The first weeks for Jerryd Bayless in Toronto were golden. The team's GM spoke enthusiastically about acquiring him from the New Orleans Hornets and he exploded out of the gate, leading the charge in a 25-point come-from-behind victory against the Detroit Pistons in his first ten days with the team. Fans were basically thrusting the keys to the offence at him before he'd even had a chance to settle in. Basically, he looked poised to take his place alongside DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis as a building block for the team's future.
Then reality settled in.
In order to give Bayless time to ease onto his third team in two months, head coach Jay Triano opted to bring Bayless off the bench while he got caught up to speed. In a season basically earmarked for development for the future, everyone figured he'd be starting in place of the struggling Jose Calderon before long, but Triano chose not to rush the promotion. However, after the trade that brought Bayless to Toronto exiled former-starter Jarrett Jack, Calderon played like a man reborn. He showed a level of confidence that the team hadn't seen in well over a year. His assist numbers went through the roof and his stability added a much-needed controlled element to a very erratic young core. In other words, Bayless was not promoted to the starting lineup. To compound matters as the weeks wore on, Bayless began nursing nagging injuries and his play off the bench showed far more inconsistency than the club had expected after his tremendous first weeks with the club. Suddenly, the plans to anoint Bayless as a cornerstone were put on hold while the club worked to evaluate exactly what they had in their newfound prospect.
Today, the only conclusion we can safely reach about Bayless is this: He is not a back-up point guard. Coming off the bench, Bayless averages just 6.6 ppg and 3.0 apg and shoots a dreadful 38.7% from the floor. When he plays in the short 8-to-10 minute bursts per half that a back-up point guard typically gets, he looks tentative and unsure of how to best impact the game. He struggles to balance his natural scoring instincts with proper playmaking technique; he plays out of control when he's aggressive and totally passive when he's deliberate. If what the Raptors want out of Bayless is an efficient, heady playmaker, then clearly Bayless is not their guy and the team can basically end their evaluations there.
Of course, there's more to the story than that.
That's because in a small 9-game sample, Bayless has been an eye-opening starter. He's averaged 16.7 ppg, 7.6 apg, 3.8 rpg and 49% shooting with the first unit, a tremendous output on its own, but truly remarkable when compared to his numbers as a reserve. This is the Bayless that earned all of that early season praise, and it's the one that is going to make things hard for Raptors' management this coming off-season. It would obviously behoove the club to allow him to start the team's last six games in an attempt to increase the sample size they have to evaluate from. But even if Bayless had fifteen games under his belt as a starter, it's not going to make the ensuing evaluation any easier.
The biggest reason is, again, the small sample size of the starts in question, and how they stack up against the 56 games he's played in reserve (not to mention the 127 games he played over the last two seasons). Simply put, the output Bayless has managed as a starter this year flies completely in the face of anything that he's done otherwise. He's played with such control and confidence as the lead guard with the starting unit that it's nearly unimaginable that he's the same guy that plays so tentatively off the bench. How does management reconcile that disparity? Is it simply a matter of Bayless being afforded a chance to play without looking over his shoulder that has given him so much confidence in his game? Is there something about playing alongside DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson that simply suits him better than playing alongside Leandro Barbosa and Sonny Weems? Figuring out why he's been so much more effective as a starter would be priority number one in decoding this oddity of Bayless's season, because it would appear that his future in Toronto has been basically reduced to being a starter or having none.
If the Raptors are to make that call, they need to feel secure in their ability to project his ceiling as a point guard, and that's going to be difficult. Keep in mind, even as a starter he's not the most gifted playmaker the club has ever known, and it's unlikely he'll ever be an elite point guard in that respect. While he's posted some impressive assist games, his control over the offence is still far closer to that of D.J. Augustin than to John Wall three years into his career (i.e. not great). At times, he has the regrettable tendency to simply pass to the open man rather than make the best pass available in the offence. Yes, you can pass to Reggie Evans while he's posting up Taj Gibson, but should you? Yes, you can pass up an open lay-up to kick the ball out to Julian Wright beyond the arc, but should you? While repetition might lessen these occurrences, will Bayless ever be the kind of guard that improves his teammates with his play rather than just accommodating them?
There is also the question of his defence. While he was highly touted as a defensive prospect coming to Toronto, that has turned out to be a somewhat generous evaluation. While Bayless has the speed, athleticism and will to be a strong defender, he's far too prone to gambling to be considered a strong defender today. Just last weekend, both Derrick Rose and Jameer Nelson lit him up for 36 and 21, respectively, in back-to-back games, and his 3.8 fouls per 36 minutes are more than any starting point guard currently playing in the NBA and illustrate his tendency to gamble rather than lock-in. He has to learn how to use angles and footwork over simply lunging and reaching to reach his defensive ceiling, and he has yet to show a greater aptitude for that than he had at the start of the season.
It would be far easier on management if they believed that Bayless had the tools and the upside to be the man to lead their young troops through (and out of) their rebuilding period. It would be far easier to invest the time (both on and off the court) in developing his skills and decision-making than it would to bring in someone new and hope that they'd leapfrog Bayless in terms of production. However, easier isn't always right. The hard part about being an NBA executive isn't deciding whether or not to draft Derrick Rose or Kevin Durant, nor is it about deciding whether or not to cut ties with Sonny Weems and Julian Wright. No, the hard part is deciding how much to invest (both in terms of money and opportunity) in the guys in between. Detroit put all their chips in the Rodney Stuckey basket and lost. The Celtics did the same in Rajon Rondo and won. The Raptors get six more games to decide whether or not Bayless should join DeRozan and Davis as cornerstone pieces, and it's unlikely that they'll have a clear-cut answer when those six games are over. The immediate future of the Raptors' point guard position is at stake, though, so this is one decision that the team has to get right going forward.
This is going to be an interesting off-season.