Young Blood in the North: Top 5 Rookie Seasons in Raptors History

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In a Raptors season that most will consider a “write-off” due to the uncomfortable and borderline unfair circumstances of having to spend an entire season away from home, fans got a good look at some of the younger rotation players in the squad as the team rested most of its important assets down the stretch.

After a playoff appearance seemed unlikely as the season wore on, Nick Nurse did not shy away from playing a trio of rookies in Malachi Flynn, Freddie Gillespie and Jalen Harris. Flynn impressed down the stretch with his ability to run the offence, Gillespie’s hustle and energy rubbed off on teammates and Harris’ shot-making ability, emphasized in a 31-point performance in Toronto’s penultimate game of the season, have many around the team excited for the future.

While some of the top players in Raptors franchise history, like Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard, were not drafted by the team, Toronto has had some success with their draft picks since the team’s inception in 1995. In honour of the looming NBA Draft Lottery, in which the Raptors have the seventh-best odds at obtaining the top pick, let’s look back at some of the best rookie seasons in franchise history.

5. OG Anunoby

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This might be a surprise inclusion at #5, considering the omission of flashier prospects like Tracy McGrady and Andrea Bargnani. OG’s offensive numbers were nothing crazy in his rookie year, averaging 5.9 points and shooting 47.1 percent from the field, 37.1 percent from three and 62.9 percent from the free-throw line playing 20 minutes per game. He scored a season-high 21 points in a late-season win against Orlando, in which he sunk five three-pointers.

Where he really stood out was on the defensive end, jumping onto the NBA scene in a shutdown role as a 20 year-old. The Indiana product posted a 103 defensive rating, an impressive figure for a rookie finding his footing in the NBA. Anunoby averaged 5.2 contested shots per game, fifth-best on the Raptors behind the team’s top big men. He also managed 1.3 deflections per game, mostly thanks to his great size and anticipation.

On a 59-23 team that finished first in the Eastern Conference, under Dwane Casey’s stringent defensive system, OG Anunoby cemented his place in the rotation with a very mature and dependable playing style.

4. DeMar DeRozan

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A Raptors’ lottery pick, DeMar DeRozan drew early comparisons to Vince Carter when he was taken with the 9th pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. As a 20 year-old coming out of USC, DeRozan excited scouts with his explosive athleticism, high-flying finishing above the rim and silky mid-range game.

As he walked into the league, it didn’t take long for fans in Toronto to be treated to the Compton native’s breathtaking dunking ability.

In 77 games played, DeRozan averaged 8.6 points per game in 21.6 minutes, shooting 49.8 percent from the field and only 25 percent from three. While his flashy offensive game drew in adoring fans, his defensive ability left much to be desired. In his rookie year, he sported a 116 defensive rating and plus-minus of -7.3.

DeRozan’s number 10 jersey will one day be retired in the rafters of Scotiabank Arena after he helped lead Toronto to the upper echelons of the league and sucked in thousands of new basketball fans in the process. His first season with the Raptors certainly gave a glimpse into the excitement that DeMar would bring for the coming years.

3. Chris Bosh

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Chris Bosh is undoubtedly one of the greatest players to don a Raptors jersey, regardless of how you feel about his departure to join LeBron James in Miami in 2010. Picked fourth overall by Toronto in the legendary 2003 Draft that featured future Hall-of-Famers like LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, Bosh brought a versatile offensive game as a big man that was rare in the league at the time.

On a bad (shocker) Raptors team, the Georgia Tech alum appeared in 75 games, starting 63 of them and averaging 33.5 minutes per game. As a 19 year-old, Bosh averaged 11.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, shooting 45.9 percent from the field and, unusually for a big man during that era, 35.7 percent from beyond the arc, albeit on a total of 14 attempts.

While his game was still raw, Bosh displayed great skills on both ends of the floor, moving and shooting well for a 6-foot-11 player, while using his length to block and alter shots in the paint on the defensive end. While Toronto struggled through poor play and off-court distractions such as Vince Carter’s unhappiness on the team, the young big man gave fans something to look forward to. It wouldn’t be long before he blossomed into an All-Star who would go on to become a two-time champion and recent inductee into the NBA Hall of Fame.

2. Damon Stoudamire

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Damon Stoudamire became the Toronto Raptors’ first draft pick in franchise history when he was selected with the 7th-overall pick in the 1995 Draft. The 5-foot-10 guard, accordingly nicknamed “Mighty Mouse”, goes down as the team’s first star, kicking off an inaugural season in the NBA with thrilling offensive production.

In 70 starts, Stoudamire averaged 19 points, 9.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game while playing 40.9 minutes per night. He led the team in scoring as the primary ball-handler and shot-creator and displayed an efficient outside game, shooting at a 39.5 percent clip from deep.

While the Raptors ended the season with a 21-61 record – the second-worst season in franchise history – Stoudamire’s shifty offensive game in some of the league’s coolest jerseys got plenty of fans in the building as Toronto kicked off their NBA journey.

1. Vince Carter

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There is probably little surprise that His Airness comes in on this list at the top spot.

After a franchise-worst season with a record of 16-66, the Raptors secured the fourth pick in the 1998 NBA Draft. After picking Antawn Jamison, Toronto GM Glen Grunwald traded his rights to Golden State for Jamison’s UNC teammate Vince Carter, who was picked next. The rest, as they say, is history.

Carter, alongside his younger cousin Tracy McGrady, made the Raptors a must-watch team with their high-flying play and swagger. The 22 year-old appeared in all 50 games in the lockout-shortened season, averaging 18.3 points, 5.7 boards and three assists per game in 35.2 minutes per night. Carter shot 45 percent from the field and 28.8 percent from deep, as well as 76.1 percent from the charity stripe. VC made a name for himself as a young star in the league with his play above the rim, dunking 69 times as a rookie and victimizing a handful of helpless defenders at the rim.

While Carter’s ugly breakup with the Raptors – resulting in a trade to the New Jersey Nets in 2004 – left a bitter taste in fans’ mouths for years, there is no doubt that he was a pioneer for the growth of basketball in Toronto and Canada. The Raptors would most likely not be where they are today as a championship-caliber organization if it weren’t for the Carter Effect of the early-2000s. Toronto fans recognized his legacy when the 41 year-old legend returned to Scotiabank Arena for the final time in 2019.

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