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One area each member of the Toronto Raptors core can improve

Here are a list of facts about the Toronto Raptors:

  1. They are 11 games under 0.500.
  2. They are a game and a half out of 14th in the East.
  3. They are a single game out of the final play-in spot.
  4. Eight of their next nine games are against teams no more than two games above 0.500.
  5. The one that isn’t is against the Los Angeles Lakers who are missing their two best players.

This season can truly still go either way and the next nine games will pretty much determine it.

Whichever way the season goes, the front office will always be looking ahead and how to build around the team’s young core.

However, there are still steps needed to be taken by that core to improve and develop their games to make them worth building around. For as good of players as Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and (more recently) Gary Trent Jr. are, what we’re seeing from them now isn’t even their final form yet.

So wherever this season goes, there is still going to be room for progression and improvement on multiple fronts (including that of Malachi Flynn, who is expected to take on a larger workload with injuries to VanVleet and Kyle Lowry).

Here is an area of their games to look out for that each member of the Core Four™ can work on in the final 23 games of the season.

Fred VanVleet

Although he’s 27 and in his fifth season, VanVleet has still found ways to improve his game in his second season as a starter.

Despite his diminutive frame, VanVleet has actually turned into quite the shot blocker, ranking fifth among qualified guards for blocks per game and his 1.1% block rate is in the 90th percentile at his position (from Cleaning the Glass).

But while that’s an impressive skill to have added and it’s another step taken on defence, it’s not a requirement for a six-foot guard.

He has taken another step forward as a passer as well, which will prove to be a very big addition to his game if/when he has to take the reins from Lowry.

Of course the most obvious answer would be to say that VanVleet needs to improve his finishing at the rim which has plagued him throughout his career. However, that doesn’t seem like it will ever be a strength to his game.

But what I’d like to see him improve on is something he has improved on slightly and added into his game the last couple of seasons: his step back jumper.

According to NBA.com tracking data (which isn’t perfect, but stick with me), VanVleet has taken 25 step back jump shots this year and has made 10; that’s 40 percent for those who don’t want to bust out the calculator.

While it’s nice to see that his percentage of makes has increased the last two seasons, I think what’s more important is how frequently he’s taking them. He’s shooting step backs at a slightly lower rate than last season but would average out to the same amount of attempts (30) with his higher shooting volume and potentially more games played.

I just wish we could see him do things like this a bit more often.

It would be a nice, welcome addition to his game with his smaller size and inability to finish at the rim. If he’s not going to attack the basket as much, he’ll need to find ways to create space for himself. Especially when switched onto bigger, mobile defenders.

I’m not expecting him to turn into James Harden with his step backs, but getting it to the point where it’s a reliable move would really enhance his scoring.

Pascal Siakam

If I took the pulse of a certain section of Raptors fans, I’m sure they would say that Siakam needs to work on everything and has to improve every aspect of his game.

I think Siakam has turned in a very quality season when he’s been healthy and not recovering from COVID. Sure, his overall three-point shooting has regressed but his playmaking has been a very big positive this season and he’s improved in the midrange.

But if I put on my player development hat, what would be the one area that Siakam could work on for the rest of the season?

Fans have begged for more Siakam-as-the-ball-handler in pick and roll, but I want to see him as the roll man a little more. At 0.98 points per possession as a roller this year, that’s not terrific but it’s good enough where I would like to see his frequency get bumped up from the 7.3 percent it’s at right now. I mean, he does some nice things as a roller!

Getting Siakam into space like that gives him so many options after the catch. He has become such a great passer, he could get it to Baynes in the dunker spot or hit Lowry in the corner and force the Pelicans to start rotating.

Teams are going to give Siakam the space to shoot, especially so if VanVleet is the ball handler. They have to respect VanVleet’s shooting and if Siakam can get back to his 35-37 percent three-point shooting mark, it will make that combo even more deadly.

Pick and roll isn’t something the Raptors do a ton of, but it would be another way to get Siakam space and let him create (or free up space for VanVleet).

OG Anunoby

Anunoby was expected to have a big breakout season this year and by some measures, he has. His defence has taken yet another step forward and he’s truly bordering on the elite at that end. But taking the Guy Boucher approach to development can only take you so far.

In fairness to Anunoby, he hasn’t been able to string together a long stretch of games where he can show his offensive progress due to injury as well as health and safety protocols causing him to miss 18 games.

Since missing the game against the Houston Rockets on March 22nd, Anunoby is averaging 19.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and one block per game. He’s also shooting a staggering 42.2 percent from behind the arc on 7.5 attempts. We may finally be in the midst of Anunoby’s true breakout!

That doesn’t mean he can’t continue to improve, though!

I won’t lie to you good people, Anunoby has improved in a lot of areas I was hoping he would before the season.

He’s lowered his rate of assisted baskets by quite a bit, showing he’s creating his own shots more often. His foul drawing has improved, showing he’s getting more aggressive going to the basket. Even his assist rate has gone up!

I think the main priority for Anunoby will (should?) be to work on his pullup jumpers more throughout the course of the season. He’s not great on pullup jumpers, though he is taking them more often this year (around 11 percent compared to just over seven percent last year), but sometimes they’ll look uncomfortable.

And that’s simply because he hasn’t taken a lot of them this season or in his career. Maybe he’ll never be a great pullup shooter, but that would be his next big step. He’s grown more comfortable with pullups as the year has gone on.

Yeah, it went in but he also looked very fluid and confident in taking that shot. It’s something that would have come on a lot earlier in the season if he wasn’t hampered by various issues.

I’m not going to be the one to doubt Anunoby, he may very well turn into a productive pullup shooter. I’m very interested to see how it progresses no matter how the rest of the season plays out.

Gary Trent Jr.

I didn’t intend to go oldest to youngest, but here we are with the 22-year-old Trent Jr.

I went into more detail about what I think he still needs to work on in my breakdown of his game after the trade, but here’s a quick summary.

He’s become very comfortable taking pullup jumpers this year, an improvement compared to last year. He’s taking more and while he’s shooting a worse percentage on them, you simply want him getting comfortable first.

My biggest area of improvement for Trent Jr. is attacking and finishing at the basket.

Trent Jr. isn’t a small guy at six-foot-five and 209 pounds but he just doesn’t get to the basket. Part of it was probably due to playing with very ball dominant guards in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, he didn’t have as much of an opportunity.

Now, with the Raptors (and having Lowry and VanVleet out for some time), Trent Jr. will have more of a chance to do so. He still hasn’t done it a ton in his small sample with the Raptors, but I’ve liked his aggressiveness and willingness to attack the bigger defender.

He shows a nice, controlled dribble against a pretty darn good defender in Kenrich Williams. While it wasn’t the most controlled layup attempt, right now you want to see him doing it first. He also had Anunoby in the corner for an open three, I’m sure the new besties had a conversation about that.

That is something you’d like to see him do as well, read the situation and kick out to the shooter if he thinks he has an opening, but that would become part of developing his playmaking as well.

The Raps are also getting him some burn in pick and roll, it hasn’t been great (0.71 points per possession) but it’s good to see that they want to get him on-ball opportunities and see what they have there.

I’d like to show a clip of him getting a bucket at the rim in the half court as a Raptor, but his lone make was actually a goaltend so here’s a contested rim make in transition.

This is still good to see that he attacked a similarly-sized defender and finished the play. Again, he’s not a good finisher, but it’s about developing the habits and confidence to get to that level.

Another option is using him as a cutter, which he has not done much at all this season but I think he definitely could have some value in that role. Although, it’s not something you’d want too often and take chances away from him to use his ability to get open for three’s off-ball. But hey, do things like this more, Nick Nurse.

Trent Jr. will be under the guise and tutelage of a fantastic development staff, so I certainly think we can see some progression in this area as he grows.

And even if we don’t see a lot of it, he’s a fantastic shooter both on the catch and pulling up, so he already has a lot of value to any offence.

Does this mean you think they should tank, Bradshaw?

I’m not saying the Raptors should punt the rest of the season and focus on player development solely. They’re in kind of an interesting position where they can put these guys in positions to develop, but also still win games.

As I said at the beginning, these next nine games will basically decide how we should set our expectations for the remaining 14 after that.

I still firmly believe this team is too good to miss at least the play-in tournament (they still have a positive net rating thanks to their massive win over the Golden State Warriors), but if this is a season where their best players are still recovering from the effects of COVID, then it’s a prime spot to get those guys developing skills to use going forward.

Even at 11 games below 0.500, this remains one of the most fascinating stretches in the NBA and fans should be very excited to see how these guys develop.

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