The Toronto Raptors need to find their Kawhi Leonard.
Watching Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday was yet another treat. It was another clinic of incomprehensible efficiency via elite, ruthless, and almost practice session-like ball movement.
And on this Finals night, it was Leonard that was the catalyst. In watching this team, it appears that the catalyst could be about seven different guys. So watching the Spurs and their 76 percent shooting for entire halves of basketball, well, it’s inspiring me to get even more invested in stock piling Leonard, Tiago Splitter, and (gasp!) Danny Green-type guys. As I’ve said before, it isn’t easy for me to get too excited about the NBA Draft’s usually shallow talent pool and run on international guys that the expects say “may be a factor in a few years.”
I’m all in this season, though, and it’s guys like Leonard that are the inspiration. He’s a multi-talented player with a high defensive intensity and overall high effort style. Honestly, he’s just the type that would have dropped in the draft due to being something of a finished product with a lower ceiling than some of the unknown quantities. That ceiling looks fine to me, as he fits exactly how they wanted and envisioned him to fit: as a main cog in a basketball machine that harbors no bias, as long as you buy in.
Leonard bought in and I’m buying in too. For once, I have some expectations for the players in the 2014 Draft and I’m buying in on the Raptors’ 20th pick. I’m doing so especially in a draft waxed by the pundits as unusually deep.
Again, I don’t feel the need to justify any excitement by stating that the Spurs have some sort of superior developmental program or philosophy and that the draft for them is a different exercise than for the other teams. Perhaps there is a semblance of truth to that, but conceding such a thing isn’t what we do in sports, even if clear signs were to point in that direction.
The Raptors can hang their hats on building the core of their team through the draft. In 2012, Terrence Ross was picked one spot before Andre Drummond. I cannot be sure what the thinking was there, but having Jonas Valanciunas probably took Drummond out of their consideration if they even liked him at all. There were huge questions about Drummond’s motor. The Ross pick was good and most can see that he has a big future in Toronto.
Besides, no one after Drummond and Houston’s Terrence Jones has done much at all. The picks of both Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan were appropriate at the time and have paid dividends. Valanciunas was a wild card given his contract situation overseas and took a leap of faith on the part of the Raptors, one that that Cavaliers were not willing to take at pick No. 4, where they opted for the safer Tristan Thompson.
The more I look at mocks from experts to novices, the more I come to realize that the Raptors will have options at No. 20, from established college players like Leonard was, to talents who have proven little, to European projects that the Spurs have crafted and developed better than any other team in the NBA.
While Elfrid Payton, the big point guard from Louisiana-Lafayette, was the trendy pick for the Raptors over the winter, his stock has steadily risen and I expect that one or more teams is going to fall in love with his Rondo-like potential and take him before the Raptors pick.
No, my guy now for the Leonard-like impact in the middle of the first round is either Adreian Payne from Michigan State or Cleanthony Early of Wichita State. Both can come in and contribute right away, especially Payne with some of the depth concerns behind Amir Johnson. Both will drop due to age and upside concerns, even though both have accomplished college careers.
The Raptors already have their team built around high upside guys who are still learning the nuances of the game in Ross, DeRozan, and Valanciunas. Never would I have thought that a guy as talented and accomplished as Early or Payne would be at pick No. 20, but it appears to be the combination of a deep pool and the overthinking of GMs all across the NBA.
Kawhi Leonard dropped because he didn’t quite fit the lottery ticket dream that franchises hang hopes on. If the Raptors are presented with a scenario to take that guy, they must not pass. It’s about supplementing the core now. I think they are in a good position to put the Eastern Conference on notice. Even if it’s just a little blip on the radar, for now.