Raptors Are Back In A Place Of Comfort At The Draft

by Chris O'Leary

The setting is unremarkable but familiar and when it comes to the Toronto Raptors, it’s been surprisingly lucrative for them. Lodged in the middle and back end of the NBA draft once again, the Raptors will go to work on Wednesday looking to reach way back into the cupboard and pull out another gem or two. 

The Raptors have both of their picks in this year’s Draft, choosing 29th and then 59th overall. 

If you know this organization in any capacity, you know that over the last five years, drafting and player development are areas that it has thrived. Pascal Siakam, the future of the franchise, went 46th overall in 2016. OG Anunoby has emerged as the team’s top defensive player and appears to only be tapping into his potential on the offensive side of the game. The Raptors took him 23rd overall in 2017. The Milwaukee Bucks chose Norman Powell 46th overall in 2015 and he came to Toronto on a draft day trade. In his fifth season with the Raptors last year, he averaged a career-best 16 points per game. 

Remember also that Delon Wright (20th overall in 2015) and Jacob Poeltl (ninth overall in 2016) are building solid careers away from Toronto after being involved in the trades that helped build the 2019 Championship squad. 

Drafting is only a part of the Raptors’ equation for success with its rookies (we’ll get to the second half shortly, both here and in real life) but it’s been undeniably good to them over the last five years. 

“I would say now we have as a club, let's say a little bit of an identity and stability,” Patrick Engelbrecht, the Raptors’ director of global scouting and international affairs said on a call with reporters earlier this month. 

For essentially a generation of basketball fans, the San Antonio Spurs have been the standard for drafting and developing players that fit their system. That conversation lingers around the Raptors now in a similar fashion. 

“I think having a really creative coach like Nick Nurse and knowing what Nick values in a player, it then makes it easier whenever you're deciding between players who fit (for) us,” Engelbrecht said. 

“I think in the last few years it's been a little bit easier. When you're looking at talent versus talent and you're like, ‘Man, both of these guys are really, really talented.’ You can kind of rely on fit a little more than you have in the past because you know what style of basketball we're going to play, what brand of basketball we're going to play and how Nick can manipulate a guy's skills to get the most out of them. So I think with that, that's been a little bit of a competitive advantage.” 

The Raptors and the other 29 teams in the league will go into Wednesday’s virtual draft with a lead-in time that they’ve never experienced before. The pandemic has stretched the NBA’s calendar in ways that we’ve never seen. The cancellation of the NCAA’s tournament in March, along with the shutdown of basketball leagues around the world (including the G-League) threw a wrench in the evaluation process. The league’s summer restart delayed the draft and the subsequent signing of undrafted free agents and wiped out Summer League. And of course travel restrictions have kept scouts relatively grounded and kept prospects out of the OVO Centre, where the team would have been able to work them out and get to know them in a personal setting. 

“If you look at over the last five years, doing these draft workouts was never about checking their basketball skills,” Jama Mahlalela, the head coach of Raptors 905 told reporters on a call last week. 

“That’s something we did while they were in-market and you might as well check it while they’re there but it was much more about the interpersonal and who they were and getting that face-to-face time to get to know the athlete. 

“I think our group has done an amazing job of trying to do it over Zoom, as the whole world has adjusted. We’re still getting some of that interpersonal touch. I think it is different when you don’t have the person in front of you. I think that’s an important part of this thing but I think we’re adapting, everyone’s adapting. 

“This draft will be different. It will be done virtually, this whole thing will feel different. The main part of those workouts was to get to know the person and I think our group is doing a wonderful job of making that happen.” 

The one advantage that might come from this late draft is that NBA scouts and execs have had nothing but time to evaluate talent. The in-person component is missing, but this could be the most heavily researched and analyzed draft class in NBA history.  

“We’re not looking at it as a negative by any means,” Raptors assistant GM and VP of player personnel Dan Tolzman said on a conference call in late October. 

“The way that we do things to begin with, we don’t need to change much of our operation. We’re a front office that spends a lot of time digging in on guys throughout the entire season, not just during the pre-draft. 

“We feel pretty comfortable with where we were at in March when everything got changed. I think it comes down to trusting in our gut feeling on some of these players. It’ll be interesting to see if not just (for) us but teams in general, how the draft goes and if teams are basing their picks on gut feeling and video. How this goes could really change how people approach the draft going forward.” 

Beyond the draft lies that other area the Raptors have thrived in. The undrafted free-agent market is a rough that the organization has extracted more than its share of diamonds from, using the G League to turn post-draft signings into mainstays with the team. Fred VanVleet, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas and Oshea Brisett were undrafted signings. Chris Boucher was an Exhibit 10 signing that sharpened his game through time with Raptors 905, dominated the G League, winning MVP and defensive player of the year in 2019 and became a steady contributor last year. 

We’re still not sure what the G League season might look like this year, but player development will be key with the Raptors picks and post-draft signings. These are selections made with an eye to the future and we can assume/hope that the sports world can get back to its regularly-scheduled programming after this season. 

No matter how the G League season may look, there’s confidence in how the organization will be able to develop players. 

“We feel really comfortable in whoever we target and bring in,” Tolzman said. 

“We feel as long as we bring in the right types of guys that are wired the way that all the guys we’ve had success with are, regardless of what the season actually brings, the development work is still going to be there. 

“All the hours of work are still going to be put in and we fully trust our development staff to work with these guys. How it looks might be a little different but in the end, a few months down the line, we'll feel pretty comfortable with the trajectory that these guys are on.” 

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