As we spoke about in the last column, things appear to be looking up for the Toronto Raptors. In recent years, all the fans and media could project was a lottery-bound offseason and empty stats for a “star” former No. 1 overall pick who was no more than a delicate flower when it came to everything but outside shooting. While that flower is now New York’s concern, the Raptors can focus on improving and securing a playoff bid for the first time since 2008. In last column’s State of the Squad, we broke down some of the things we were big fans of and some we were not. This time, let’s address some early things to watch for that may be an indicator of bigger things to come this season:
1. An efficient Kyle Lowry: We love Lowry’s aggression and offensive mindset. You could not ask much more of him as a defender. He is a slasher and can get where he wants on the court. But we could argue that while he did average six assists last season, he is not a great point guard. With more options at the Raptors’ disposal this season, however, Lowry will have to morph into a more complete lead guard. Lowry’s .401 field goal percentage is simply not good enough for him to be putting up volume shots. His previous season at .409 was not much better and they were both seasons that he put up more than four 3s per game. In both 2007 and 2008, he only shot 1.5 3s per game and his field goal percentages were .432 and .435, respectively. Simply put, Lowry needs to focus on defending and rebounding, which he does great for a point guard, and get into the paint and finish or create easy baskets for Jonas Valanciunas. He also has elite scorers in DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay. Remember that, Kyle.
2. Less outside shooting from DeRozan: DeRozan is one of the NBA’s most jaw-dropping athletes and he scores almost 20 points per game. He can seemingly do what he wants as a slasher and is continuing to improve. As I said in the last column, I think his ceiling is Tracy McGrady. That might be blasphemous, but if DeRozan focuses on his his advantages at the 2 guard–and he has many–then it is reasonable to think he can take another big step this season. The last two seasons his 3-point percentages were .261 and .283, respectively. This is not efficient and DeRozan knows it. It has been reported that he is working diligently on his 3-point shot and coach Dwane Casey claims that he has “really improved” in that area. That is good to hear and with the inevitable double teams that Valanciunas will face from the outset, DeRozan will have his share of open looks. We still contend that DeRozan would be better off posting up many of the smaller shooting guards that he will face. The Toronto Sun reported that DeRozan is becoming more cognizant of his size advantage and will look to exploit that more often. In that same Sun article,Raps won’t even discuss word “tanking,” it was reported that DeRozan shot only 24.5 percent of his shots in the restricted area and 13.1 percent in the paint. For someone with his athleticism, those numbers are not acceptable. While DeRozan needs to work to improve his weaknesses, but he must look to accentuate his advantages.
3. Dirty work being done at the 4: A one-two punch of Amir Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough at power forward is a move in the opposite direction. These two are the antithesis of Andrea Bargnani and no one is looking back. The Raptors will have plenty of scoring from the other four starters. It will be up to Johnson and Hansbrough to provide grit and rebounding. Hansbrough has carved out such a niche in his time with the Pacers and Johnson is more than willing to embrace the role, saying, “I’m the guy you don’t have to worry about. I’m not the guy who wants to be in the limelight or the star player. I just want to win.” In averaging 10 points and 7.5 rebounds in 28 minutes last season, he appears to be the ideal guy next to a budding star. If Johnson and Hansbrough are doing what is asked, everyone around them will be better, especially Valanciunas. We expect nothing less.
Obviously, there are will be more indicators to look for as the season begins, but these three in particular will put the Raptors in the best position to succeed. Everyone knowing their role and having their eye on the playoff prize is more than we could say about the Raptors in recent years.