Toronto's NEW Chapter
Since the beginning of April 2021, the Toronto Raptors have been 3-2, most recently overwhelming the Cleveland Cavaliers with an 87-point first-half and eventual win.
Not everyone will take this as ‘great’ news, given the Raptors fan base has become infatuated with the idea of landing a top-3 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Yet with the most difficult remaining regular season schedule, and a plethora of injuries, I have no doubt the Raptors will inevitably secure decent lottery odds.
So, in the meantime, I want to celebrate the successes currently achieved by Toronto’s young core and underrated depth players.
Gary Trent Jr
Logically, Gary Trent Jr should be the first Raptor highlighted from this past stretch.
To start-off April, Trent followed-up a career-high 33-points against OKC with an efficient 22-point performance (6/9 3P%) against the Warriors, smashing the franchise +/- statistic record in the process with a whopping +54. Although his next performance was not the same display of efficiency, he managed to drain a game-winning 3-pointer to sink the Washington Wizards.
His offensive output took another step-back versus the shorthanded Lakers, but Raptor fans still celebrated his animated scuffle with Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell; as Trent immediately threw himself into the chaos to defend the ejected OG Anunoby. Trent managed to please fans once again the following match with his custom Blue Jays attire pre-game, yet he only scored a measly 6-points versus the Bulls, comitting three turnovers while shooting 2/14 from the field.
No sweat though, right?
Two days later, Gary Trent Jr EXPLODES for a career-high 44 points versus the Cleveland Cavaliers, recording 7-rebounds, 4-assists, and 1-steal to kick. The sweetest part? The 22-year-old settled right-back-into an efficient groove, shooting 7/9 from 3-point range while remaining perfect from the floor. This performance added Trent to the exclusive list of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Klay Thompson as the only players to drop 40-points on 85% shooting or better. His 45-point total is 1-point higher than Norman Powell’s current career-high, which was set earlier this season with the Raptors.
The sky is the limit for Gary Trent Jr, and without trying to reach, I see a similar shooting stroke to that of Jayson Tatum. Norm was certainly a difficult player to part with, for a multitude of reasons… However, the return on this trade is already demonstrating lasting value for Masai. Not only did Toronto get younger with the acquisition of Trent, but he will be retained for slightly cheaper than Norm, while bringing more defensive-edge and size with comparable scoring. Most importantly, the Raptors welcomed someone into the family who, by all indications, really WANTS to be there.
In a re-build season, the ‘good vibes’ and big buckets of Gary Trent Jr will continue to polish the Toronto Raptors back into eventual contending form.
The 29th overall draft pick from the 2021 class, Malachi Flynn’s rookie season appears to be finally off-the-ground for the Toronto Raptors.
As previously mentioned, a plethora of injuries and other complications (suspension, COIVD-protocol) has greatly reduced the line-up to usually 8-9 players during April. With Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet as your predecessors, there is a certain double-edged sword for the young point-guard in Flynn. Although he’s certainly been a sponge around these two, he’s needed to accept a G-League assignment while primarily receiving garbage minutes at the next level.
Raptors fans know better than to write-off this type of storyline, yet Malachi Flynn’s father has vented some critical frustrations directed at Toronto’s use of his son...
In a passionate Facebook post, Eric Flynn wrote; “I say this not because I am Malachi Flynn dad. Malachi Flynn was number 1 in the country last year in running the pick and Roll. A team that went 26 and 0 end of season 30 and 2 ranked 3RD in the NATION. The stats prove he was the best guard in the country at running the pick and Roll. To not allow him to do that is like telling Patrick Mahomes he can’t pass the football” (per Reddit).
Some may label him ‘Lavar Ball of the North’, yet I respect the enthusiasm for his son, and given his performances thus far in April; maybe he’s got a point. I’m certainly not putting Malachi Flynn on a Patrick Mahomes pedestal, but there is simply no denying that Flynn is a gifted ball-handler when given some leash. He’s played at least 30-minutes in each of the past five games, and he’s only failed to record a double-digit scoring line once (9-points vs. the Bulls).
After recording a career-high 16-points in a blow-out win vs the Warriors, he then matched that exact same total next game versus the Wizards, where he additionally picked up a VanVleet-like defensive stat line of 4 steals and 3 blocks. To complement these elements of his game, the rookie has dished out 32-assists thus far in April.
Most recently, Flynn punished the Cavaliers with his first double-double and a victory; as he recorded a career-high 20-points and 11 rebounds! It’s extremely visible when Malachi is lacking the confidence to finish, however, the consistency of his shot selection and defense seems unwavering. This will help to continually compensate for his offensive ‘off-nights’, as he gains the experience and confidence necessary to run the floor.
Not everyone was sold on Malachi out-the-gate, but this past stretch is showing glimpses of him becoming the Raptors bench general of the future.
As one of few underwhelming 2020 off-season signings, Bembry came to the Raptors with little expectation yet a lot of potential in my opinion.
I’ve always enjoyed watching his game in Atlanta, and it was no surprise the Hawks were unable to retain him with such an overcrowded front-court. Before the season was essentially canned, Bembry did not see consistent playing time while the Raptors were at, or close to full-strength. With the season unravelling through the month of February, depth players such as Bembry have finally obtained some leash to run with.
The 26-year-old has a very intriguing skill-set for a depth wing…
Many small forwards often follow the 3-and-D approach, such as OG Anunoby, yet Bembry presents more of a defensive specialist/play-maker hybrid. Although he’s had moments of decent 3-point shooting this year, it's been inconsistent and essentially non-existent into April of this season. However, Bembry is helping to fill the play-making void left by the absences of Lowry, VanVleet, and Pascal to a certain extent.
His assist numbers won’t blow you away, but he often directs the offence and helps accelerate the ball into the fast-break. As a solid defender with the size to grab the ball of the glass, he inevitably becomes a very important ball-handler on the floor.
Over his past four games, Bembry has collected 8 steals and 4 blocks, and as someone long enough to grab the ball off the glass, his play has led to many converted points and added more match-up versatility on the back-end.
Sometimes his desire to play-make seems to get ahead of him, leading to pass-up open lanes to the hoop or 3-point opportunities. This has led to some high turn-over numbers for Bembry relative to his minutes, but I would be reluctant to change his style of play. Having an elite playmaker at his size is a rare asset, and his games this April reveal some increasing balance between his scoring and facilitating.
Bembry is currently averaging 5.5 PPG, but he’s recorded 40-points over the past three games as the Raptors went 2-1 overall through the match-ups. I was vying to see Nick Nurse play Bembry more previous to the essential canning of our season, and if he continues to show-out, I’m sure he will become a rotation player next season.
The Montreal product has been a massive part of the past five games.
There has been an on-going debate as to whether Chris Boucher could truly reach the status of a complete starting NBA centre. Although he checks a ton of those boxes, his modest frame and lack of mid-range/post-up game have continually limited his claims to the starting spot. Even Nick Nurse recently remarked to media that he ideally views Chris as a power forward in the league, but comments such as these have not stopped the Slim Duck from adapting his game at centre.
Before the offence picked-up, he opened this month with a 4-steal, 2-block performance versus the Warriors, and then a 2-steal, 3-block showing versus the Wizards. By the Lakers match-up, things began to heat-up offensively for Boucher, as he recorded 19-hustle-points and 8-rebounds for the shorthanded Raptors. Chris cranked that heat up a notch for the following performance versus the Bulls, as he dropped a career-high 38-points and 19-rebounds, adding a customary 1-block and 1-steal to the performance.
This is really the showing I wish to highlight; as fans would likely see his stat line and assume Chris just had another one of ‘those’ nice nights from 3-point range. Which, is not entirely incorrect, as he shot 3/7 from the three-point line, yet the main takeaway remains his surprising output as a take-over mid-range scorer.
Chris was hitting looks that I normally don’t even see him attempt…
I’ve always firmly stood by the conviction that his true missing criteria at centre was a lack of mid-range assets, but perhaps this is becoming a live development for the young Canadian. Chris is an unconventional story in the NBA, but I think I speak for all of us when I say that I’m happy he’s a Toronto Raptor.