The Toronto Raptors are a week into the 2019-20 regular season and while it's still early, there is plenty to take away from the team's first few games of the season.
Toronto began its title defence with a thrilling win over the up-and-coming New Orleans Pelicans behind the standout play from 2019 Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam, but his play wasn't the only major storyline from the Raptors' opening week of the season.
Siakam's ready for the spotlight
OK, this one falls into the bucket of "thank you, Captain Obvious."
But let's be real ... is there truly anywhere else to begin but with Pascal Siakam?
After months of speculation about whether or not Siakam would be ready to step into the spotlight as Toronto's franchise player and on the heels of a max extension that will certainly play him like a franchise player, early returns indicate that Siakam is not merely the future of the franchise. He's Mr. Right Now.
And this isn't a case of playing the results. Far more important than WHAT Siakam accomplished in the first week of the season is HOW he was able to do it.
Big games from Siakam last season were mostly a product letting the game come to him and of doing everything within the confines of the system: splashing corner 3s, filling lanes in transition, making timely cuts, crashing the offensive glass ... all certainly important and valuable, but not necessarily indicative of a player dictating everything on his terms.
That's no longer the case.
Let's consider his 3-point shooting.
Last season, Siakam became serviceable as a spacer mostly by standing in the corner and feasting on kick-outs when left alone. Almost 80% of his made 3s came from the corners while 77 of his 79 makes on the season were assisted. Through the first week of the season, he's already made more unassisted 3s than he did in all of 2018-19 while it took him three games to hit as many from above the break than he did in the first three months of last year.
There's obviously far more that goes into making grand statements about someone's ability to carry the day than how someone fires off shots from downtown. But judging from Toronto's opening week, Siakam is hinting at a new-found ability and showcasing a skillset indicative of a player ready to send a message to the rest of the league.
- Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13)
OG Anunoby's driving
Anunoby has impressed on both ends of the court to start this season. But more than anything, it's been his aggressiveness as a driver that has really stood out.
As a rookie, Anunoby was primarily a spot-up shooter on offence. According to NBA.com, more than half of his shot attempts were catch-and-shoot 3s, and he made a decent amount of those opportunities (35.2%).
He's still getting those shots up so far this season - 41.0% of his attempts have been catch-and-shoot 3s - but Anunoby has been mixing it up more with well-timed drives to the basket. He's averaging 3.8 drives per contest through four games, up from 2.3 last season and 1.9 the season prior.
He's not breaking defenders down in isolation or anything, but Anunoby has shown no hesitation of putting the ball on the floor when defenders close out on him. And with his size, strength and athleticism, he can be tough to stop when he gets going downhill.
Even though Anunoby still has a long way to go before he reaches his ceiling as a player - particularly on offence - it's little things like this that will help him one day get there.
- Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles)
Fred VanVleet, starting guard
Heading into the 2019-20 season, one of the main questions surrounding the Raptors was "who is going to fill Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green's spots in the starting lineup?"
Many assumed it would be a revolving door of many different starting units with names like Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka in the mix. Through four games, head coach Nick Nurse has gone with one starting unit and Fred VanVleet has solidified his spot as the team's second starting guard.
This doesn't come as much of a surprise, as VanVleet often got the nod last season during Leonard's "load management" games, or any time the typical starting lineup was missing a player due to injury. The Raptors went 23-5 in the 28 games that VanVleet filled a starting spot and according to Basketball-Reference, the Raptors' second-best two-man unit (in terms of plus/minus) was VanVleet and starting point guard Kyle Lowry at plus-16 through 662 minutes of playing time together.
VanVleet took advantage of the uptick in minutes any time he received the opportunity last season as he improved in all major statistical categories when he slid into the starting lineup.
It only took one game this season for VanVleet to prove his worth as a full-time starter. He (and Pascal Siakam) led the team in scoring with 34 points in the Raptors' overtime win on opening night against the New Orleans Pelicans. He shot a blistering 12-for-18 (66.7%) from the field and an even better 5-for-7 (71.4%) from long range to go with a team-high seven assists and five rebounds.
If that wasn't enough, VanVleet had the team's best plus/minus at plus-18.
His name is Fred VanVleet Sr. and he gets buckets.- Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 23, 2019
34P (Career-High) | 7A | 5R | 5 3PM @FredVanVleet | #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/HsZWOzCf9b
He struggled in their loss to the Celtics, failing to reach double figures in scoring in 42 minutes of playing time and didn't get off to the best start in the team's win over the Bulls, but his 10-point, three-assist third quarter helped lead the team's run that decided the outcome of the game.
It's obviously early in the season, but he's the Raptors' third-leading scorer and has the second-most assists on the team behind Lowry. He's showcased that he can give this team the production they need from the second starting guard spot and it looks like he's all but locked up that position for the time being.
- Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_)
Serge Ibaka, the steadying force
With the amount of production lost in the offseason, it became imperative for Serge Ibaka to reprise - or improve upon - his role from the 2018-19 season. After all, Ibaka is the team's second-leading scorer among players that returned to the defending champs.
Through Toronto's first four games, Ibaka has come off the bench to post averages of 13.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, including his 18-point, eight-rebound, three-block performance in the team's road win over Chicago.
Serge Ibaka: 18 PTS, 7 REB, 3 BLK- NBA Spain (@NBAspain) October 27, 2019
🔝🔝🔝 @sergeibaka pic.twitter.com/SeYiFU02Wv
Even more impressive is his efficiency as he has shot 54.1% from the field.
While early impressions can easily be construed as overreactions, Ibaka has displayed an ability early on that suggests that he will continue to serve as the team's steadying, consistent force throughout the season, likely in a reserve role in most situations.
Ibaka's play has been even more important this year, as he has made up for a rough start from the starting centre, Marc Gasol. After a short offseason, Gasol is averaging just 5.5 points (on 26.9% shooting) and 7.3 rebounds and playing in over 25 minutes per game.
Should Ibaka keep his play up and Gasol improve as time goes on, the Raptors will have sneakily scary frontcourt depth from a production standpoint.
- Gil McGregor (@GMcGregor21)
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