Stage Set For The Bright Lights

by Vivek Jacob

Last pre-season felt rushed and like a slog both at the same time. The Raptors had barely begun adjusting to life in Tampa Bay when they began their set of exhibition games, struggled to establish an identity, and were always behind the eight ball after that.

This time around, the coaching staff was able to get a look at everyone on the roster, the veterans got their legs under them, and the young players were able to release some of their restless energy. All the while, it has become exceedingly clear who these Raptors will be on opening night and throughout the 2021-22 season: a long, strong, and fast team that will stop at nothing to showcase those attributes regardless of which five players step on the court.

On an individual level, there were several key storylines that emerged over the five games and here are the biggest ones:

OG HAS LEVELED UP

There is no bigger news for this team than OG Anunoby looking as sharp offensively as many have dreamed he would since he was drafted four years ago.

Anunoby finished the pre-season averaging 19.3 points in just over 25 minutes per game while shooting 54.2 percent from deep and knocking down 12-of-13 free-throw attempts. Especially in the context of the time Pascal Siakam will miss early on, this is such a crucial development. Once Siakam does return, it’s exciting to think of how much more variety there will be to the Raptors’ attack with possibly three players -- when you throw in Fred VanVleet -- who could average 20 points per game.

Goran Dragic, who knows a fair bit about scoring at the NBA level and has battled Anunoby in the past, has been extremely impressed by what he’s seen so far.

“In pre-season he looked really good, especially his iso game,” Dragic said. “He’s [a] really strong, strong body. I don’t think he has realized how strong he is. He can use his body really well and his shot was amazing. He improved a lot of his shots. We are going to need everything from him. He’s that type of player, two-way player that can play offence and defense so it’s a luxury to have.”

COAST-TO-COAST PRECIOUS

One of the most pleasant surprises of pre-season has been seeing Precious Achiuwa snag a rebound on the defensive end, race down the court, then use subtle feints or even a euro step to finish at the other end. The Raptors want to be a team that can switch on the defensive end at will and Achiuwa has already shown he fits right into that style of play with several impressive showings defending on the perimeter.

“That’s one of the skills that I have, quick feet, quickness, being able to slide laterally and not just vertically,” Achiuwa explained. “I use that to my advantage when I’m guarding smaller guys, to keep them in front of me and go side-to-side with them and cut off their move. That’s one of the things that goes back to versatility, having guys that can do a lot of things, not just on offence but on defence as well.”

Going up against considerable size will certainly present its issues, but Achiuwa is clearly a skilled big man that the Raptors are happy to see scratch all over the surface.

SCOTTIE KNOWS SHARING IS CARING

Check Scottie Barnes’ Instagram page and you’ll see him showering his teammates from fellow rookie Dalano Banton to the veteran Dragic with plenty of love and support. Unsurprisingly, that trends over to the hardwood as well.

Barnes finished pre-season averaging a team-best 5.6 assists per game, showcasing plenty of flair with his dishes, too. The combination of no-look passes as well as bounce passes through traffic would impress even the great Magic Johnson, and it’s becoming clearer with each opportunity to showcase his skills that Barnes has his own bit of showtime to his game.

Defensively, Anunoby has grown accustomed to defending the opposing team’s best player but Barnes already showed he can help shoulder some of that load with impressive defensive performances against both Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics and the Wizards’ Bradley Beal. Barnes is here for all his teammates.

SVIJI WET LIKE FIJI

One of the players Barnes has shown love to on IG and even blessed with a nickname is Svi Mykhailiuk. The Ukrainian guard has been excellent through pre-season and at this point it’s fairly evident that he can make meaningful contributions off the bench.

Despite being a young, new face himself, Mykhailiuk showed no hesitation in taking charge of the lineups he featured in and set the tone offensively on several occasions. Whether it’s off the dribble or rising up from deep, Mykhailiuk’s multidimensional offensive skill-set has been one of the finds of the pre-season.

ENTER THE DRAGON

The mark of a quality veteran player is one who always knows what time it is. Prior to the final tune-up against the Wizards, Dragic seemed as though he was easing into his own rhythm while better understanding the tendencies of those around him.

Nothing was held back on Tuesday, though, as Dragic scored 16 points in 22 minutes while making 4-of-5 three-point attempts. He attacked the paint with vigour and hunted down spot-up opportunities from deep. It makes for an intriguing decision for Nurse in terms of who to start between Dragic and Gary Trent Jr. -- who brings his own scoring prowess -- and the Wizards game showed there’s a case to be made either way.

LAST CHANCE SALOON

There’s still time to shake off any remaining rust before opening night and get more comfortable with the team’s schemes as the season goes on, but one thing that will be sorted pretty soon is who will occupy the final roster spots on the team.

Coach Nurse already confirmed the Raptors will be picking up Yuta Watanabe’s option, which leaves a bit of musical chairs as two spots remain for three players after Freddie Gillespie and Reggie Perry were waived: Ish Wainwright, Isaac Bonga, and Sam Dekker.

While Bonga impressed enough against the Rockets to earn a start against the Wizards, it was Dekker who made the most of the final opportunity to showcase his skills. He dropped 18 points in lightning quick time including 4-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc to make a pretty loud case for anyone listening. Wainwright also made an impression, with the former carrying over the hot shooting he had in Summer League over to pre-season.

“They both played really good, there’s no doubt and Sam certainly got hot there,” Nurse said. “It’s going to make the decisions tougher, I think, as we move forward. We’re going to have to talk it over and think through it a little bit and see what we end up with.”

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