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Aron Baynes Jersey

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Coming from Baynes, that carries a lot of weight.

“He’s obviously one of the tougher, more physical guys in the league,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Baynes after seeing him in-person on the court over the last week or so.

“He’s right up there. It’s probably him and (Steven) Adams, right?”

That’s something that Raptors fans will get to learn as this season gets going. Baynes, 33, happens to be right in the middle of one of the biggest questions that the team faces: What will the contributions look like from the centre and power forward spots vacated by Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka?

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“It’s kind of a combo between those guys (Gasol and Ibaka) a little bit,” Nurse said of Baynes.

“Gasol’s one of the best passing bigs in the world. Aron’s got a little bit of that in his game. I wouldn’t say he’s the passer that Gasol is but he’s a decent handler, gets it safely from side-to-side on swinging, DHOs (dribble handoffs) and handoffs.

“He did shoot it at a 37 per cent clip above the break last year from three on a pretty good number of attempts. There’s some of that pick and pop there as well. He’s a veteran player, experienced. I think he looks just fine.”

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It’s impossible to try to step into a new job and do it exactly the way that your predecessor did. For Baynes, it won’t be about being the new Gasol. It’s about working his talents into what the Raptors are doing. Coming off of a career-best season in Phoenix where he averaged 11.5 points per game and had a breakthrough on his three-point shot, hitting 35.1 per cent (59 for 168), that bodes well for him.

Aron Baynes is in a pretty tricky position ahead of his first season in Toronto. No replacement for Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol could possibly be expected to match those two, both in on-court production and off-court charm.

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Gasol was the team’s defensive quarterback, who turned the team into a buzzsaw whenever he hit the floor. Toronto’s entire think-piece inspiring defense was centered around Gasol’s ability to call out coverages and keep the team pliable. Ibaka, meanwhile, was the team’s most eager finisher, brightest off-court star, and handsomest fellow. Losing those two is a blow, and you’d be forgiven for being a little salty that they’re now in LA and the 2021 cap space their departures created is now likely to go unfilled by a big free agent. Baynes has some freaking shoes to fill.

Luckily for him, helping big men look good is kind of what the Raptors do.

If you’re Baynes, you couldn’t ask for a much firmer infrastructure within which to settle yourself. Kyle Lowry is his new point guard, and is sure to make it his duty to make Baynes’ next contract as lucrative if not more than the one he just signed. The only thing that seems to delight Lowry more than screaming at a ref he knows is wrong is getting dudes paid, whether it’s one of his beloved young pups in the Raptors core, or one-year stopover reclamation projects. Bismack Biyombo owes 85 percent of his career earnings to the eight months he spend catching lobs from Lowry.

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Beyond Lowry, Baynes enters a team designed to make life easy on centers. Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam comprise as good collection of perimeter defenders as can be found on the planet. They’re joined by a couple bench options who are so good that Baynes probably won’t even be asked to close half of the team’s games. When he’s on the floor, opposing ball-handlers will more often than not be contained, and if not, Baynes will be helped by the prying arms and heavy palms of the Raptors who love to poke and steal balls oh so much. It’s a pretty plum gig being the last line of defense behind a concrete wall.

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Off the court, he’ll never be Parade Marc or the Scarf Daddy, but Baynes seems like he’ll fit in snugly. He’s a fun quote, believes in the social causes the Raptors have put themselves behind, and comes with one of the more endearing Twitter accounts there is championing his every move. Toronto is a fun team to watch and an angsty one to play against — that very identity tends to coat members of the team in an aura of likeability. A year or two with the Raptors will surely help rehab whatever bad Celtics juju’s still clinging to his reputation.

Essentially, Baynes has it made in Toronto, same as just about any other mercenary center would. For him to uphold his end of the deal, it’s really not all that complicated. More or less: set good screens, play sound defense, take a lot of open threes and make an average chunk of them, and either grab rebounds or clear space for others to scoop them up.

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The screening thing shouldn’t be much of an issue. Lowry boasted about that part of Baynes’ game after playing just a single preseason game with him on Friday. He’s sure to carry on the grand tradition of Raptors big men setting picks of debatable legality.

We’ve yet to see much of the eager three-point bombing Baynes leaned into in Phoenix last season — he’s was awkwardly married to rolling in the preseason as opposed to the popping that powered his career-best season in 2019-20. You’d assume that would resolve itself. Lowry’s gonna need a new buddy to feed pick-and-pop passes to like a momma bird taking worms to its nest, and Baynes attempted more threes per-36 than Ibaka did last year. On the glass, the five most-used Suns lineups featuring Baynes were somewhere between good and awesome at grabbing available boards. He’s got a history of helping to drive good rebounding at most of his stops, which was among the few things Ibaka and Gasol couldn’t claim.

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Defensively, we’ll see. Phoenix was a couple points better per 100 possession with Baynes on the bench last season, but that was the Suns, who didn’t really learn how to play adult basketball until the Bubble, during which Baynes was sidelined with COVID. Toronto, as we’ve discussed, has better defenders than than Devon Booker and Kelly Oubre Jr. Baynes is mobile enough to hang when he needs to track a ways out, and will be wonderfully suited to doing the verticality thing at the rim.

The beauty of the whole Baynes experiment is that if things aren’t working on a given night, it’s not like the Raptors are beholden to playing him 30-plus minutes. In fact, they almost certainly won’t — he’s never averaged more than 22.2 minutes a night.

The reality is, while Baynes has the unfortunate duty of following up what Gasol and Ibaka did in Toronto, he’s not really being asked to do all the things they did. In his role, he should be a more than passable large person for hire, but he isn’t going to do it himself. Toronto can probably rely on Baynes, yeah. But they’ll be able to do so because of all the ways in which Baynes can count on the Raptors to help him out.

“It’s something that every single day I want to get better at,” Baynes said of his three-point shot, which has gotten some tweaks and refinements over the last week with his new team.

“I’m always wanting to contribute more to the team’s success and so I’m working towards that. It’s always good if you have the coach’s confidence. It’s one of those things that if you have the confidence of your coach, it breeds confidence in yourself.

“It makes that job easier to go out there and take those shots and knock them down.”

With news on Monday of three people in the Raptors organization testing positive for Covid-19, Baynes was reminded of his experience with the virus over the summer. He and his family contracted it in Phoenix in July, just when players were arriving in Orlando for the bubble.

He said that the early stress of not knowing how it would affect his family was the worst part of the ordeal. His wife was pregnant and their daughter has asthma, so he had legitimate concerns. In a July interview with The Athletic’s Shams Charania he said that he was thankful that he was the worst-affected in his family.

“It put me on my butt for a good week, I slept for four days straight,” he told Charania.

“At first…it was the unknown with Covid, we don’t know what long-term effects are going to be and the lack of being able to get out of bed and stay awake, that hit me hard.”

Just a few days into full team practices — Nurse said the Raptors went full-contact on Tuesday — everyone is feeling their way through their new arrangement in Tampa. Doing that while being Covid-aware can be a challenge, but Baynes said the organization is doing everything it can to make it a seamless experience.

“We’re in the best possible circumstance to be doing what we’re doing. They look after everything for us,” he said.

“There’s really not much stress on us in terms of what we have to do on a day-to-day schedule. The hardest thing for us is having to remember to go and get a test every single day. That’s about as tough as it is for us.

“We’re protected, we’re looked after so well that, sure we can’t go out and do some things but at the end of the day, we’re lucky to be able to do what we do. Every need we have is taken care of. There are a lot of people out there doing a lot worse and if that’s the biggest stress for us every single day that’s fine, it’s no skin off our back.”

There are still nuances of the Raptors schemes that Baynes will have to learn, terminology that with a new team can have a totally different meaning than it did with your last. Nurse and Baynes agreed that’s what this part of the season is for. It’s something that Baynes is working on daily and that he’ll be excited to show off on Saturday, when the Raptors travel to Charlotte for their first of three preseason games.

OG Anunoby Jersey

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Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby.

OK, back to reality.

Few — if any — teams in the NBA are better at developing talent than the Toronto Raptors. In each of the past two seasons, the organization has had players in the Most Improved Player discussion, with Pascal Siakam winning the award two years ago.

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Heading into this season, no player on the Raptors roster looks better positioned for a breakout — Most Improved Player worthy — season than the 23-year-old Anunoby. Vegas has him at 20/1 odds of winning the award, the sixth highest in the NBA, implying about a 5% chance of it happening.

So what exactly does an Anunoby breakout season look like?

Offensive Development

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Anunoby is a modern NBA offensive darling. He averaged 10.6 points per game last season while taking over 90% of his shots either behind the 3-point line or at the rim. He was essentially a highly efficient role player who was assisted on the vast majority of his points.

This year, the Raptors will likely ask a little bit more from Anunoby who should see his usage rate climb from 14%. For him to succeed, it will require a little more offensive creativity, something Anunoby is preparing for.

“Just being more aggressive, looking for my own shot, looking to get other people involved,” he said.

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He said he spent much of the offseason working on shooting off the dribble, ball handling, and passing on the move, the kind of stuff he’ll be required to do with the ball in his hands a little more this year.

In his introductory session with the media on Friday morning, Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch explained what he thought went into a good NBA offence.

“To me, the most important thing right now is to be highly unpredictable,” Finch said.

“When you get to the playoffs, everybody knows who you are and what you do and what you do well. That’s where they start to try to stop you.

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“So the more randomness that you can have, the more purpose within that randomness, more structure that you can have, it’s always great but at some point, the game comes down to you playing basketball and some sort of random mindset.

“If you can do that really well from the beginning it’s really hard for teams to guard you. That’s been one of the calling cards of a lot of the teams I’ve been associated with, is that we’ve been able to maintain that type of unpredictability.”

A few hours later, one possible piece of that unpredictability puzzle sat in the same chair and wondered about his future.

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“I think so,” OG Anunoby said about the possibility of having an increased role in the Raptors’ offence this year.

“Just be more aggressive looking for my own shot, looking to get other people involved. Just trying to do more. I think so.”

If good offence is about wrinkles and throwing the unexpected at your opponent, Anunoby might be the perfect candidate for the role. He heads into his fourth season in the league, all of them with the Raptors, with potential still radiating from his six-foot-seven, 232-pound frame.

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It’s funny in a sense that after building a reputation as the team’s top defender over the last three years that it’s a half-a-second of offence that’s attached itself to him. Type his name into Google and the autocomplete instantly tries to take you back three months to the bubble, where his buzzer beater in Game 3 against the Celtics instantly became one of the top highlights of the playoffs.

“It was a cool moment. Looking back on it was exciting, it was fun,” he said.

“But we lost the series.”

At the start of a new season, there’s finally an opportunity to get past that lost series and to start fresh. Anunoby said he’s worked more on his ball handling, shooting off of the dribble and passing on the move. He also may have made training camp history by being the first athlete to say that he hadn’t put on weight over the off-season. He said that he strengthened his core and worked on individual leg strength while keeping his weight the same.

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With the change that’s come with this new season, in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka going to L.A. to play for the Lakers and Clippers, respectively, there’s room for Anunoby to grow, to take on more responsibility on and off the court. Finishing out the season in the bubble, he started to show signs that he was ready to take those next steps.

In the playoffs, he surpassed his career averages of 7.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, and an assist per game with 10.5 points, 6.9 rebounds 1.2 blocks and assists and one steal per game. He shot 41.5 per cent from three in the playoffs, compared to the 39 per cent he shot during the season. Keep in mind he does these things while often defending the opposition’s best players on the other end of the floor.

A year older and further up the ladder of vets on the team, there’s plenty of opportunity for Anunoby to continue to evolve, to be that element of unpredictability and help his teammates.

“I think every year in the league, I try to be a better leader than I was the year before,” he said.

“I try to show the young guys the way. If they need help they can ask me. I think I lead by example, more than a guy that’ll be yelling and screaming. I just try to do things the right way. I know how we do things, like drills and practice stuff. I just try to show the guys who don’t know. They can watch me and figure it out or they can ask me for help and I’ll help them.

“When I was young and I got here and I didn’t know what to do I could look at Pascal (Siakam) and ask him what to do, or ask Norm what to do and they’d help me figure it out. It’s just passing on what I’m taught.”

“I thought he started to become more of a driver, getting by people on the catch or making a move and getting by people,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Anunoby’s performance in the NBA’s Orlando Bubble last year. “There’s probably a midrange game in there that he could find, I know he’s working on.”

While it’s unlikely Anunoby ever becomes a 20 points per game scorer, a little more shot creation to increase his scoring to 15 points per game would make a massive difference for Toronto and could vault him into MIP consideration.

Defensive Development

Anunoby is already one of the NBA’s premier defensive players. He’s a true 3-and-D player who can guard almost anyone on the court.

One through four, Anunoby has no issue stopping the opposing team’s best player. This season though, with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol playing in Los Angeles, it’s expected that Anunoby will see a little more time defending centres.

Last year, Anunoby defended opposing centres on about 14% of his defensive possessions, according to Krishna Narsu. His most notable stretch against opposing bigs came in the playoffs when the Raptors opted to go small against the Boston Celtics, playing Anunoby at the five against Daniel Theis.

It worked pretty well for Toronto, who held the Celtics to just 101 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. It was, however, a bit of a learning experience for Anunoby who gave up some easy lob passes down low to Theis.

“Just gotta be strong, gotta be on my feet, just ready to go, ready to protect the rim, ready to get back to my man because I know [Theis] got some lobs from me stepping up too early,” Anunoby said, reflecting on the matchup. “Just learning from those situations, knowing to stunt, get back, just knowing what to do, reading the situation.”

Anunoby’s ability to hold his own against opposing bigs for extended stretches will likely be an X-factor this season both for the Raptors as a team and for Anunoby’s development into an all-star caliber player this season.