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As the Toronto Raptors approach the draft and the off-season, they find themselves in a situation that they haven’t seen in quite a few years.
The team finished a disappointing 27-45 on the season amidst a rash of injuries, the COVID-19 pandemic hitting them hard, and an overall lack of balance within the roster. At the end of the year, the lottery odds were in their favour, as they jumped up from the seventh spot in the draft to the fourth selection.
With the 2021 NBA Draft less than a week away, a few prospects stand out that could be worthy of the Raptors’ pick. One of those names is USC big man Evan Mobley, who presents an intriguing long-term solution for Toronto at the center spot thanks to his unique combination of skill and size. You can read our profile of Evan Mobley here.
With Cade Cunningham all but locking up the top slot, and Houston reportedly zoning in on swingman Jalen Green, there is a very real possibility Mobley could fall to the Raptors at number four. There is one problem: The Cleveland Cavaliers sit one pick ahead of them, and there have been multiple reports that they are as high on the big man as Toronto is. While there is a distinct possibility that they could go in another direction, they are perhaps Toronto’s biggest threat to keep Mobley away.
In the event that the Cavaliers select Mobley ahead of the Raptors, it leaves Toronto with a glaring need for a big man heading into the off-season. Conversely, it leaves the Cavs with a big man conundrum; drafting Mobley may indicate the Cavaliers are willing to hedge their bets against their own big, Jarrett Allen, testing the free agency market.
Allen, a fourth-year big man out of the University of Texas, shined this past season with both the Cavaliers and the Brooklyn Nets, where he played before the James Harden blockbuster trade saw him rerouted to Cleveland. He averaged 12.8 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, and showcased his ability to be an elite rim protector and flashed some offensive ability to boot. He is set to become a restricted free agent, and is expected to command a high dollar amount this off-season.
In the event that Mobley is taken with the third overall selection, the Raptors should be keen on taking advantage of the situation and constructing a hard pursuit of Allen. In fact, one could even argue that he should be a top priority for the team this off-season in an effort to add another young asset to the team who fits extremely well. Allen only turned 23 a few months ago, and has plenty of room for his game to grow going forward, and with the Raptors’ development staff, they could utilize him extremely well and help him reach the peak of his abilities.
For readers who aren’t yet familiar with The Fro, we’ll dive into just what makes him such a unique talent, and how the Raptors can potentially land him in Toronto:
Rim Protection and Defensive Mobility
A key aspect the Raptors were sorely lacking in last season was effectiveness in the paint defensively. The team signed Aron Baynes in the summer hoping he could fill that void, but he wound up being an awkward fit next to Pascal Siakam and offered very little in terms of rim protection. The Raptors as a team ranked 29th in defensive rebounding last season and had one of the worst field goal percentages at the rim. Allen is a player that can change that narrative.
While Cleveland was porous defensively all season – they were the sixth-worst team by defensive rating – they were actually the ninth-best team in terms of rim protection. Their defensive issues stem from the perimeter, where they allow teams to shoot 38% from three and 48% overall, the second-worst mark by both metrics.
Opponents shot 62.3% at the rim versus the Cavaliers this year – a mark that would rank slightly above league average. When Allen is inserted on the court, however, that number drops to 52% – several percentage points below league average. His 7-foot-6 wingspan allows him to alter plenty of shots and make life difficult for opponents, and he was a defensive force practically by his lonesome.
Allen presents a large contrast from Baynes in this regard; he’s springy, mobile, and has great footwork to go along with strong defensive instincts. He’s a natural fit next to Siakam on the defensive end by patrolling the paint at such a high level, which allows Siakam to use his speed and length out on the perimeter. The Raptors already boast a strong perimeter defence with Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby on the exterior, and this closes arguably their biggest gap defensively.
After losing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka last offseason, the Raptors’ defensive rating plummeted from second best in the league all the way to sixteenth, and the reason behind it was very apparent throughout the season. Allen presents an opportunity to fix that problem, and he is good enough to elevate the Raptors’ starting five to the elite defensive level fans have grown accustomed to.
Another facet where Jarrett Allen excels is the variety of ways he can make an impact offensively for a team. It’s difficult to quantify, but players that can make a positive impact on the offensive end even while not being a direct scoring threat are rare. Every team needs players who can score at an efficient clip and relieve some of the pressure off its main scorers, as it makes things much easier overall; the great thing about Allen is that he knows his role and plays it well.
He shot an incredibly efficient 61% from the floor overall this past season, and that included a 32% mark from three point range, albeit in just 0.3 attempts per game. He also ranked sixth in the NBA this past season with 4.7 screen assists per game, an impressive feat that stands up with some of the top centers in today’s game, such as Deandre Ayton and Rudy Gobert.
With guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland taking a good volume of shots on the Cavaliers, Allen hasn’t really had the opportunity to expand his range in a larger sample size. The same was true in playing with Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn as well. If he is able to take and make more threes and maintain the efficiency on a higher volume, it opens up plenty for his game where he doesn’t need to be near the paint to get baskets.
When considering a potential fit of Jarrett Allen next to Siakam, this is incredibly important. One of the big issues with the Baynes-Siakam duo was how clunky things got when both their three point shots failed them. Siakam is at his best when he can use his speed to drive by defenders and get into the paint, but with Baynes sitting in the paint, it created lots of congestion and he constantly found himself driving into traffic, making it that much more difficult to finish.
Allen is fluid enough that he can get almost anywhere on the court and create offence in a variety of ways. He’s a strong screen-and-roll player, can use his size to post up, and has enough skill to drive by players and glide for dunks. He has the potential to become a jack-of-all-trades type of offensive player, which every team craves; with the Raptors, he can continue to develop and realize his talents on this end.
Making It Work
While Jarrett Allen in a Raptors uniform is enticing, it’s going to take quite a bit of maneuvering to make it happen from a salary cap perspective.
Allen is likely to command a contract in the range of $20 million annually from teams, and as a restricted free agent, the Raptors will likely need to bid even higher than that, as Cleveland has the right to match any offer sheet. There is also the issue of the Raptors’ current cap hold on Kyle Lowry, which eats into their cap space unless he re-signs, he is renounced, or the unfortunate event that he signs with another team.
There is the prospect of a sign-and-trade on the table, where the Raptors can send out salary in order to absorb him into their current roster space. This is appealing because it also means they can add a fifth year to Allen’s contract, which could be a deciding factor in convincing him to sign here. The drawback to this, however, is the Raptors would be hard-capped; this means that they cannot go above a certain salary threshold, unlike other teams that have the ability to spend into the luxury tax and beyond (though it is unlikely the Raptors would do this right now anyway).
The Raptors have the expiring contracts of Aron Baynes and Rodney Hood to match salary that can get them closer, along with future second round draft assets. Usually, unless the team is trading up to get a better player, the return on a sign-and-trade is low, as the team is typically doing the player a favour by facilitating it. The Raptors should be able to find homes for Baynes and Hood somewhere in the league on teams that aren’t planning on using their cap space, or Cleveland can reroute additional assets elsewhere for a higher return if they so choose.
Ultimately, if the Raptors are unable to solve their big man problem through drafting Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen is an excellent alternative next to OG Anunoby and whoever the fourth overall pick becomes, and he should be at the top of the Raptors’ free agency wish list. He represents an ideal fit with their starting five, and he fits the timeline of what the Raptors’ younger half of the core will be for the foreseeable future.
It’s shaping up to be an interesting off-season for the Raptors, and there are plenty of ways it could play out, with the draft being the key decider for how they will proceed. There will be plenty of avenues to improve, and adding a player like Allen could be one of the strongest ones yet.