By Pete Baxter
The 2021 NBA offseason is shaping up to be a truly pivotal one for the Toronto Raptors.
For starters, it is the end of an era. In fact, it is the end of the greatest era of Raptors basketball, with Kyle Lowry moving on to Miami. While signs had long been pointing to Lowry’s eventual departure from the city where he became a six-time All Star and an NBA champion, it was no less of a shock to Raptors fans.
Just a week prior, the Raptors made the most surprising pick of this year’s NBA draft. They chose to pass on Gonzaga star guard Jalen Suggs in favor of lesser-known freshman point-forward Scottie Barnes out of Florida State. This surprise pick led to mixed reactions from fans and media. It also drove further speculation that the team could be shopping star forward Pascal Siakam on the trade market.
Needless to say, it has been an eventful week in Jurassic Park. Let’s take a closer look at the specific decisions the Raptors’ front office has made so far this offseason, and where they may go from here.
The Draft Round One – Grade: B+
Call me an optimist, but I find Scottie Barnes to be the most intriguing pick in the draft. It was a big swing by Raptors’ GM Bobby Webster and company with the fourth pick.
Barnes is extremely physically gifted, a strong 6’8” with a 7’3” wingspan. He spent his freshman season at Florida State as the sixth man (earning ACC Sixth Man of the Year honors as well as being named ACC Freshman of the Year). He put up respectable averages of 10.3 points, 4.1 assists, four rebounds and 1.5 steals a game.
Those numbers don’t paint a truly accurate picture of the young man’s true potential, however. Barnes will enter the league as an elite defender at just 20 years old. With his size, length, and outstanding athleticism, he can defend any position on the court.
He can also essentially play any position one-through-five on the offensive end. Barnes spent the majority of his playing time at point guard in college. He proved himself to be an elite passer and playmaker for his size, drawing comparisons to Draymond Green and Ben Simmons. Barnes will provide an amazing level of flexibility for the Raptors lineup, as anything from a backup point guard to Fred VanVleet to potentially a smallball center.
Unfortunately, not unlike the stars to which he has been compared (Green and more so Simmons), Barnes’ one most notable weakness is his shooting touch. In college he shot just 62.1% from the free throw line and 27.5% from three-point range.
Fortunately, he steps into a Raptors coaching system known for its ability to develop young players. The team’s current core of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and O.G. Anunoby are all home-grown talents. Early reports from the team’s training staff seem shine with optimism, claiming that Barnes shooting form has already shown improvement.
Prior to the controversial selection was made, it came out that presumptive pick Jalen Suggs had put on a poor showing at his workout for the Raptors. That, along with his apparent enthusiasm while watching Barnes go to Toronto instead, has led to speculation that Suggs had no interest in playing in Canada. While this is pure speculation, it does add further credence to the team’s decision to go with Barnes instead. Suggs would be far from the first star to scoff at playing north of the border.
The Draft Round Two- Grade: B
In the second round, the Raptors first took Dalano Banton out of Nebraska with the 46th pick. Interestingly, Banton is another “point-forward” of sorts, with a game not unlike Barnes. Banton is nearly 6’8” himself with a 6’10” wingspan. He ran the point in Nebraska as a redshirt Sophomore. He put up respectable averages of 9.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, one steal and one block.
Like Barnes, he is a solid defender thanks to his long, lanky frame and size advantage over smaller guards. He will add even more potential flexibility to a Raptors lineup that increasingly seems to set the bar for the new “position-less” brand of basketball that seems to be gradually taking over the league.
However, also like the player drafted before him, Banton struggles to shoot the ball. He shot a lowly 24.7% from three in college. Banton should be given a long leash to develop however and is expected to start the season in the G-League. He is certainly a developmental project, but an intriguing one.
The Raptors wrapped up their draft by taking David Johnson out of Louisville with the 47th pick. Johnson is a more traditional combo guard. At a stocky 6’3,” Johnson is a streaky shooter who averaged 12.6 points, an impressive 5.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.1 steals per game as a sophomore. He shot a solid 38.6% from three as a sophomore, a considerable improvement from his freshman season. Encouraging to Raptors fans, his game (and his build) has drawn some generous Lowry comparisons.
Like Banton, Johnson will most likely start the season in the G-League. However, if he continues to improve the consistency of his shooting, he could find himself cracking the Raptors’ roster as a fringe rotation piece sooner rather than later.
Overall, the Raptors prioritized defense and flexibility with this draft. These are focuses consistent with the current structure of the team. Barnes in particular gives the Raptors some intriguing possibilities with their lineup.
While Jalen Suggs may have been a more NBA-ready star, his fit in an already crowded backcourt of VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr. and last year’s first-round pick Malachi Flynn would have been questionable, and his apparent distaste for playing in Toronto was a major red flag. I can say with confidence that I believe the Raptors made the right choice here.
It has yet to be seen if Barnes selection should be seen as foreshadowing about Siakam’s future with the team. Rumors briefly swirled around trade talks with the Trailblazers to swap Siakam for C.J. McCollum, but those talks don’t appear to have gained any serious traction. At this point, I would anticipate Siakam starting the season as a Raptor.
Free Agency Day 1 – Grade: I (incomplete)
While there are several moves left to be made in the coming days (namely nailing down the starting center position), the Raptors did an eventful Day 1 of free agency.
The team was able to come to a new deal with last season’s deadline acquisition, Gary Trent Jr. The Raptors had swapped Norman Powell for Trent Jr. primarily in anticipation of Powell’s huge asking price in his own pending free agency. It appears they were correct in making this move.
Norman Powell got the bag from Portland with a 5-year, $90 million deal. Meanwhile, Trent Jr., a superior defender, considerably younger player at just 22-years old, and comparable offensive threat, accepted a considerably more team-friendly deal from Toronto of 3-years at $54 million.
The Raptors were able to lock down their shooting guard of the future. Trent Jr. showed flashes of brilliance since joining the Raptors last season. He averaged 16.2 points on 35.5% from three-point range, including a 44-point career high performance. This was an ideal contract for the team and the player and deserves an A+ as a stand-alone deal.
The Trent Jr. signing was far from the biggest news of the day, however. In one of the first reported moves of the free agency period, Raptors legend and arguably the franchise’s greatest player, is headed to Miami in a sign-and-trade deal.
Kyle Lowry, at 35 years old, signed on to join the Heat for three years at $90 million. While it is certainly a sad day for Raptors fans, few would argue their long-time, All-Star point guard doesn’t deserve to cash in one more time.
However, at the time of writing this article, the ultimate specifics of the deal are still foggy. It is being speculated that the Raptors will receive back veteran Slovenian combo guard Goran Dragic and young power forward Precious Achiuwa along with a future second-round draft pick. Achiuwa, a strong 6’9”, 225 lbs forward, is certainly a welcome addition to the Raptors’ front court, where the lack of depth is the primary shortcoming of this roster.
However, Dragic, the priciest piece of the package coming back, may never don a Raptors jersey. While the Lowry sign-and-trade was announced almost immediately after free agency opened this evening, the exact details of the deal have still not been announced. It is widely believed that the factor holding up the release of specific details is Toronto’s efforts to add a third team to the deal to move Dragic. The Dallas Mavericks, who are building around Dragic’s fellow Slovenian countryman Luka Doncic, are expected to make a move to acquire the 35-year-old.
The Raptors, who still have a gaping hole at the center position, could be seeking one of the Mavericks’ bigs in return. While Kristaps Porzingis and Dwight Powell are two names that have been floated, we will likely have to wait until sometime Tuesday to find out where Dragic finally ends up.
Ultimately, the Raptors were able to keep their promising young shooting guard on a very fair deal. While they will part with one of their franchise’s great stars, they don’t lose him for nothing. Letting Lowry simply walk would have been catastrophic. In the end, whether it be Achiuwa and Dragic or a big from a third team, they acquired several assets of value.
However, until they are able to find their starting center of the future, they can only receive an incomplete grade for their free agency efforts thus far. They missed out on Jarrett Allen (who signed a $100 million deal to stay in Cleveland) and Richaun Holmes seemed destined to stay in Sacramento. Do the Raptors put their faith in last year’s breakout Khem Birch? Do they go all-in for Porzingis?
More to come from Toronto.