The Toronto Raptors added two skilled and experienced guards in the 2020 NBA draft.
Toronto selected 22-year-old Malachi Flynn from San Diego State University with the 29th pick and further reinforced its backcourt with the 59th selection, taking 22-year-old Jalen Harris from Nevada. Both players transferred to the Mountain West conference and were named as the All-Conference First Team backcourt for 2019-20. The two played each other twice this season, with Flynn’s team winning both games.
Although Flynn and Harris are both guards, the Raptors say their approach to the draft was to pick the best players available according to their board. The similarities between Flynn’s game and free agent Fred VanVleet’s might prompt questions of a succession plan, but Raptors general manager Bobby Webster insisted once again that VanVleet is a piece for the future.
Here is what to expect from Toronto’s incoming rookies.
Malachi Flynn: A polished point guard who plays both sides of the ball
The easy comparison for Flynn is VanVleet, and it’s not entirely lazy. Flynn is another polished and experienced guard who was overlooked by other teams due to his size and age. There are distinct differences in their games, but their general profiles are the same.
Flynn was one of the best guards in the NCAA last season. San Diego State went 30-2 before the season was called off due to COVID-19 and Flynn was the driving force behind their incredible success. Flynn led the team in scoring, assists, steals and 3-pointers made and collected a handful of honours, including Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the Mountain West conference.
The most developed part of Flynn’s game is his playmaking in the pick-and-roll, which accounted for 40 percent of his possessions. He is polished and poised in his approach, playing at his own tempo with a great feel for how to use the screen to his advantage. Flynn rarely forces his offence and shows a willingness to react to the defence before making his move. He scored 1.06 points per play in pick-and-roll, the third-highest rate of all players in the NCAA, and shows an ability to score at all three levels. Most importantly, he takes great care of the ball and doesn’t commit silly turnovers. He posted a turnover rate of just 10 percent despite using 27 percent of his team’s possessions.
Flynn’s proficiency with the pull-up jumper opens up most of his game. He confidently hits from the midrange and from 3, and has even shown some one-on-one ability. The threat of his scoring often drew double teams, which then allowed Flynn to use his playmaking. Flynn is particularly adept at either shedding his man on the screen to attack in a two-on-one, or drawing two defenders to him before feeding the roller with a bevy of interior passes.
Most of Flynn’s drawbacks come from being undersized. It’s difficult for Flynn to create separation at times without a screen, and finishing at the rim can be a challenge. Fortunately, he has a reliable floater to counter taller shot-blockers that he converted at 44 percent. That in-between game is one of the ways Flynn differs from VanVleet, as he also frequently uses the midrange pull-up. Flynn’s ability to score and counter in most scenarios is the main reason why he was so effective offensively.
To round it out, Flynn was also an excellent defender. Although his size (6-foot-1 in height with a 6-foot-3 wingspan) limits what he can do, Flynn fits the mould of VanVleet and Kyle Lowry in that he plays above his size. While he lacks the size and bulk of Toronto’s senior guards, Flynn has the same tendency to stay involved and surprise opponents with his ability to read the defence. He averaged 1.8 steals per game not only because he was a pest on the ball, but also because he was an effective help defender who would often catch bigger players by surprise with a double team to create a turnover. Despite being small, opponents shot just 34.5 percent against Flynn.
The knock on Flynn and other players of his profile that he has limited upside because he’s a 22-year-old who can only play one position. But there are no perfect players at the 29th pick, and Flynn is good value with his polished skillset on both sides of the ball. He has two perfect mentors in VanVleet and Lowry to pick up the tricks of the trade, and with a few years of dedicated development, Flynn will be ready to step into a bigger role. Or if something changes, Flynn’s experience should allow him to contribute relatively quickly.
“As a young guy in the league, with two guys who have won a championship, who have put up great numbers, who have won. There’s not much bad you can say bad about those two guys. They are similar in size to me, so I think it will be great to be around them every day and to learn,” Flynn told reporters following the draft.
Jalen Harris: A natural scorer who needs to fill out his game
Harris is a flat-out scorer, especially with the ball in his hands. He created much of his own offence last season and was the main factor in Nevada’s high-octane offence. Harris is skilled and creative, but most likely slid in the draft due to his age and because he needs to diversify his skillset.
There is a lot to like offensively. Harris is an aggressive shot creator who thrives with the ball in his hands. Last season, Harris scored 0.96 points per play off the dribble and showed an array of stepbacks and pull-ups. He shot 37 percent from 3 at over six attempts per game, was prolific in the midrange and got to the foul line. Harris can also get to the rim thanks to a quick first step, he knows how to play his angles and to create contact and get to the line in addition to wielding a 43-inch vertical. Harris was also prolific in isolation, scoring 1.07 points per play which ranked in the 91st percentile for NCAA players.
The knock against Harris is that he needs to expand his skillset. He operates best as a primary playmaker, but that role likely won’t be afforded to him right away, if at all at the NBA level. In order to succeed in a secondary role, Harris needs to improve on defence and his ability to catch-and-shoot. Harris was not a particularly attentive defender despite collecting a handful of flashy chasedown blocks thanks to his elite leaping ability, and that will limit his playing time in Toronto’s system. Harris also shot just 34 percent on catch-and-shoot situations, which is strange given that he is an effective shooter on the whole.
If Harris can expand his game, he will be a valuable player for the Raptors. His scoring and playmaking are well above average, but his immediate path to playing time is unclear. He does the hard things well, but fails on some of the easy points. If he can defend at the NBA level and learn how to be as effective off the ball as he is with it, Harris will have a role to play.
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