The Toronto Raptors fundamentally believe that shooting is a skill that can be developed.
For the first time in Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster’s tenure, the roster is truly their own, built completely through their own draft picks, acquisitions, and trades, representing their own basketball beliefs. And one look at said roster, which is filled with defence-first wings ranging from 6-foot-7 to 6-foot-9, says all you need to know about how little shooting is prioritized.
In fact, when you look at three of their four current best players on the team (who happen to be three of their most recent first-round picks), none of them had reliable jump shots coming out of college, and all could be considered “reaches” at the time of the draft in large part due to their lack of shooting.
OG Anunoby shot 36.5 percent from three on a really low volume (74 three in 134 games) in two seasons at Indiana while shooting just 52.2 percent from the free-throw line. Pascal Siakam only attempted 17 total threes in two seasons at New Mexico State. And Scottie Barnes shot 27.5 percent on just 40 three-point attempts at Florida State.
Since becoming Raptors, Anunoby turned himself into a prolific three-point shooter, up to 37.2 percent on his career. So did Norman Powell, another Raptors draft pick who didn’t shoot well in college and became successful as a member of the Raptors. And while Siakam is still inconsistent from behind the arc — shooting 34.4 percent last season — he has taken big strides since college and just had his best mid-range shooting season of his career. Even Barnes shot the ball better in his rookie season in the NBA than he did in college.
“If you want to stay in basketball, devote yourself to shooting. If you’re already a good shooter, become a better one,” Raptors head coach and certified shooting coach Nick Nurse wrote in his book Rapture. “It’s the one skill in the game that nearly anyone can get better at.”
In other words, the foundation is there for the Raptors to justifiably believe that if they recruit high-character individuals to their program, coach them up, and have them put the work in, those players can develop into better shooters, sometimes drastically so.
To some extent, the Raptors made that same bet this past season, filling out the roster with athletic, defence-first players and hoping that enough of them would make a leap on the offensive end in order to be real contributors. Between Malachi Flynn, Svi Mykhailiuk, Yuta Watanabe, Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, Dalano Banton, Justin Champagnie, Barnes, and even choosing Isaac Bonga over Sam Dekker, the Raptors hoped they could squeeze enough shooting out of a team made up primarily of non-shooters in order to be competitive.
They couldn’t, but were competitive nonetheless, which only goes to show that the team could be really dangerous with decent three-point shooting.
The Raptors shot just 34.2 three-point attempts per game, the 19th most in the league, and they converted on 34.9 percent of them, the 20th-best mark in the league. In fact, only three players shot above 36 percent on semi-high volume, and in the playoffs, those numbers went down for all three of Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Gary Trent Jr. Their lack of jump shooting also showed up inside the arc, where the Raptors shot the ball at the 28th-worst mark in the league from two-point range (50.3 percent) and 23rd-worst from the free-throw line (75.9 percent).
In large part due to their lack of shooting, the Raptors had the fifth-worst half-court offence in the league. and were consistently stifled by zone defences. That they still won the fifth seed in the East due to defence, transition, and offensive rebounds says a lot about how good they were in those areas. Could you imagine what they could do with some shooting?
For one, added shooting would allow them to get closer to Nurse’s optimal shot spectrum of primarily threes and rim attempts. Meanwhile, the Raptors shot 35.2 percent of their shots in the mid-range, ranked sixth in the league, which is significantly more mid-range shots than we are used to seeing from Nurse’s teams.
“I would say that the shot spectrum has veered off a little bit from what we normally talk about and I’ll be honest with you, it’s probably a little further away from what I would maybe textbook or philosophically want, but I also know we were also in a transition period of, ‘How are we gonna generate shots, period?’” Nurse said. “So, I would say we probably look towards managing that now that we know what we have, managing that a little back closer to philosophically what we believe [in].”
Their shooting woes ultimately sunk them in the playoffs, when the team combined to shoot a combined 23-of-100 from three in their final three games. Siakam had no space to operate after the 76ers adjusted their entire defensive game plan to take him away and dare the others to beat them, and while Siakam kept making the right play, the Raptors’ role players couldn’t hit enough shots and in some cases just stopped taking them altogether. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s role players lit the Raptors up from behind the arc.
“I think coming in there and being able to pass the ball also and distribute it opens up things for you," Siakam said earlier this season. "So I think having shooters around and guys you can’t really help off of and me being willing to make that pass, it opens up my game also. Sometimes, them not really wanting to help gives me the opportunity to get to the rim and I feel like I can always do that."
“We have to develop in a lot of areas, and that’s definitely one of them,” Siakam added about the Raptors’ shooting woes once they were eliminated from the playoffs. “Knowing this team and our front office and the people that we have in the organization, I know that the goal is to continue to get better and we’re going to look at all those areas and improve and be a way better team next year.”
Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse both echoed the same sentiment in their season-ending press conferences: that the Raptors need to develop from within, seeing all of their players continue to take leaps forward just like they did this past season. The Raptors will use this summer to work on their games, and three-point shooting will be at the very top of the list of priorities to improve for many of them.
“We need to develop within, like we need to continue to grow within," Ujiri said. "That's really important. It's always been important for us to grow within. Players getting better, working on their games, their bodies, their physicals, we have to get better that way. We’re thinking the long game here. Yes, there are windows. But when we first came here, we talked about development of our players. I hope we continue to do that at a high level.”
The Raptors could sit back and wait for their players to develop, hoping that Barnes and Achiuwa and Flynn and so on continue to improve their jump shots to the point that they are all of a sudden an above-average shooting team with enough spacing for their star players to work with. But development is not linear, and betting on that many players to become reliable outside shooters as soon as next season would be risky and maybe downright unwise, especially considering the core group proved it is ready to take the next step, with VanVleet saying: “It’s time now. That’s about as much building as we all want to do.”
If the Raptors are serious about taking the next step forward and vaulting themselves into contender status, they need to become a markedly better shooting team. Some of that can and should come internally, but some of it has to be outsourced.
While shooting is always at a premium in the league, the Raptors need to go out and get a player or two who can improve their shooting as soon as next season. In fact, when looking at free agency or trades, shooting should be at the very top of their list of priorities.
“I think the things everybody talks about is shooting and obviously rim protection, a big," Ujiri said. "And sometimes, I know we're playing a certain way and people talk about playing all these long six-nine guys, but we do look for these other type of players. And sometimes it doesn't, the time frame doesn't match, you know, with how you try to build an NBA team. And we have to look for those kinds of players that fit how we play. So we'll continue to be aggressive out there and look and see how we can build from there.”
The good news is that the Raptors have the full mid-level exception to spend in free agency (in addition to theoretically bringing back Boucher and Thad Young). That’s about $11 million per year to spend on what could be the missing piece to take this Raptors team to the next level, just like the Phoenix Suns handing Jae Crowder the full mid-level exception in 2020.
The Raptors could go after someone like Gary Harris with that money, who shot 38.4 percent from three on five attempts per game this past season. Tyus Jones would also fill that need as a backup point guard who shot 39.0 percent from distance in 2021-22. As would Taurean Prince as a backup center who shot 37.6 percent on 3.3 attempts. Or if the Raptors want to take a risk on a player coming off a serious injury — something they have been justifiably shy to do in the past — T.J. Warren and Joe Ingles are both unrestricted free agents who can shoot the ball.
Regardless of who the Raptors pursue they should prioritize shooting (and specifically catch-and-shoot players) with that money, and to a lesser extent with how they fill out the back-end of the rotation through minimum contracts and rookie deals. There are other holes to fill, no doubt, including a 7-foot-centre to be used in certain situations and a backup point guard to help run the bench. But adding a shooter should be at the top of the Raptors' offseason priorities list.
The Raptors already have plenty guys who can handle the ball and who need more reps making plays with the ball in their hands. But in order for them to take the next step, they need more spacing for those players to operate, especially in the playoffs when defences game plan to sag off poor three-point shooters. Look at the teams remaining in the postseason and almost all of them have a star surrounded by elite three-point shooting.
The Raptors are probably never going to look like those teams. They like to be different, refusing to copy the rest of the NBA, and they will continue to mismatch hunt, giving the ball to whichever player has the advantage and playing out of that. But some NBA customs are impossible to get around, and shooting is one of them.
As much as the Raptors can continue to develop their shooting from within, they need to outsource it to take the next step forward.
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