Right now, the Raptors are bad. One of the biggest reasons for this is they are currently struggling through a period of talent deprivation. In the long run, to dig themselves out of their current rut it's going to take the acquisition of new players to fill in some of those gaps and raise the overall talent level of the team. However, that doesn't mean there aren't things that the current group can do to improve upon their skill level, and thus the skill level of the team overall.
So, the challenge I laid out for myself was to identify the key skill that each of the Raptors' young core can work on to take the next step as players. To help illustrate the point, I've cited a player in the league that each player can use as a model for that skill set. Before we begin, though, a little bit of context. First, Bargnani is not on this list. While his game has some major identifiable deficiencies, his development outside of his offence has stagnated so significantly over the last three years that pretending like he's going to suddenly give a damn about rebounding or defence is foolhardy. Second, the comparisons are not necessarily a basis for who each player could become, but rather an example of the skill set they need to hone as exemplified by the example given. Lastly, this is really about the Raptors' young core. That means that Leandro Barbosa and Reggie Evans don't get to play, and that Solomon Alabi, Alexis Ajinca and Trey Johnson have to do a lot more to prove they are going to be in Toronto long term.
With that, on with the list.
DeMar DeRozan -/- Kobe Bryant
Skill: dribbling out of the trap
Every shooting guard in the NBA could spend their entire careers trying to mold their games after Kobe and only get a fraction of his ability into their arsenal. Nonetheless, DeRozan should be paying particular attention to how Kobe uses the dribble to prevent opposing defences from trapping him, especially along the baseline.
In recent weeks, teams have gotten wise to DeRozan's shaky handles, and they are increasingly working to trap him when he puts the ball on the floor, and DeRozan doesn't have a strong enough back-out move to counter their efforts. He needs to be able to recognize that the traps are coming sooner, and he has to be quicker to take one dribble back out of their trap and alter his trajectory. It takes recognition of the defence and a strong, efficient dribble to make that happen, and until he learns those things teams are going to continue to pressure and trap him into giving up the ball or turning it over.
Amir Johnson -/- Kevin Garnett
Skill: defensive positioning
A lot of players could learn a lot of things from the way that KG plays the game. However, as it pertains to Johnson, whose game has leveled-off in his second year in Toronto, Garnett's mastery of defensive positioning would be a huge benefit to Johnson's game. Garnett knows how to use his body to steer players on the court, he knows how to deny position, while using his length to disrupt shots and passes. Johnson likes to rely too much on his athleticism, often ceding position and trying to reach instead of moving his feet and jumping to block shots he should simply contest with a hand up to make it more difficult. Johnson likes to stand too vertically, which limits his lateral mobility, whereas he should be down in a deep stance like Garnett, using his length to beat his man to positions on the floor.
Because Johnson is an active player, people assume that he's a good defender. He's not. He is slow to react on help, he never beats his man down the court in transition to deny deep post position and he gets caught flat footed far to often when his opponent drives by him. He needs to embrace how important positioning is as an NBA defender if he ever wants to be anything more than an energy guy off of the bench for a club serious about winning.
Jerryd Bayless -/- Rajon Rondo
Rajon Rondo cannot shoot a lick, and yet he's one of the deadliest point guards at both ends in the NBA. That's because he has such a quick first step that he can often blow by his man, even when they are giving him space, and finish at the basket with efficiency. He shoots 65.4% at the rim, taking 3.9 of his shots per game there, which makes him basically the deadliest point guard in the NBA around the basket, even moreso than Tony Parker.
Rondo does it by finding and exploiting seams in the defence, using incredible core strength to maintain his balance in mid-air and by using angles and spin on the ball to give his shots the best chance of going in. Bayless, in contrast, attacks the rim but often flings up out-of-control shots, hoping for either a lucky bounce or a foul. At this point in his career, Bayless's first step is the biggest weapon in his arsenal, but it's dulled somewhat by his inability to maximize its potency with a finishing game. If he could focus more on being a force around the basket, rather than setting-up as a long-range bomber, his effectiveness as an NBAer would be considerably higher.
Linas Kleiza -/- Steve Nash
Skill: consistent shot release
Any great NBA shooter knows that the key to their success is repetition. When Steve Nash (or Ray Allen or Mark Price) goes up for a shot, he has the same release every time. He has an incredibly strong core that allows him to square himself to the basket quickly, and that makes each shot the same as the one that came before.
Kleiza, conversely, has a wildly different release every time he shoots the ball. Sometimes he's fading, or leaning, sometimes it's faster or slower. And these aren't considerations he makes because of defensive pressure; he just doesn't have a consistent release on his jumper. As a result, Kleiza is shooting just 43.8% from the floor this season, 29.8% from three, and his usefulness on the Raptors has been marginalized as a result. They need him to stick open jumpers with consistency, but his shot preparation and release don't have the consistency in them to make that happen. He's got to make that happen.
Sonny Weems -/- Aaron Afflalo
Skill: know your role
For a support piece, knowing your role can be one of the most important staples of your game. Denver's Aaron Afflalo is a master of that, shooting high percentages, playing sticky defence, taking good shots, and not playing outside of himself. He's a fixture in Denver's starting five and he's in line for a healthy pay bump in free agency this summer.
A season ago, in a breakout year, Sonny Weems fit a similar mold: he shot the ball 6.6 times per game and connected on 51.5% of his attempts. He couldn't hit threes, so he didn't take threes, and he was among the most efficient Raptors that the team employed and he was a starter by year's end. This year Weems is taking 10.0 shots, is shooting 44.6% and despite still not being able to shoot threes, is taking 1.3 of them per game. You can count on Weems taking at least one shake-your-head awful shot per night and he seems very far from the self-contained player that he was a season ago. If he wants to stick with the club, and net a sizeable raise in free agency, he's going to have to start playing within his role and abilities again soon before others on the team leapfrog him in the rotation.
Julian Wright -/- Nicolas Batum
Skill: three-point shooting
Batum, like Wright, is known mostly for his rangy defence and supreme athleticism. The two players share an ability to keep pace with quicker swingmen while using their length to disrupt the flow of their offence. However, Batum is a nightly starter and a key piece of Portland's future, while Wright is struggling to just to maintain a spot in Toronto's rotation. Why is that?
It's because Batum knew early that while he could make a name for himself with his defence, he'd need to be able to contribute something offensively to keep opposing defences honest, and for him that was a three-point shot. For Wright, all he needs is to be able to hit are corner threes, the shortest three-pointers there are, to take his game to a whole new level. A corner three from Wright would space the floor for the Raptors' penetrators, giving them a target to kick to when they suck in the defences, while also keeping those defences from just abandoning Wright and roaming the floor like a free safety. Sometimes it doesn't take much to take one's game to the next level, and a corner three would be huge for Wright and his future in the NBA.
Ed Davis -/- LaMarcus Aldridge
Skill: mid-range jumper
I think most Raptors fans know who should have been the example for this trait, but why fan the flames when Aldridge will do nicely in his place? For a power forward, having the ability to hit (and not necessarily depend upon) the mid-range jumper opens up the game for a player as well as his team. Aldridge can step away from the basket, opening up driving lanes for guards, but he pulls his defender with him because opposing bigs know that Aldridge is still capable of punishing them from 12-feet out. When Davis walks out of the paint, defenders feel no need to follow him, packing the paint instead, because he's not a threat outside of the lane. He showed a nice mid-range touch in Summer League, and it would help open up his game if he could rediscover it in the NBA.