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The NBA draft is a crapshoot. Let’s get that out of the way. For how often a first-round, top-five player pans out—not just in the way they’ve been predicted to amid the flurry of preemptive reporting, but in the way the team that drafts them exactly needs them to—is rarer than diamonds. Because of this, the draft can feel shorn of its joy before it starts, the pressure of the event already too great, with outcomes often falling short of prophetic demands when draftees turn out to be, well, human—young players who need time and development to find their places in a high-calibre, talent-stacked league.
Few teams have figured out the remedy to this better than the Toronto Raptors.
Whether the scorch of 2006’s Andrea Bargnani first overall pick left a cautionary burn, or the years of roster fallout it dealt— carefully managed by Masai Ujiri—provided a lesson in succumbing to the promise of a quick franchise fix, the Raptors have since learned to sidestep the dramatics of the draft in favour of a more measured approach. Partially this has been in response to where Toronto’s past few picks have landed them on draft night—middle of the first round with a large field of modestly ranked players left—but the choices the team has made in recent years, most notably resulting in Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, were made quietly and with a lot of preliminary legwork.
Far-reaching scouting was the reason Siakam was snagged, and Anunoby recalled a long interview process with Toronto’s coaching staff that focused more on his cultural fit and interests rather than strictly when he anticipated he’d be able to return from the injury that had sidelined him in his draft year. A franchise with fewer draft resources—lower picks and less of them—needs to ensure as best it can that their “return," the person attached to their eventual numerical assignment, is going to be a solid all-around fit with the capacity to grow and improve with the team.
One way to implement that growth has been providing draft picks with an early blueprint for team identity and work ethic through its G-League arm, Raptors 905. Toronto has had sustained success with its developmental system, whether via two-way contracts or assigning young players to stints with the 905, as with the team’s 2015 pick Delon Wright, or Jakob Poeltl and Siakam the following year. The immediate result is prolonged minutes and on-court experience, but the side effect is a unilateral approach to the game that’s largely free of ego, as far from the pomp of the NBA draft as possible.
With this year’s cancellations of the NCAA’s March Madness and National Invitation Tournament, there have been fewer opportunities to see potential players in high-pressure competition. Plus, with many colleges going on hiatus around the same time, Toronto team staff haven’t seen draft prospects playing basketball in just as long.
“It seems like forever since we've seen these players,” Dan Tolzman, Raptors assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel said on a call with Toronto media. “They might be completely different from the last time we saw them playing in March."
“You miss the opportunity to have these casual bump-ins with agents or people in a player’s circle,” Raptors director of global scouting and international affairs, Patrick Engelbrecht, said on a separate call from out on the road in the U.S. where he was currently evaluating players. “Guys in my business, we don’t really look at mock drafts. But there is generally a pack of people you’re constantly around, and you can start to get a feeling of where guys are going to go just based on the crowd. Not having that has been different.”
But Tolzman and Engelbrecht are both confident that the team’s established scouting practices alongside the adaptability of its front office have made Toronto uniquely prepared for the unorthodox challenges of this year’s draft, “We're basing a lot of these decisions on extensive film work, discussions as a staff, and a lot of background digging on players to get as much info as we can to make an educated decision come draft night,” Tolzman said. “Thankfully, our scouting department, our front office is designed to not be too thrown off by these new ways of doing things.”
“We have a dossier and a history with each guy that we're very serious about, so I think we look at each player through a different lens,” Engelbrecht said.
A draft class Tolzman calls “balanced” bodes well for the Raptors, whose first team pick falls in the middle of the pack at 29, their second at 59. Normally, Toronto would fly in between 40 to 60 prospective players for workouts at OVO Athletic Centre, giving each ample opportunity for on-court evaluation, interaction with team staff and time spent in the city to get a thorough as possible sense for a future fit with the franchise. While Zoom interviews can make up for some of the absent conversations, physical evaluation and whether guys have made improvements on previously discussed elements of their game is less likely.
Engelbrecht also spoke of the team drafting based on its established identity, comparing the Raptors to the Spurs when it comes to drafting a player based on how they’d fit into the team’s system. Another advantage is a crafty coach. “I think having a really creative coach like Nick Nurse and knowing what Nick values in a player, it then makes it easier whenever you are deciding between players who fits us.”
“I think it's gonna come down to trusting in our gut feeling in some of these players that we don't have the pre-draft process to change your mind after seeing guys, here or there, or watching them through different setups,” Tolzman concluded.
That we know the Raptors are equipped for strangeness in a draft that will be formative for future team identity is heartening, but the larger question of who they should draft still looms. Not to put anything harmful to Raptors fans in the universe, but the team could lose a lot of its size before next season, with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka’s contracts up, and Chris Boucher a potential trade piece. Even if Gasol or Ibaka return, without a next-gen big, Toronto is looking at a size deficit in seasons to come, and if the Orlando bubble’s championship run proved anything, its that the Lakers were able to capitalize on their dominating size through every round. Playoffs aside, Milwaukee and Boston are likely to look for size this offseason given their postseason pitfalls, and with Kevin Durant coming back for the Nets, the East is suddenly looking a whole lot larger.
If the team is intent on trusting its gut, then they need only look to who they already have. In his size, speed and versatility, Anunoby offers an aspirational model to pin a draft pick on. Engelbrecht said the team planned to be aggressive in adding talent to its young core, targeting a stretch 4, a non-traditional big who can clean the glass and shoot, or a wing with size and length, which would fill out the Raptors biggest looming deficits while equipping the team with lasting versatility, making them harder for opponents to figure out on the floor. Remember that the draft is a crapshoot, so zeroing in on any one name when they could go early or their prospects shift would be limiting for Toronto. Still, to give an identity to this ambitious fit, here are some players who continue to land in Toronto’s halfway point in mock drafts, with qualities that lend to what the Raptors need: