All the talk about the Toronto Raptors heading into this season was about when President Masai Ujiri would throw in the towel and move out Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and/or Serge Ibaka for future assets to begin the inevitable rebuild in the post Kawhi Leonard era. Paraphasing Ujiri’s response, hold my beer….
Never once suggesting his defending NBA Champion team would slink quietly back into the north and become irrelevant, Ujiri completed a stealth reload by picking up players no one else wanted, betting on the continued development of the guys he knew and doubling down on his remaining All-Star by extending the expiring contract of Lowry.
Those who actual know the returning Raptors rotation players had no doubt Toronto would be a good team this season. They had returning veterans and “Spicy P” Siakam and “Steady Freddy” VanVleet proved they could play at a high level during last year’s run to a championship, so its no real surprise to see what they’re doing now, but depth was a big mystery, even to head coach Nick Nurse, and the Raptors depth was going to be tested early.
Eight games in at the start of a five game western conference road swing and both Lowry and Ibaka are lost to injury and seven games later they were still out, but the short-handed Raptors have battled to an 11-4 record and are in a three-way tie for second in the East despite playing 9 road games.
Somehow Ujiri had built a roster with more talent than anyone could have imagined coming out of training camp.
Undrafted rookie Terence Davis is one of just five Raptors to play in every game this season and he’s been more than just a pleasant surprise. Coming off the bench for an average 14.3 minutes a game, Davis sports the highest net rating on the roster at +14.6. A big physical guard who plays defense and is averaging 1.1 made threes hitting 47.2 percent of his attempts, Ujiri has found yet another over-looked talent.
Chris Boucher went undrafted in 2017 and spent most of last season in a very succesful stint with the Raptors 905 G League team. At 6’9 and 200 lbs, he looked too thin to battle at any forward spot in the NBA last year, but he’s been more than impressive in his 13 appearances this year. Averaging 12.5 minutes, Boucher leads the Raptors in second chance points at 2.2 per game. On a roster that has been challenged to grab rebounds, he’s been their best board man in the rotation grabbing 19.1 percent of the available boards.
In his fourth season with the Nets, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson lost the confidence of his team and in what could be seen as a cap clearing move, they declined to issue him a qualifying offer. So Ujiri picked him up on a one-year deal for $2.5 million. It’s been a great decision. When Ibaka went down, Hollis-Jefferson stepped in and has arguably played with more energy than the guy whose minutes he took. In eight games, Hollis-Jefferson is a +4.5 points per game while Ibaka was -1.1 points in his eight games. The two players are tied at 2.0 second chance points per game. Noteworthy, Hollis-Jefferson is tied with Siakam for the team’s second best net rating at 11.7. It’s going to be hard to sit him when the Raptors injured players get back.
Nurse has managed to “sneak” undrafted three-point shooter Matt Thomas into 12 games this year for an average of 11.3 minutes. Easily over-looked by anyone not reading a scouting report, Thomas is more than living up to expectations as he’s shooting 53.8 percent from three and averaging 1.2 makes. The 25-year-old even plays hard on defense.
When the season started it looked like coach Nurse only had seven players he could rely on, but after 15 games that concern is gone. Not just unexpected depth, the Raptors have young depth with potential. Once again Ujiri has found overlooked talent that can contribute to winning team. So far it’s been a stealth reload no one saw coming.