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Way back when the Toronto Raptors were caught in the doldrums along came DeMar Derozan, Amir Johnson, and Sonny Weems collectively dubbed the Young Gunz.
At the time, with the Raptors rooting around in the thick of the doldrums, it felt like there was a lot of wishful thinking and desperate marketing gimmickry baked into that campaign. But lo and behold, DeRozan blossomed into a multiple All-Star and franchise cornerstone and he plus Johnson helped usher in the most successful era in Raptors history.
This group won’t be saddled with the burden of reversing a woebegone franchise’s fortune but some of its members will be tasked with sustaining the team’s success once the three-year window closes.
So, is there a future star in the bunch? Let’s have a look at the five young players and see how they might play out in the years to come.
OG Anunoby, SF/PF
Jakob Poeltl, C
Poetl is already, the Raptors’ best defensive big man and arguably their best defender, period. He’s nimble and intelligent, with impeccable defensive timing. He’s almost never late on help assignments. After being plagued by foul trouble in his rookie season, he’s learned to rely more on his quick feet and use his hands less. (He’s also learned to not be a rookie, which helps with the whistle). He may need to fill out his frame if he’s to improve as a post defender and defensive rebounder but the Raptors will likely be cautious about bulking him up given how that route has played out for Valanciunas.
Offensively, Poeltl is a glue guy in the truest sense. He fills gaps, flashing into open space the moment it opens and he makes snap decisions, allowing one action to flow seamlessly into the next. He has soft hands and has improved by leaps and bounds as a pick-and-roll finisher. He’s shown the ability to make reads and pick out corner shooters in 4-on-3 situations. He is a sorcerer capable of conjuring offensive rebounds out of thin air.
Poeltl’s potential is hamstrung mainly by his lack of shooting range and ball-handling ability which limit how often he can be on the floor (particularly if he continues to clank his free throws). There are almost no roadblocks to Poeltl becoming a solid starting center, but the roadblocks to stardom are real.
Delon Wright, PG/SG
A pair of shoulder dislocations have interrupted Wright’s progress the past two years and the spindly combo guard has played just 68 NBA games since being drafted in 2015, which wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal if he weren’t already 26.
While Wright’s age ostensibly caps his upside and his NBA sample remains small, he’s flashed tantalizing skills to go along with his immense physical tools. He’s a crafty ball-handler with point-guard vision standing 6’5″ with a 6’8″ wingspan shooting-guard size. He’s already a masterful disruptor at the defensive end. His hands live inside passing lanes and dribble-handoffs are not safe in his vicinity. He ranks ninth in the league in deflections per 36 minutes and third among guards. For his career, he’s averaging 1.8 steals and 0.7 blocks per 36 minutes. His ability to guard most positions allows the Raptors to thrive playing two- or even three-point guard lineups.
His jump shot still needs a lot of work but he finishes everything around the rim and is shooting an insane 70.3 percent inside the arch this season. Coupled with his 93.8 percent free-throw shooting, he’s posting an elite 67 percent true shooting mark (good for 14th in the league), which, for a guard who doesn’t hit 3-pointers, is as impressive as it is unsustainable. There’s still plenty of room for Wright to improve but in a point guard-rich league, he probably tops out as a low-end starter.
His future in Toronto isn’t crystal clear either. He’ll be extension-eligible next year with restricted free agency beckoning a year after that if no deal gets done. Will the Raptors have enough data points by then to invest in him long-term? Will the injuries be a recurring issue? If the Raptors decide to swing a big trade, will their backcourt depth make Wright expendable? All worthwhile questions but for now, he’s the most likely player to eventually take the starting point guard torch from Lowry.
Pascal Siakam, PF
Siakam has been a whiz-bang ball of hustle since he entered the league last year but the tools he honed (or in some cases, outright crafted) this offseason have made him into something more. Suddenly, he can face up, make plays off the dribble, finish in traffic and make productive passes on the move. Now all of a sudden, he can harness his manic kinetic energy into controlled, multi-positional defense. As a rookie, he looked like a more natural center but he’s quickly grown into something resembling a modern power forward.
Siakam may be the most dynamic of the Raptors’ youngs at present but he’s also the most difficult to project. How long will he be able to catch teams off guard with leak-outs and cuts? How long will he be able to get by mostly on speed and when he no longer can, what will be left? Much will rest on whether he can hone his 3-point shot, which has shown signs of viability but mostly remains a significant work in progress in terms of both accuracy and mechanics.
Continuing to refine his offensive game could mean the difference between Siakam topping out as a high level energizer – useful but inherently limited or becoming a well-rounded starter that defenses have to pay attention to. The safe money is on him topping out somewhere in the middle but the fact that he’s made such huge strides in such a short amount of time is cause for optimism.
Norman Powell, SG/SF
Coming into the season, Powell was probably the young Raptor with the highest expectations and rosiest long-term projection. The team expressed its faith in his ability by handing him a four-year, $42-million extension, the maximum it could offer despite his pedestrian counting stats and small-ish 2,000-minute sample.
It was easy to see why. Powell had flashed strong (if sporadic) perimeter defense, shot 40.4 percent from 3-point range as a rookie and proved himself a big-moment performer by effectively saving the Raptor’s in their first-round playoff series in both 2016 and 2017. Those bonafide attributes still mostly apply but Powell’s 3-point shooting has stabilized around 35 percent. His overall progress has been a slow burn and at 24, he’s older than your average third-year player.
The good news is Powell has already established a high ceiling as a rotation player with major two-way impact potential on any given night. He’s a monster in transition, a relentless driver, an expert jumper of passing lanes, a capable ball-handler and by all accounts, a tireless worker. It’s hard to project him as a future star given the extent to which other areas of his game remain underdeveloped. His vision is limited and his growth as a playmaker has been modest. He struggles to create in the half-court and has shown virtually no ability to shoot off the dribble. His effort at one end of the floor often comes at the expense of the other.
That’s not to say any or all of those things won’t improve but given where he’s at on the development curve, Powell projects more as a high-end role player in the future.