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Chisholm: Looking at Raptors' changes on the wing

Tim Chisholm
8/31/2012 2:00:08 PM
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In our continuing look at the year-over-year changes for the Toronto Raptors, we get to the position that needed the most addressing and got the least: Wings. For the last few years the Raptors have been bereft at best and embarrassingly undermanned at worst at the wing positions. Whether or not Landry Fields and Terrence Ross can move the needle this season, the wing positions once again look like position of relative weakness for the Raptors heading into the season.

STARTING SHOOTING GUARD

Last Season: DeMar DeRozan
This Season: DeMar DeRozan

Last year DeRozan saw both his scoring average and shooting percentage fall (from 17.2 ppg and .467 shooting to 16.7 ppg and .422 shooting) despite playing more minutes per game than he had the season before and shouldering more of the team's offensive responsibilities. In one sense you could easily make the argument that DeRozan's lack of efficiency was a result of opposing team's keying-in on him since the rest of the team (often without Andrea Bargnani) didn't offer much offensive skill, but at the same time DeRozan's lack of a three-point shot, ball-handling polish and ability to absorb contact on drives hurt his offensive numbers, as well.

This season the Raptors hope for two things: One, that DeRozan having a summer where he can stay in contact with the coaching staff will help him develop more productively than last summer's lockout allowed him to, and two, that having more talent around him will open up the court for him to operate, especially if Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields can punish sagging defenses with their three-point shots.

The big fear is that DeRozan's flaws have been more or less consistent over the last three seasons, and so expecting his skill set to improve demonstrably this summer is unadvisable, though there is merit to the argument that the team around DeRozan this season hides his flaws better than last year's version did. There is little doubt, however, that Toronto drafting Terrence Ross this spring was a shot across the bow at DeRozan, letting him know that there is a limit to far they'll go with him if he doesn't improve. With free agency looming, he should be as motivated as ever to return a much improved version of himself to training camp this fall.

Verdict: NEUTRAL

STARTING SMALL FORWARD

Last Season: James JohnsonThis Season: Landry Fields

The starting small forward spot was definitely the weak link in Toronto's starting five last season, as Rasual Butler starting nearly a quarter of the team's games can attest to. James Johnson was meant to be the team's hope, but he chafed at the role the team envisioned for him and clashed with Dwane Casey in the locker room. Regardless of the behind-the-scenes drama, Johnson's lack of a consistent three-point shot and inability to affect the offense without the ball in his hands made him a less-than-ideal candidate for the starting spot going forward, anyway.

Fields, on the other hand, is a great fit in Toronto's starting five...so long as it's the Fields from two years ago and not last season. Rookie season Fields shot .393 from behind the arc, was great at creating movement off of the ball to get easy looks at the basket and rebounded the ball even better than Johnson did. Last season, though, Fields saw his production dip across the board, but many are willing to write that off to his poor fit alongside the ball-dominating Carmelo Anthony. The Raptors had better hope that's the case, because he'll be an awfully expensive write-off if he can't get his game back on track in his new NBA digs.

Suffice it to say that Fields is a team player that knows how to impact games in multiple ways and, in that way alone, is an upgrade over Johnson. However, how much of an upgrade he provides depends entirely on his ability to recreate (or at least approximate) his rookie season production. If he can't then the Raptors would have been better off keeping the vastly cheaper free-agent-to-be Johnson and waited another year to go shopping.

Verdict: Probable UPGRADE

BACKUP SHOOTING GUARD

Last Season: Various (Leandro Barbosa, Bayless)This Season: Terrence Ross

Ross is something of a wild card this season. He's got a beautiful looking shooting stroke (he shot .371 from three last year at Washington) and plays committed defense, but until we see him in game action at the NBA level its hard to say if he'll be able to offer more than last year's platoon, especially Barbosa.

Guys like Ross come through the draft every year; swingmen with good-but-not-elite games, and most of them fall off of the radar before they even complete their rookie seasons (think Wes Johnson or Terrence Williams). For Ross to have a positive impact in year one he needs to lock down one NBA-level skill quickly, be it outside shooting or lock-down defense or whatever else can get him consistent minutes on the court. The Raptors need the kinds of skills that he, in theory, possesses, but how long it takes him to translate those skills to the professional level will have a huge impact on his early NBA career.

Guys like Barbosa make careers for themselves by doing one thing great right away and then rounding out the other areas of their games later on. Ross doesn't need to challenge for Rookie of the Year, he just needs to make sure that the team has a reason to play him beyond the fact that they used a lottery pick on him this spring.

Verdict: NEUTRAL

BACKUP SMALL FORWARD

Last Season: Linas KleizaThis Season: Linas Kleiza

NBA teams are resistant to using Kleiza like FIBA teams do, but as the NBA gets smaller and more skill based one hopes that Kleiza can start seeing a role that exploits the skills he shows off in international competition.  How does Dwane Casey make that happen? First, he has to get Kleiza moving more without the ball, which cuts down on his need to dribble (a weakness) and utilizes his quickness against most opposing power forwards (the position he should be playing). If Casey is committed to using him exclusively as a wing, then getting him into more action around the basket, where he can use his size, makes a lot more sense than parking him behind the three-point arc and relegating him to a catch-and-shoot option.

Terrence Ross may actually help in this setup if he can quickly develop a reliable NBA three-point shot, as that will open up the floor a bit for Kleiza. Kleiza and Fields would also make good partners on the court as Fields would be good at probing the defense with the ball and finding Kleiza with passes on the move. So, in theory this season's roster should suit Kleiza really well, so long as he and Casey can find a way to exploit his full skill set with the team's second unit.

Verdict: NEUTRAL

THIRD-STRING SWINGMAN

Last Season: Gary ForbesThis Season: Alan Anderson

It would be overstating things to say that Anderson was a revelation last year for Toronto, but 40% three-point shooters who plays committed defense always have a place in the NBA. Forbes was unfortunately and unfairly thrust into the position of having to play point guard last season, something that played totally against his strengths as a scorer, but in terms of what the Raptors need at the end of their bench a veteran like Anderson is a much safer option than Forbes was, regardless of the position he played.

Having someone like Anderson in reserve is a safety net for the Raptors in case of injury and in case of a trade. If the Raptors at some point decide to bundle multiple young players to shore up their top-line talent at one position, having a guy like Anderson that the coach trusts in reserve is a great asset. He started 12 games for the Raptors near the end of last season and averaged just under 12 ppg, earning himself a new contract with the club. It's not often that a team takes a flier on an unproven player only to see that player parlay that chance into a new deal, but in Anderson's case it was a pretty easy decision for the Raptors' brass to make.

Verdict: UPGRADE




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