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Chisholm: Davis, Johnson bright lights on Raps' frontcourt

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Tim Chisholm
4/15/2011 2:52:07 PM
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THE RAPTORS' FRONTCOURT

Since there is a lot to take away from the frontcourt this season, let's start by saying that free-agents-to-be Sonny Weems, Julian Wright, Joey Dorsey and Alexis Ajinca probably didn't do enough to secure their futures with the Raptors this season. While each had noteworthy elements to their seasons, none did enough to crack the team's frontcourt going forward. Also, Andrea Bargnani is such a huge topic there will be a piece dedicated entirely to him later on in this series.

With that said, there are plenty of things to go through with the Raptors rotation up front. First, Ed Davis emerged as one of the biggest steals in the 2010 draft, and his 12.9 ppg and 9.0 rpg averages in April, to go along with his solid defence and improving comfort at scoring in the post, have probably secured him the starting spot at power forward next season. While Amir Johnson has similar stats and lots more experience, at the end of the day Davis has shown more versatility as a scorer and commitment as a defender and that makes him worth the investment as the team's future starter.

However, none of that should take away from the strides Johnson made this season. Aside from the laudatory work he did playing through various injuries all season long, he made a concerted effort to improve his shot, both from mid-range and from the free throw line, he cut down on his fouls and never lost his boundless energy on the floor. Considering how many people took issue with his (often misreported) salary, Johnson should be commended for his abilities to raise his level of play AFTER getting paid last summer instead of resting on his laurels and his guaranteed salary. A power forward platoon of Davis and Johnson is a solid (if unexceptional) option for the Raptors going forward, with the only question being if there are enough minutes to give to Johnson if Davis continues to develop his game to the point where it demands more court time as a result.

Behind the two of them this season was the workhorse effort of Reggie Evans. His rebounding and tenacity this season made him a fan favourite, but being a free agent you have to wonder how interested he would be in playing at the end of a frontcourt rotation next year, and how interested management would be to pay him to do so. While he's an exceptional fill-in should injuries hit, it's unclear whether or not Evans feels that he's at the point in his career where end-of-the-bench fill-in is the most lucrative option he's going to be given this off-season.

If there is a bounty of talent to sort through at the power forward position, though, the small forward spot has the opposite problem. Early season starter Linas Kleiza struggled through the first months of the season before shutting it down and getting microfracture surgery on his right knee. Prior to the surgery Kleiza was scoring an unimpressive 11.2 ppg on a three-season low 43.8% shooting. His three-point shot was connecting at an abysmal 29.8% rate, and his PER was at a career-low 10.1. He was yo-yoed into all sorts of roles, trying to find something that worked for him, but inconsistency and turnovers plagued him wherever he played and now he must contend with a grueling recovery on top of all of that before he'll even play again.

At the other end of the spectrum is James Johnson, the late-season addition that came in and won over fans with his aggressive play, his ability to play the point-forward role and his willingness to play defence and rebound. While he showed a lot in the team's last 25 games, more than most expected after barely playing for a year-and-a-half in Chicago, he didn't quite show enough to make the Raptors feel like they'd found their future wing mate to DeMar DeRozan. So this is where management's decision making comes into play.

Here's what the Raptors can choose from:

1. Keep Kleiza and Johnson as the team's two options, and let Kleiza have the chance to earn the starting spot back when he recovers from his surgery around next January.

2. Keep Kleiza and Johnson as the team's two options, but allow Johnson to continue as the starter regardless, and force Kleiza to ease his way back into playing off of the bench.

3. Use their draft pick to select Derrick Williams or Harrison Barnes, and make whomever they select to start at small forward (regardless if it's not their natural position) and force Johnson and Kleiza to jostle for backup minutes.

4. Use free agency to go after another young piece, like Jeff Green, Thaddeus Young or Wilson Chandler, and force Johnson and Kleiza to jostle for backup minutes.

5. Use free agency to go after a veteran leader like Grant Hill or Shane Battier, forcing Johnson and Kleiza to jostle for the right to eventually emerge as the team's small forward of the future by playing behind (and learning from) a respected veteran.

See, there are a lot of different directions that this team could go in. Both Kleiza and Johnson will almost assuredly be around next year since Kleiza is basically untradeable and Johnson is too intriguing to let go. However, neither one locked up the starting spot during their time (though Johnson came close) and that will have management weighing their options with regards to the position all off-season long.

So, without even factoring in the future of Andrea Bargnani, the Raptors frontcourt looks both full of promise while also being in complete flux. They have talent, but as of today they don't have enough legit talent that is ready to make noise on a Playoff-caliber club. Ed Davis looks poised to be that good in a year or two, and the Johnson's certainly hold their appeal, but for the Raptors to take the next step as a franchise, they simply need more, either from internal development or from importing outside talent.

- TSN.ca basketball writer Tim Chisholm looks back at the Raptors' 2010-11 season with a four-part series on the team. Next up on Saturday: Andrea Bargnani.

Ed Davis (Photo: Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
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