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Chisholm: Things looking up in Raptors' front court

Tim Chisholm
4/19/2009 2:08:10 PM
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Let's just say this: after two months as a Toronto Raptor, Shawn Marion did exactly what he wanted to do, which was make himself valuable to a team going into free agency. The biggest fear for Marion was that his history of being a malcontent, combined with his age, was going to cost him tremendously on the open market. Now, the Raptors find themselves in a position where Marion is an ideal fit for their team and they basically need to resign him if they want any of the positive late-season momentum to mean anything going into next season. It will take a deal that financially makes sense for both sides but it is hard to see any team outbidding Toronto when Marion has proven so unnecessary in a poorly tailored situation (Miami). He's fit with the team, the team respects him and what he brings to the court and now it just comes down to numbers to decide whether or not Marion is appropriate for the Raptors' future.

Behind Marion is perhaps the biggest controversy with regards to the Raptors' free agency, and that is what to do with Joey Graham. After flaming out in his first three years with the team, barely managing to stay afloat in the rotation, Graham appeared to have found himself a groove going into a contract year. That is the first thing to be wary about. Second is the fact that once Marion and Pops Mensah-Bonsu showed up and brought their respective energies to the club, Graham saw his usefulness decline sharply, and he started forcing his offense one-on-one in an attempt to compensate. Neither of those factors makes for an appealing free agent, especially when his career-year includes 7.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game averages.

After all, let's face it, the only why it's even a debate as to whether or not Graham should be retained is because he was so useless for so long that any improvement was going to inflate his apparent value. There are dozen's of Joey Graham's in the NBA, and the Raptors already have a pretty good idea of what this model does, so it's probably time to go in another direction since this model has hardly proved invaluable in four years of playing time. Also, since the team will probably retain Marion, Mensah-Bonsu and Parker this summer, how many guys do you really want returning to a club that won only 33 games? Graham was given more than a fair shake in Toronto and there doesn't seem to be any reason to bring him back into the fold.

Power Forward

Needless to say, this position is all about Bosh. In a previous piece I discussed the ins-and-outs of what a trade of Bosh would mean and how it could come about, so now we go ahead assuming that Bosh is the man at this position for the Raptors going forward.

Bosh had a difficult year, obviously, but it was about more than just the wins and losses.

Bosh appeared to have hit his ceiling as a player, and that can rattle players and fans alike. Now, Bosh still has areas of his game where he can improve and his maturity on the court will only grow with time, but he no longer looks like that big man who could develop into a Garnett- or Duncan-esque player. He basically is now what he is going to be, with some seasoning and veteran savvy thrown into the mix. Keep in mind, though, that this is not a bad thing. Bosh is still a stellar forward who can score inside and out, get to the line with the best of them and is an upper-crust rebounder when he wants to be (he was one of only three players in the NBA to average 20-10, the other two were Dwight Howard and Chris Paul). His interior defense is still shaky and his hands must improve but those are things that familiarity with teammates and time can mend. Bosh showed a lot of character with the way he closed out the season, and regardless of the fact that every player should play up to their abilities for every game, Playoffs or not, a lot of players would have coasted through the final weeks of the season. Bosh came to play as hard at the end of the year as he had at any point during the season and his chemistry with Bargnani, Marion and Calderon by the end of the year left this writer feeling more optimistic about next season than he did about this one.

Behind Bosh, the job basically looks to be Mensah-Bonsu's to lose. His tenacity on the glass pretty much assures him another contract with the Raptors and if he can clean up some of the warts on his offensive game he could easily unseat Kris Humphries' role on this team. First, though, he has to learn to gather himself under the basket after offensive boards and learn to go up strong. Right now he's being blocked to high-heaven because he's exposing the ball on weak put-back moves. He needs to learn how to protect the rock and make strong moves around the basket so that he doesn't become such an offensive liability. To that end, he also must learn to shoot free throws, because he's only going to go to the line more often with more playing time, and he must develop a killer 18-foot jump shot to keep defenses honest. He's already got great hands and a great open-court game, but he's a problem for the Raptors right now in the half-court. Dallas's Brandon Bass should be his model as a player as an undersized reserve big that wrecks havoc with his tenacity and efficiency. If he can do that then Pops can become in a couple of months what the Raptors spent two years hoping Humphries would develop into.

As for Humphries, look for the Raptors to explore unloading his deal for backcourt help or perhaps for a second-round draft pick. His $3.2-million salary is burdensome, though he could still be a useful player to a team in greater need of his services; Atlanta or New Jersey, perhaps.

Centre

Ah, centre. The position that has haunted the team since Marcus Camby's departure has suddenly become so very safe. Andrea Bargnani, back from the dead, has ferociously silenced all of his critics and planted himself firmly into the Raptors starting centre spot, just like GM Bryan Colangelo said he would on draft night, 2007. Breaking down his development this season has become nearly as passe as breaking down his disappointment was last year. Every aspect of his offensive game has improved tremendously, and he has quietly become a very respectable post defender, too. It's not just shot blocking, either, but his positioning, strength and rotations are all rather underrated aspects of his game at this point in his career. People are quick to cap his ceiling as the next Mehmet Okur but the comparison doesn't really stick beyond their on-court position and three-point shooting ability. Bargnani is taller, far more athletic, a better passer and is quite adept at putting the ball on the floor. Okur is a tremendous player, and a better rebounder, who fits perfectly in Utah's schemes, but coming from someone who watches a lot of Utah games, I say Bargnani is already at Okur's level with room to grow. As a starter, Bargnani already averages comparable numbers to Okur and he is a more natural scorer. Of course, Okur has proven himself as a consistent player from year-to-year (though not in the Playoffs), and that will be Bargnani's next task as an NBA professional, but at least no one is calling him a bust anymore.

Currently, Bargnani's subs include Jake Voshkul and Patrick O'Bryant. Voshkul was brought in to try and replace Rasho Nesterovic's veteran savvy, but he didn't, and likely won't be retained. In fact, the Raptors should (and probably will) make a pitch to reacquire Rasho in free agency this summer since he already makes an offseason home in Toronto. His size, dependability and smarts could always be of use to any NBA club, and it would be hard to find many players in Raptors history who carried themselves with as much professionalism as the big Slovanian. If the team can grab him for $2-million-per-year or so, then in all likelihood they will do so.

O'Bryant is another story. He's more or less guaranteed to be back with the team next year, and if the rumors of Marc Iavaroni's arrival as lead assistant are true, then he will be of great benefit to O'Bryant's game. Right now, O'Bryant is a long, athletic seven-footer who has little to no grasp of the NBA game. On offense he has no around the basket moves with which to score (he likes long jumpers) and on defense all he wants to do is block shots. Iavaroni, a solid big-man coach, will really help O'Bryant with learning how to use footwork to carve out space to get his shot off around the hoop, as well as teaching him how to play the angles on defense to stop a player from getting so close to the rim that he's either going to block his shot or, more likely, foul him. Right now O'Bryant merely allows players free entry into the paint so that he can try and swat their attempts away, but what that has resulted in is a player with major foul trouble in any game that sees him net major minutes.
If Iavaroni is not on the Raptors horizon, however, then importing a big man like Rasho to teach him the ropes takes on greater importance.

O'Bryant is still only 23 and has lots to offer the Raptors if he's willing to put in the work to fine-tune his game. Summer League will most likely be the first chance Raptors fans will get to see whether or not he has any greater interest in playing positioning or if he's just another in a long line of long big men that have disappointed as Raptor centres (Jerome Moiso, Jelani McCoy, Loren Woods and Primoz Brezec) for not living up to their potential.




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