With Raptors’ pecking order unclear, opportunities are there for the taking

There can’t be many more teams where the opportunities are more delicious for an NBA player trying to establish themselves with the menu the Toronto Raptors are presenting to their aspiring talent.

There are only a few sure things; tried and true favourites that will always be present regardless of what other ingredients are available once the season starts Oct. 20.

Fred VanVleet will start at point guard and OG Anunoby will occupy one of the other positions.

The rest is up in the air.

Not that there isn’t a predictable pecking order to soak up the remaining 170 or so minutes available.

Given Gary Trent Jr. was given a 3-year deal for $54 million this past summer he’ll get a nice chunk unless something goes horribly wrong. The Raptors have a decade (at least) of hope tied up in No.4 pick Scottie Barnes; so, he’ll get a minimum of 20 a night with an option to ramp it up from there. You would think that veteran Goran Dragic will get a steady diet of playing time both on merit and because it’s probably in the Raptors’ interest to keep the Slovenian combo guard’s trade value at reasonable levels.

But after that? Anything can happen, particularly given returning leading scorer Pascal Siakam will likely be out for the first month of the season while he recovers from shoulder surgery, and big man Khem Birch has missed all of training camp due to health and safety protocols while Chris Boucher – another lock for rotation minutes – is out for a month after a surgical procedure to repair a dislocated finger.

And it gets more wide open given that, while the Raptors might be short on minutes-eating star power, they are long on athletes that can be projected into some kind of role, particularly given head coach Nick Nurse seems to have warmed to the idea of a widely defined rotation and a wide-open competition to earn those minutes.

“I think there are people putting heat on some of those guys you might expect to play. They may not just rattle off like that because of some of this heat from other guys,” he said the other day.

“And again, in this era, I think we need 13. It isn’t a nine-man deal anymore with injuries and testing and protocols and all this stuff. (and) No. 13 could end up No. 7 pretty quick.”

At the very least the Raptors will open the season with one starting spot (Siakam’s) open and no clear-cut candidate to be the starting centre – the extent the Raptors even have a traditional centre.

For exhibit A, consider the uncertain status of second-year point guard Malachi Flynn.

With Kyle Lowry’s departure in the off-season, it seemed obvious that Flynn – after a promising finish to his rookie year – would be pencilled in for 25-30 minutes in year two as part of a three-guard rotation with VanVleet and Dragic.

Not so fast. The 29th pick from 2020 didn’t play until the second half of the Raptors opening exhibition game against Philadelphia on Monday night. In part it could be attributed to Nurse’s desire to see Raptors rookies Dalano Banton and Scottie Barnes get force-fed ball-handling duties with the second unit, but also a message to Flynn that his role isn’t guaranteed.

Flynn is expected to get an earlier shot of minutes when the Raptors travel to Philadelphia for the second of what will be five exhibition games, but notice has been served. Nurse wants his club to play fast and doesn’t want to waste time trying to get the outlet pass to point guards.

“He’s got to get a little more aggressive up the floor. He tends to be a little safer and kind of wait for the developing play. In doing that, the defence is also going to get set,” said Nurse. “So we’re gonna try to get him to go a little faster and we’ve got to get him to go off the ball. The three point guards — the true, true, point guards; Freddy, Malachi and Goran all are really good spot-up shooters. So, we’re trying to get them to get up the floor and get off the ball and get those kick-outs from Scottie and OG and Pascal and Precious and all that stuff because we think that puts a lot of pressure (on the defence) and gets them great face-up, catch-and-shoot threes which they need.

“Malachi hasn’t (played off the ball) much. He’s kind of had the ball in his hands, bringing it up the floor, probably since he’s been in about sixth grade,” added Nurse. “So we’re just trying to get him to learn that a little bit just because we want to get him out there. We think that catch-and-shoot game that he has is super valuable and we need him to learn how to put that to use a little bit.”

But the possibility for rotation disruption runs even deeper. Coming into camp the thought was someone from the half-dozen non-guaranteed contracts might jump up and claim some minutes. To an extent that has happened as returnee Yuta Watanabe has looked tremendously sharp, earned effusive praise from Nurse and seems a lock to not only have his contract guaranteed, but push for a chance to start in the absence of Siakam. After that, things are less certain among Freddie Gillespie, Ishmail Wainright, Sam Dekker, Isaac Bonga and Reggie Perry.

But was anyone predicting Justin Champagnie, an undrafted rookie on a two-way contract who seemed destined for a hefty dose of time in the G-League, to be pushing his way into the conversation? At Pittsburgh he showed a remarkable nose for the ball, averaging 11.1 rebounds a game, a trait the Raptors undoubtedly liked. But he’s shown an ability to shoot from deep that might not have been obvious given he connected on just 28 per cent of his three-point attempts over two seasons there.

I feel like I’ve always (had a good) shot,” said Champagnie. “I just never was confident shooting in college so I just never put it up like that. Since I got here, I’ve been working on it a lot and we do the shooting lab every night so it’s something I put emphasis on, just knocking down open shots and knocking down shots the team needs me to make.”

Does he feel like there’s room for him on a team where roles are clearly in flux?

“I just needed my foot in the door” he said. “I’ll figure it out from there … I’m always hungry for more, ready to work.”

He’s landed in the right spot.

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