When Preparation Meets Opportunity

When O.G. Anunoby caught the ball near the left corner with just under five minutes remaining and looked to attack early as the double-team came, Chris Boucher stormed to the paint for a potential pass or offensive rebound the way he usually does when Nick Nurse summons him from the bench for a substitution. Watch plays from a season ago, when a shot’s about to go up, and you’d usually see Dalano Banton look to do the same as well.

In fact, as the play unfolds, Banton takes his first few steps forward in keeping with his old habits. He quickly retreats, though, behind the three-point line where he still hasn’t earned the full respect of defenders and is wide open for a kick-out for a right-wing three.

At the blink of an eye, Anunoby makes the right read, Banton catches and releases, and the ball finds nothing but the bottom of the net.

“Definitely feel more confident,” Banton said after the game. “Just trusting in the work that you put in, they [coaches and players] always tell me that, they’re always there for me, keep feeding me open shots whether I miss or make. I’m just glad I have the teammates that I have that keep putting the ball in my hands when I’m open to shoot.”

Banton finished the game with more than a couple jumpers to show for it. In his second career start, he finished with 27 points, four rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks in a 115-111 win over the Detroit Pistons that the team desperately needed. With Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., and Precious Achiuwa all inactive due to a variety of ailments, and Otto Porter Jr. joining them for the second half, Toronto needed contributions wide and far and while this was a true team effort, Banton was a standout performer.

“He obviously scored it really well,” Nurse said. “Had him off the ball a bunch as well. He is kind of naturally a point guard but when we’ve got other lineups in there I like having him off the ball so he’s not under so much duress to make plays all the time. I think sprinkling him on and off the ball helps him set up some people and then obviously he’s shooting the ball very well this year. When he’s catching and faced up you’re expecting him to make them now which is a huge step forward for him. He obviously had a great game.”

The recently turned 23-year-old has certainly had his share of issues as a primary initiator for the Raptors offence and his ball handling isn’t quite up to scratch at the NBA level. Having players like Scottie Barnes, Thad Young, and even Anunoby who has moved up the offensive hierarchy with the numerous absences to feed off seemed to agree with Banton, but his outside shot plays a significant role in making that possible. Banton can attack open spaces in transition or semi transition but those spaces seem few and far between in the half-court. Defenders are more than happy to give him the jumper right now, and it’s encouraging that Banton appears to not only have made a leap in having the confidence to take them, but make them as well.

Banton made 13 three-pointers all of last season, and attempted just 51(25.5 percent). So far this season, he’s already got 11 makes to his name after three against Detroit and is on pace to more than triple his attempts from last season. It’s still a small sample size but the eye test shows that the form is pure and there’s every reason to keep getting them up on a team that will take all the outside shooting it can get. The work he’s put in on his shooting stroke isn’t just reflected in his numbers from beyond the arc, either, as Banton has made significant strides at the free-throw line as well.

The first signs of this came during Summer League in Las Vegas where he made 83 percent of his free-throws but evidence began to mount in action for Canada at the FIBA AmeriCup where he went 19-for-24 (79.2 percent) at the line. Banton shot just 26-for-44 (59.1 percent) at the free-throw line last NBA season and is now 14-for-16 in ‘22-23 after a 6-for-6 night against the Pistons.

“We’ve worked on some technique and mechanics things with him to move it a little bit more where he can shoot the ball a little bit straighter and things like that. That’s a small part of it but then the work has to come after that. I just like the confidence he’s shooting them with, that’s part of it, too, to understand that you can take ‘em and make ‘em in NBA games.”

Confidence in shooting the ball from both beyond the arc as well as at the line are imperative for any player, but perhaps even more so for Banton whose current strengths could be amplified by those two factors. If he’s confident in knocking down free throws, there can be less hesitation than perhaps last season where even getting to the rack and getting fouled left him failing to capitalize at the line. When teams respect his ability to drive or if he’s playing off-ball as he was plenty of times against Detroit, the three–point shot can make opponents pay.

The next sign of progress will come when teams are respecting Banton enough to properly close out on him and minimize the space he has for a jumper. Will that come at any point during the regular season or not until the post-season as we saw with Precious Achiuwa after a couple big performances in the playoffs? That will come down to Banton maintaining the consistency of his new-found stroke, continuing to be comfortable taking the shots when he’s open. It’s one thing to do it when there’s several stars missing and there’s no need to look over your shoulder, it’s entirely another when you see those players on the court with you and can start to question if you should really be taking the shot.

“Going through the training with the Raptors development team and trusting in the process,” Banton identified as the keys to his confidence. “The tweaks and things they want to make to my shot. Trying to get it off faster, game-like shots, it’s definitely a lot of reps, putting in a lot of reps trying to master your craft and doing what you can in your own time, working out to produce during the game.”

Banton generated a fair bit of buzz with his pre-season play and Nurse was among those leading his praise. It hasn’t quite panned out the way the Rexdale native would have liked to begin the season, but the slew of injuries have provided an opportunity for Banton to genuinely get his feet wet and perhaps find his footing.

Just as with the repeated reps over and over again that had him prepared to knock down a big shot in the fourth quarter, repeating the success of this night in Detroit is what will keep Banton in the rotation.