, if this guy was doing this, or if this duo was doing that, Raptors could actually be a little bit better and maybe play-in, first round, maybe they just make it a little bit more competitive? Even at this point, like, I would say if they're able to force whoever they face in the first round, if they get there, to like, five or six games, I would consider that a win, all things considered. Because Boston and Milwaukee, they are out of this world. And--

SEAN WOODLEY: They're ridiculous. Yeah, they're total buzz [INAUDIBLE]. You know, for me, I think within this season, it's tough, right? Because I think they're working with such a limited time to get the offense sorted out. The offense is the thing. I think the defense looks pretty good. They're ninth in defense since the Jakob Poeltl trade. Like, that's great. And I think that's legit. I think when you look at it, it makes a lot of sense. They're enormous. Yak cleans up a lot of the messes. It makes perfect sense to me that they've been a top 10 defense in that time.

The offense was my concern coming in after the deal. And I talked about this on my show a bunch. And after a season where they kind of flirted with top 10 all season long, they've lost a little bit of that magic. And I think it is because of the lack of shooting. It's just undeniable. In the NBA, you got to be able to shoot.

And for me, if Scottie Barnes was just, like, if he could have a heater here, what a dream that would be. If you get the first month, what-- he was like, crazy hot in the first month of the season, right? Like, if you can get that going from deep for Scottie Barnes for a month straight here, that changes the game entirely. And ultimately, like, that, to me, if you're someone who thinks this team can become something meaningful down the line with most of these core pieces, it's because you think Scottie Barnes is going to learn how to shoot.

If he doesn't learn how to shoot, like, things get real tricky if he can't shoot because the spacing will always be a problem. And I'm not going to lie, I'm a little concerned, right? Like, I think he's going to be a very good player. He's 21 years old. Like, I'm not going to be all like, he's a bust or anything like that. But like-- and like, he obviously impacts the game, even when his shots aren't falling, as we saw-- as we see all the time, right? He can just kind of turn it up aggression-wise. He can go smack the offensive glass. He can do all that stuff. It's great.

If you can't shoot, it makes the geometry of the Raptors a lot harder. It makes probably some uncomfortable questions pretty clearly, like the focus of this offseason even if they don't think there's actually a pathway for him to improve from downtown. And it's not even just 3-point shooting. His 2-point shooting, he is down pretty significantly in every single area of 2-point range this season from where he was last year.

The only area in which he has improved his shooting at all this year is from 3, where he's gone from 30.1% to 30.3%. Every other part of the floor, he's shooting worse from. Worse at the rim, worse in short floater range, worse in mid-range, worse in short mid. Like, he's been awful on 2's.

And if this team is going to find a way to make it work with Pascal, Scottie, and Yak, one of two things has to happen, probably both to some degree, is Scottie has got to be a better 3-point shooter, I think Pascal even himself may be a little bit better as well, but 34, 35% I think you can get by with, and Scottie's got to be better there. He also has to become a guy who can be instant 2's for you. Because they're not going to win the math battle right now 3-point wise. Where they can win the math battle and where they lost it miserably against the Clippers on Wednesday is going 24 of 64 from 2-point range.


SEAN WOODLEY: You have to be a team that lives at the rim. And I think they can, right? Like, Yak never misses. That's a big, big asset. If you can find a way to work the spacing with those guys, where there's always someone who's in the dunker or someone who's there to put in an easy opportunistic bucket, leveraging what the defense is doing to overcompensate for Yak's floater or Pascal's mid-range game or whatever, and you can leverage that into easy 2-point buckets, great.

You've got to finish those 2-point buckets. And they have not done that. Pascal has had issues there as well. And if you're not going to be a team that lives from 3-point range, you have to live at the rim. And their avenue to living at the rim is those three guys being lights out when they get those opportunities in close because they're going to get them.

They get a lot of them. They're both, you know, Pascal and Scottie are walking paint touches. You got the pick and roll game with Fred and Yak, which gets Yak deep-- in deep position all the time. You have to make good when you get to the rim. It's not easy to get to the rim in the NBA. The Raptors are actually pretty decent at it, I think, all told. But they have to finish.

AMIT MANN: It's the final part.

SEAN WOODLEY: Otherwise, we're screwed.

AMIT MANN: It's the final.

SEAN WOODLEY: Yeah, like, you have to put those bunnies in. Otherwise, it just-- it's going to totally nuke your offense, which it has so far, right? Like, since Jakob Poeltl arrived, they've stunk from 2-point range. And that has been totally debilitating to their offense. And if they can just get Scottie back to where he was last year, where he was like, 61% at the rim, as opposed to 57% at the rim, if you could just get slight incremental improvements from these guys from those areas where they typically live, where they get to those spots all the time, Scottie walks into that short floater range whenever he wants, those got to fall. And then the 3-point shooting also has to be there as well because it's the NBA, and everyone scores a bazillion points a game. You need three--

AMIT MANN: Except the Raptors, yes.

SEAN WOODLEY: So for me--

AMIT MANN: Except the raptors.

SEAN WOODLEY: Yeah, exactly. They've picked the wrong time to skew defense for sure in terms of NBA history. Like, Scottie's touch both in and out, that is the key to the ceiling of this team being raised, to keeping the guys you have now, and having it be a viable team that could be a real heavy hitter in the Eastern Conference one day. I still think they can be pretty good if you don't get that full development from Scottie, just because they have good players, their defense is going to help drive them to wins. But to me, like, that Scottie shooting both now and in the future is so bloody important.

Otherwise, Pascal maybe becomes the guy you have to look at shipping out in exchange for better shooting, which would be a really grim and terrible thing to happen because I love Pascal Siakam. I'm probably, like, too clouded, and I probably can't logically think about the idea of moving on from Pascal because I'm far too emotionally attached to him. He's like, my second favorite Raptor of all time behind Kyle. I could cop to that. That's fine.

But I also think you shouldn't be in the business of trying to move on from top 15 players in the league, All-NBA players because the fit is weird with another guy on your team. And I think you've got to just hope for that internal growth. Is Scottie capable of that? I don't know. But-- and I would skew towards thinking he can do it to some degree. Maybe he's not going to become Klay Thompson, but can he become a passable 3-point shooter and get that touch from 2-point range back? I think that's on the table.


SEAN WOODLEY: But it's got to happen. Otherwise, this whole thing, I think, kind of falls apart.

AMIT MANN: It's amazing how much these questions inform each other. It's like the Raptors need more shooting, and that would help Pascal Siakam in 2-point range, it would help Scottie Barnes in 2-point range, it would help Fred VanVleet in 2-point range. The best portion we saw from Scottie this season is when he was in that Jakob Poeltl role, where he was screening and rolling. He was more of an initiator from the nail area. And he was thriving at that point.

Like, it's funny with him, that he's capable of more, but they need him to be doing something else. And nowadays, especially when the Yak and Fred pick and roll is so good, they need him to be a spacer and they need him to hit shots. And other teams are like, yeah, we'll let him do that. That's cool. No problem. You want to let him shoot four, five 3's a game? That's totally fine with us.

So you're right, that is one of the things. Did you catch that a few weeks ago, Nick Nurse, he was asked about Jakob Poeltl. And he was saying, oh, he's not a 3-- someone asked him, so he's not a 3-point shooter? And then Nick under the breath said, not yet. I was like, whoa, what's on your mind?

SEAN WOODLEY: Good luck, man.

AMIT MANN: Let's start with free throws first. But yeah, I like the thinking.

SEAN WOODLEY: Yeah, I like the thinking too. I don't think there is any chance in hell it happens. But yeah, I mean, the thing too, I think, to keep in mind as well, we talked about with Pascal, right? He's adjusting to something new that he's not been doing for a while. Like, this has been a strange second season for Scottie Barnes.

AMIT MANN: No question.

SEAN WOODLEY: He's been asked to do a lot of different things in a lot of different spots. He's played point guard. He's been a center. Now he's playing this more sort of wing role. And like, there are certainly moments and flashes where it's like, oh, my god, when this guy puts it all together, this is going to be an unstoppable force of a human being on a basketball court. And that's still one of his outcomes, right?

Like, there's still an outcome here where he is just so physically imposing and so adept with his playmaking that he becomes one of the best players alive. Do I think it's likely he becomes one of those seven guys who can lead the champion-- lead a team to a title? Probably not, because I think it's unlikely for any player to become that because there's only so many of them. But like, he's got, I think, just like, the tools and the flashes that make you think, hey, that could still happen.


SEAN WOODLEY: And I think you got to hopefully see if he can kind of have a bit more of a steady role next season, kind of, define what his role is going to be in the offseason so he can focus in on very specific development related to that role. It's not that I think you should funnel him down one development track or anything like that. But he's very clearly got the screening, middle of the floor surveyor-type thing kind of down. Like, that feels like a thing you can kind of take to the bank, is a way you could use Scottie Barnes.

But in this wing more, sort of, centric role, he hasn't figured it out yet. It's been 11 games. He probably will figure it out to some degree. And there were flashes, what was it, in the second Wizards game, where he hit like, three mid-range jumpers, and it's like, oh, all right.


SEAN WOODLEY: Now we're talking. Like, if that stuff happens more often, then you're cooking with gas. But that's-- as we're talking about swing skills and things that are going to raise the ceiling, like, I feel like they've built this team with the idea that Scottie is the guy who is their vehicle towards upward mobility. He's got to make good on it now. And I'm not saying he can't or won't or will, but that's the reality they're in right now. There's a lot riding on Scottie Barnes figuring this thing out so everything else can fall into place.

AMIT MANN: And what you love about him is how malleable he is on the court. And like, he's playing backup point guard for the Raptors now, right? And that's great. I love seeing the two-man actions with him and Gary Trent Jr. I love seeing him just like, spam that pick and roll with Gary and him in that second Wizards game, where Gary had 26 points or whatever. And he was making those play calls. So that was him on the court. And that's where you seen that headiness.

You-- he wants the ball in his hands. But at the same time, we mentioned Fred VanVleet, why do you need him on the court is because Fred's smart with the ball, and the Raptors can't turn over the ball. And they need to win the possession battle because they don't have shooting because they can't hit 2's. And all these things, like I said, inform each other. And so it's hard to give-- just take the reins off and give Scottie, you know, go out there and do your thing, when you're trying to win games. And he's just not ready to be a full time point guard yet, but he's certainly ready to be a playmaker. And so the Raptors are trying to balance that.

I would love to see him find ways to be more aggressive throughout a game.


AMIT MANN: And that's-- you know, fourth quarter Scottie is perfect, but-- and I know you can't sustain that for 48 minutes, but I would like to see him be more assertive with his offense. And that is in his control. I mean, I understand that he wants to read and understand the teams, he wants to get everyone else involved. But sometimes, they just need you. Like, "you are the play" at points, to quote CJ Miles.

You are the play, all right? So when you collapse the defense, when you bring a double, then do your playmaking, make it happen for yourself. And then you are doing exactly what you want to do. You want-- you're passing on the ball, you're rebounding, and you're just going to get into tune with the player that you want to be sooner and for a longer duration of the game.

You mentioned the 3-point shooting. For sure, Pascal Siakam, similar scenario. He's improved quite a bit as a catch-and-shoot player. And he's been more than willing to be that off-ball player. I see him in the corner sometimes just like, ready to go. And sometimes it goes in. Other times it doesn't. But in 2023, he's been fairly consistent from 3. And that's been a positive sign.

Precious Achiuwa, I don't want to get all over him a little bit, you know? He's had a rough stretch. And we talk about players finding themselves in new roles. And he's had to make a pretty big transition himself with Jakob Poeltl coming in. And I think he's still figuring it out. But I mean, we saw what he did last season. And he was an instrumental part of them having the second half that they did. If he's able to get in tune with that for like 10 games here, it would be really helpful.

SEAN WOODLEY: No doubt, man. Like, you talk about the ceiling raising, and Scottie is obviously the first and foremost guy you think of there, but Precious is part of that too. And we saw it last year. When Precious was a catch and shoot, could drive off the catch, wing type, essentially, he was kind of playing like a-- like a-- like a two guard more than anything else, like, that was a really damn good player who changed a lot for the Raptors.

And you think about the development of Scottie Barnes as well, right? Like, if you're able to pair him with a Precious as a pick and roll partner, but it's not just pick and roll, it's pick and pop, that's another thing he can work on, those pick and pop reads, stuff like that, having an actual shooting threat to run pick and roll with in a way that Jakob Poeltl is not, can you negate the lack of shooting Scottie has by having a pick and pop partner as sort of a backup big option who you can work with and mix in and have a different look, that's super important.

And Precious, his defense plays, right? He doesn't have to do much offensively to justify being out there Because he's a menace defensively. He's so bloody good, can stay in front of anybody. And really, I think he's just really special on that end. But it's just like the slow decision making on offense that's sort of baffling, just like, holding the ball for too long, and then making a really just, like, ludicrous read out of it, that stuff's got to go away. I don't know how you teach that stuff. I'm sure they're thinking about how you teach that stuff.

But like, Precious is at his best when he's not thinking, right? And I do wonder if maybe that sort of more wing-centric role is better for him. And maybe that comes on this team, maybe it doesn't. Like, maybe he's a guy you use as a potential, like, trade sweetener in the offseason. I don't think I'd like that. Like, I want to see Precious thrive on this team.

AMIT MANN: But I hear what you're saying, though. I hear you.

SEAN WOODLEY: Yeah, like, it's just-- it's fit, right? It's the complementary pieces, do they come together then make a team that makes sense? When you lack a super duper star player, the fit is extremely important and the way the puzzle pieces fit is massive. And if he's not going to shoot, that's a big problem. This is a team that needs shooting and could definitely use shooting from a big man like Precious to offer different looks. Even if you're working, you know, you're closing a game, Yak's having trouble in a certain match-up because he's more of a drop big, and they're asking him to come up too high, and he's getting blown by, Precious is a foil for that as a guy who can switch everything and be just a total game changer defensively with a different look than Yak. That's amazing, but it only works if he's doing enough for you offensively.

And I wonder if the interior decision making stuff is just maybe not really his bag. He's always kind of struggled with that. But if you can put him out on the wing, put him on the perimeter, have him catch and quickly attack off of drives, use that crazy first step he's got, use the 3-point stroke, which doesn't look broken, it just seems like it's off for whatever reason this season, but like, there's a smooth-looking stroke there, I feel like simplifying things for him to allow him to not have to think so much about his offense while his defense is out there doing his defense thing, like, that's the way to go. I just-- I don't know if we're going to see it this year. I admit, this is maybe just like a lost developmental year for Precious, the injury, the changing roles, all of that. Maybe it's too much to overcome.

But there's certainly a really good player there, who-- before they got Yak, if you were still a vision 6' 9" believer, it's because you believed Precious Achiuwa could be the guy to tie it all together as the guy who could stir the drink as your big man in those-- those lineups, who could bring those big man skills.


SEAN WOODLEY: Maybe the cat's out of the bag on the true big man skills for him. But there's obviously a lot for him to offer. Just hit some bloody 3's, buddy. Like, not even 40% like it was at the end of last year, just like 36. Give me 36%--

AMIT MANN: League average.

- --three attempts.

AMIT MANN: I'll take it, yeah.

SEAN WOODLEY: Man, that would be so such a like a valuable addition to what they got going and would give a different look and just more malleability to the types of lineups They could play.

AMIT MANN: This is the pros and cons of having a read and react offense. A player like Fred could really thrive in it. However, other players that need some structure, you know, that don't need the leash off, they could probably have trouble understanding where their shots are supposed to come from. In that Clippers game, Scottie had a few mid-range shots where I'm sure he's just like, I don't usually shoot from here. And he missed him.

He had several opportunities to hit some of those, and they were wide open for him, but they're along the baseline. I think I recall two of them late in the fourth quarter area. And I'm probably thinking that he's just like, I don't usually practice these shots. However, I mean, you want a player to be practicing from every spot on the court. But I think it would help a shooter, for instance, or anyone, if you know you're going to get the ball around the baseline, around the 45, around the nail or whatever, and that's where you're going to be getting the ball on these particular sets, then it probably would increase your chances of being able to hit that shot.

But that is the modern NBA. That is the modern offense, where you want players to just make decisions a little bit faster and to be comfortable just throwing something out there and being innovative and creative. And talent has never been better in the NBA. So I understand why you'd want to do that.