The Toronto Raptors wrapped up their preseason on Tuesday night with a 113-108 win over the Washington Wizards, improving to 3-2. Their offence came alive in the final two games and their identity became clearer and clearer as the games went along, showing real signs of improvement both individually and collectively.
But considering that preseason results don’t actually matter, the most important thing we saw over the past couple weeks were individual performances that stood above the rest: leaps toward stardom from fourth-year wing OG Anunoby, tantalizing flashes of skill from sophomore big man Precious Achiuwa, winning plays from multi-dimensional rookie Scottie Barnes, and Svi Mykhailiuk doing more than just making outside shots. Here are four standout players from the Raptors’ 2021 preseason:
Preseason stats: 19.2 PPG, 4.0 RBG, 1.8 APG on 52/54/92 shooting
It would have been virtually impossible for Anunoby to have a better preseason. The 24-year-old wing entered camp with lofty expectations from a fanbase expecting him to shoulder the load until Pascal Siakam returns to play in November, and when asked at the beginning of camp about what he worked on this past offseason, Anunoby simply answered: “Everything.” While Anunoby isn’t exactly known to give thorough accounts of his life to reporters, it turned out to be the truth.
While maintaining the high level of defence that we have come to expect from him — averaging 1.5 steals per game in the preseason, a 23 percent steal rate, and guarding the best players — Anunoby improved on pretty much every aspect of his game. His handle is significantly tighter than it was the last time we saw him, allowing him to dribble through tight spaces and get to his spots, where he seems to have better balance finishing; his playmaking is improved, making the right reads out of post-ups when he gets double-teamed and finding relocating shooters when defences are caught ball-watching; he seems to be reading the game better, attacking mismatches without hesitation whether it’s by posting up a guard down low or taking big men off the dribble; and perhaps most importantly, after shooting a dreadful 27.9 percent on pull-up field goals last season, including 20.0 percent from three, Anunoby created his own shot at will in the preseason, with 46.2 percent of his threes and 53.8 percent of his twos coming unassisted, while notching a ridiculous 69.1 true shooting percentage.
His reliable pull-up shooting unlocks a new weapon for the Raptors' offence, and something they can go to even after Siakam returns to the fold. As Raptors’ head coach Nick Nurse said:
“The biggest thing it gives you is this: when you watch other teams play and they're really good, a lot of times they give a really good player the ball and he just looks you in the eye and shakes you down and busts a three. It's offence against good defensive teams that keeps the scoreboard moving. It's offence in the playoffs that keeps the scoreboard moving as well.
"And he does look really good and really confident out there, there's no doubt about it. Every time he takes it I think he’s making it. Even [with] the degree of difficulty sometimes. He's really, really worked hard at that part of this game and I think he'll continue to improve that.”
There has been a lot of talk about the Raptors making Anunoby their No. 1 option this season, even after Siakam returns. And while it’s probably more likely that the two wings have similar usage, likely both hovering around 25.0 percent each, Anunoby did everything possible to deserve more of the ball. Heck, even Fred VanVleet called Anunoby “our number one option right now.”
Preseason stats: 9.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 5.6 APG on 47/0/71 shooting splits
When the Raptors selected Barnes fourth overall ahead of Jalen Suggs in the 2021 draft, there was one word you heard over and over to describe Barnes: “raw.” And while his scoring is still very much a work in progress, it turns out Barnes isn’t that raw. He appears ready to contribute to a winning NBA team right off the jump, which is something very few rookies are capable of.
Barnes led the Raptors in assists per game in the preseason with 5.6 and only turned the ball over 1.8 times per night, good for an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3:1, translating his playmaking pop from Florida State to the size and speed of the NBA game without any real hurdles.
His transition offence was overwhelming for opposing defences, as his long strides and playmaking instinct give him four or five options from the time he picks up his dribble to when he has to make a play. His defence was as advertised, guarding everyone from centres to point guards, getting his hands in passing lanes and protecting the rim decently well.
But what makes Barnes special as a defender is his versatility. It’s a word we often use to describe who a player guards, but for Barnes, it’s also about how a player guards. Barnes has the potential to be one of the best ball-pressure guys in the NBA, hounding ball-handlers and making it difficult for them to run their sets, while also covering a ton of ground and helping protect the rim as an off-ball defensive player. And the ability to do both of those things in the same play is what makes him such a special defender.
Of course, Barnes is by no means a finished product, including on the defensive end. He gambles off his man way too often and gets burned for it, he’s foul prone (averaging a team-high 3.4 fouls per game), and he sometimes has trouble navigating screens, which is understandable at his size.
Offensively, Barnes did not make a single three in preseason and his dribble is not tight enough for him to take it to the rim consistently, making him feast on an inefficient diet of shots. But Barnes isn’t nearly as raw as he was made out to be when he came out of the draft, and his defence, transition play, and halfcourt playmaking will enable him to be a staple in the rotation from opening night.
“He's versatile, right? He's 6-foot-10, he can handle and pass. He loves to pass. He loves to bring it up the floor, he likes to play defence,” Nurse said about Barnes. “Everybody in Toronto asked me: How are we going to know he had a good season? I said: By the amount of minutes he played, right? I want him out there and I want him playing and learning and growing.”
Preseason stats: 12.4 PPG, 8.6 RBP, 0.4 APG on 50/22/62 shooting splits
Like fellow centre Khem Birch before him, the Raptors have extended Achiuwa’s leash and allowed him to do pretty much as he pleases on the offensive end of the floor in preseason. And while it sometimes looks chaotic, it’s paying major dividends, with the 22-year-old Achiuwa showcasing a ton of raw skills that you just don’t see from a 6-foot-9, 225-pound centre.
After averaging just 5.0 points and 3.4 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per game in 61 contests with the Miami Heat last season, Achiuwa has proven to be capable of much more than just setting screens and rolling to the rim. Defensively, he’s strong enough to hold his position in the post but agile enough to stay in front of guards on the perimeter, and he’s broken up a number of lobs in the pick-and-roll with his developing ability to play the cat-and-mouse game and be in two places at once, averaging 2.0 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. He should also shore up a lot of the Raptors’ rebounding problems from last season as well, leading the team in rebounding in the preseason on the offensive and defensive glass.
Offensively, Achiuwa has been given the freedom to take the ball coast-to-coast after grabbing a rebound, where he is a menace for backpedaling bigs to contain in transition. He uses his wide frame to set hard screens and, while he’s still developing his timing and spatial awareness as a rim-runner, his ability to catch the ball and finish on the move looks much-improved from last season. He’s a willing outside shooter who is a threat to shoot as the trailer in transition or as a pick-and-pop guy. However, the one area of his offence that still lags behind is his playmaking, averaging 0.4 assists to 2.0 turnovers in preseason. Overall, Achiuwa seems to be enjoying the added freedom that comes with Nurse’s offensive system.
“It’s getting comfortable with what the coach wants, and I think that aligns with the way a lot of us want to play. We want to play fast, we want to start off the offence real early and that kind of fits into the way a lot of us play. It just works out,” Achiuwa said, adding that he enjoys taking the ball coast-to-coast. “That’s the way I’ve played since middle school, high school, and college as well. It’s just something I’m comfortable doing.
"As long as I’m taking care of the ball, making the right plays, making the right reads and not turning the ball over, it puts us in a good position.”
The best place for Achiuwa to start the season is probably still as the backup centre off the bench, where he can continue expanding his offensive game without taking shots away from the starters, but the fact that Nurse has confirmed he will be playing more or less the same amount of minutes as Birch this season says a lot about how much Achiuwa has impressed in camp. This is a guy that averaged just 12.1 minutes per game and was in and out of the rotation last season. He’s still relatively raw and in the process of putting it all together, But the skill set is unique and the upside evident.
Preseason stats: 9.6 PPG, 3.0 RBG, 2.2 APG on 47/41/83 shooting splits
Calling Mykhailiuk a journeyman is a bit of a stretch, but the 24-year-old Ukrainian has already played for three teams in as many seasons, struggling to find his footing in the NBA since being drafted 47th overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018.
Now with the Raptors in his fourth season in the league, Mykhailiuk is proving that he is more than the sharpshooting specialist many of us expected him to be. In fact, he has been one of the biggest surprises of camp, earning Nurse’s trust and moving higher and higher up the pecking order, appearing to be firmly in the rotation to start the season, which nobody could have expected when he signed a two-year, $3.6M contact (with a player option) on Aug. 31.
At 6-foot-7 with a smooth jumper, Mykhailiuk is everything Nurse wants in a player besides having a plus-wingspan. While he doesn’t do anything exceptionally well besides shoot the ball, his ability to put the ball on the floor, touch the paint, and make high-level playmaking reads adds another wrinkle to the Raptors’ offence.
For a team that can go through offensive droughts and get bogged down in the half-court, Mykhailiuk keeps the ball moving with his quick decision-making, either shooting, passing, or putting the ball on the floor within a couple seconds of receiving it. He can even run secondary pick-and-rolls as he gets more comfortable with the team. Plus, he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to make an impact, flying off screens and shooting the ball really well on the move, converting on 41.2 percent of his three-point attempts per game in the preseason, and 36.2 percent in his career, which is especially important for a team that lacks outside shooting as much as the Raptors do.
“I think I always kind of liked Svi, you know, in the little bursts you get to see him play in the last couple years,” Nurse said. “He looked really good against us when he was with OKC at the end of the year. I've seen him kind of around in the summers a bit and he's a hard worker… He’s kind of a playmaker, not just a shooter.”
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