10 things: Anunoby and VanVleet struggle in underwhelming home opener

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 98-83 loss to the Washington Wizards.

One — It won’t always be that bad. For whatever reason, the Raptors just didn’t play within themselves. Their main players missed some open shots early on and they lost trust in the offence and in each other. Too many possessions ended up in one of the Raptors calling their own number before forcing a contested look that had little chance of falling.

To be clear, the Wizards are not a good defensive team, and yet the Raptors didn’t crack the 50-point mark until two minutes left in the third quarter. Yes, the Raptors will struggle on offence all year — especially with Pascal Siakam missing time — but they’ll get much better results if they play as a team and execute their plays.

Two — This was a learning experience for OG Anunoby. Some of his missed shots were simply unfortunate cases where he couldn’t get open ones to fall, but his 3-for-17 shooting performance was troubling for two reasons.

One, it showed Anunoby’s inexperience in terms of finding his spots, as Anunoby was too eager to break the flow of the game, call his own number, then end up settling for contested stepbacks which went nowhere.

Two, Anunoby started to hesitate as he did on one sequence in the fourth quarter where after he missed a step-back three, the next possession down he turned down a wide-open look off a nice pass from Fred VanVleet, only to swing it to Chris Boucher who promptly hoisted a brick that caught nothing but backboard. The earlier mistake is understandable since it comes from inexperience, but the latter is more egregious because you must always maintain your confidence as a scorer regardless of the result.

Three — Anunoby will need to find the balance between getting his, and getting fed. His two made threes came in the fourth quarter off good ball movement by his teammates and ideal spacing from Anunoby. Those shots were in rhythm, and he made them just as he did in previous seasons, which is what made him an effective player.

Even in his new role as the so-called “go-to scorer”, Anunoby should still get the bulk of his shots within the flow of the game. The impulse to demonstrate his newfound shot-making abilities should come secondary to playing within the flow of the game. Even with the improvements that he showed in the pre-season, Anunoby is not at the skill level where he can consistently break down the defence, so the more he forces it, the more he and the Raptors will struggle.

Four — The Raptors need more from VanVleet, and he knows it. Early on, VanVleet made smart reads including a three for the first basket of the Raptors’ season, but was ice-cold after his first shift as she shot 2-for-16 the rest of the way. VanVleet fell into the trap of slowing the game down, which runs antithetical to how the Raptors were built. Even on a night where VanVleet makes his usual share of shots, the Raptors will not be very efficient in a halfcourt setting where VanVleet is running pick-and-roll.

His urge to take over comes from a place of responsibility over the team of which he leads, but it’s counterproductive. Where the Raptors need him is attacking as an off-ball threat, inverting the offence while bigs like Scottie Barnes operate in the middle, and the kickouts can find VanVleet in rhythm. Similar to Anunoby, and pretty much every other player on the team, VanVleet needs to trust the game to come to him rather than forcing the issue.

Five — The most frustrating aspect was how wasteful the Raptors were in transition. Toronto forced Washington into 22 turnovers, but 18 fast-break points are not enough for the Raptors to win given how pedestrian they are in the halfcourt.

The Raptors executed their plan well at times, collecting deflections and getting out to run, but a few boneheaded mistakes kept costing them.

Barnes ran the break with Precious Achiuwa, which is as ideal as you can get for this team, yet their signals were crossed as Achiuwa jumped for the lob while Barnes went for the shovel pass down low that sailed out. Then you had Gary Trent Jr., who should have made the easy outlet to Khem Birch in the middle for a 3-on-1 fast break, but Trent tried to throw the deep ball instead which gets plucked by the lone defender back. Even veteran Goran Dragic was guilty of this, where he tried to beat his own man off the dribble to end the first half instead of throwing it ahead where the Raptors had a two-on-one.

Those are mental mistakes that simply cannot happen because the Raptors are wasting all their hard work on the defensive end.

Six — Barnes was as advertised in his rookie debut. It started off well with Barnes hitting a spinning lefty skyhook for his first-career basket, and he mostly settled in as a playmaker who got to the rim in transition and who generally made smart passes. Barnes did have six turnovers, some of which were harshly accounted for on loose balls that Barnes didn’t fully control in the first place, but the effort was there and he played his role well.

Defensively, there were several lapses where Barnes was caught ball-watching and would allow his man to cut backdoor to the basket, or to pop free for three, but his 7-foot-4 wingspan and all-out hustle mask a whole manner of sins. It was encouraging for his development that Nick Nurse played Barnes 33 minutes even in a game where he battled foul trouble. The one trend to watch is how the pairing of Barnes and Achiuwa sorts itself out. So far, it feels a bit cramped with both players on at once and they do have overlapping skill sets that don’t necessarily compliment one another.

Seven — The more exciting rookie debut belonged to Dalano Banton. He completely changed the energy of the game by immediately sinking a half-court buzzer-beater for his first-career basket, and carried it through the entire fourth quarter. Banton wasn’t in the rotation initially, but as the starters clearly didn’t have it, Nurse reached deeper into his bench for the six-foot-nine guard who delivered an immediate impact.

Banton went on to make several highlight plays, including a coast-to-coast layup, a slick feed to Boucher cutting in for a dunk, and a lightning-quick drive where he took one dribble to get to the basket. Banton has proven to have a great feel for the game, is unselfish, and is also a willing defender. Most importantly, when Banton is in at point guard, that unlocks the Raptors’ true identity as a positionless team where they have five wings on the floor at once.

Nurse might not trust Banton to be in the rotation until he develops some consistency with his jumper, but there is real value in having Banton as a change-of-pace option off the bench. It’s an entirely different look as compared to VanVleet or Dragic at the point.

Eight — The starting lineup doesn’t fit right. For one, the Raptors want to play big and long yet they’re starting two point guards in VanVleet and Dragic. Second, the flow of the first unit doesn’t feel natural, as Barnes is often ignored while Achiuwa, Anunoby, and VanVleet look to get theirs. The pace of the unit is also slow, and the spacing is not ideal since both Achiuwa and Barnes are non-shooters.

Nurse said after the game that he will continue to tinker, but some of the changes should have been made even in pre-season. Dragic is more of a natural fit with the reserves since he can handle it more than he can with the starters, while Trent Jr. needs better services so he isn’t as compelled to force his own look, while Birch is a better fit than Achiuwa simply because he is a more reliable defender.

Realistically, nobody’s starting spot is guaranteed outside of VanVleet and Anunoby, so Nurse should continue to tinker.

Nine — Trent Jr. needs to be more efficient. There’s no other way around it other than that Trent Jr. settles for bad shots when he is asked to create for himself. All but one of his nine shot attempts were jumpers, and of those eight jumpers, six were off-balance two-pointers. Unless it’s Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant taking those shots, the math simply will not work in their favour.

He takes a similar all-or-nothing approach on defence, where Trent Jr. was active in trying to disrupt ball handlers, and he did collect three steals by playing so aggressively, but the downside is that he gambles and puts himself out of position and then allows dribble penetration. It’s in those sequences where you’re reminded of Trent Jr.’s youth, and that he is still a 22-year-old who plays more with his heart than with his head. He will be at his best when he is reigned in and finishing plays where he is set up by his teammates.

Ten — Boucher needs to be more mature in his approach since he is technically one of their veterans. When he is dialed in, Boucher can be very effective, as he showed in numerous games last season. But his eagerness to score can veer into the side of selfishness.

One example was at the end of the first half, where Dragic clearly wanted to set up the give-and-go by passing it ahead to Boucher before cutting to the ball. Instead of giving it back to Dragic who had a step on his man, Boucher elected to keep the ball, step behind the arc, and hoist a badly missed three.

In that sense, Boucher is almost like the forward version of Trent Jr., where he is effective in spurts but is ultimately limited by his reading of the game. Given that this is his fourth season with the team, you would expect more savvy from Boucher, who in his defence, is finally getting to play after missing all of pre-season with a finger injury.

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