In a game that was supposed to be all about the new youngster, it was the old youngster that stole the show.
Wednesday night's preseason outing in Detroit was the first NBA action for last year's fifth-overall selection, Jonas Valanciunas, a player that fans have been eagerly waiting to see play, and while his debut was perfectly fine, it was DeMar DeRozan who, for the second game in a row, grabbed the attention of anyone who was watching.
The edict for DeRozan coming into the season is to be aggressive and get to the free throw line. In just 27 minutes against Detroit he got himself to the line 10 times (making nine) by simply being relentless at attacking the basket off of the dribble. He put tons of pressure on Detroit's perimeter defense with his assertiveness, and he kept Toronto in the game early when their defense was simply nowhere to be seen (they let Detroit shoot over 70 per cent in the first quarter of play).
What was most impressive about his outing was that he had opportunities to force some semi-open jumpers, shots that he wouldn't have hesitated to take last season, but he turned them down and instead looked to go hard to the basket and draw contact. That mindset helps offset to a certain degree DeRozan's lack of court vision, because if he's not going to pass at least he's getting himself to the line instead of just dribbling into a block or a turnover.
The other impressive player to hit the court for Toronto was John Lucas, the diminutive backup guard that went off for 16 points, nine of which came from behind the arc. The situation facing Lucas is fascinating. He has a huge fan in head coach Dwane Casey, but he also has two standout guards playing in front of him in Kyle Lowry and Jose Calderon. Now, if Calderon is traded during the season then Lucas will slide into the backup role and minutes won't be an issue. Until that happens it will be interesting to see if Casey works his lineups to get Lucas onto the floor. The Raptors can use all of the outside shooting that they can get, and in preseason no one has been as prolific from behind the arc as Lucas. While it's unlikely he'll steal minutes from either Lowry or Calderon, he could perhaps snag some minutes at the off-guard spot in the right situations. It's a storyline worth keeping an eye on.
Considering that the Raptors lost the game there were also imperfections that need to be sorted out, mainly the highly inconsistent defensive rotations that saw Detroit shoot 50.6 per cent on the game. It wasn't just botched close-outs on jumpers, either, as the Pistons were able to get 60 points in the paint, several as a result of missed assignments under the basket. Andrea Bargnani, Amir Johnson and Ed Davis all took their lumps in this area, and the club in general needs to be more mindful of the action all over the court, not just in the action happening between a man and the man he's guarding.
Something else to watch out for has been the lackadaisical play of Bargnani through two games. Last year Bargnani was out to prove himself to his new coach and a skeptical fan base and he played his butt off right up until he strained his calf and disrupted his season. So far in preseason Bargnani has looked very disengaged at both ends and that can be read one of two ways: it can be a case of a veteran player easing his way into the preseason, loafing a bit through inconsequential games, or it can be a return to form for a guy that was never too interested in playing all-out for long stretches of time. He's played 53 minutes and only grabbed five rebounds, a pathetic per-minute rate, and as was mentioned before, he has botched plenty of rotations on defense. All of this can be corrected by the time the season starts, and it wouldn't be fair to assume that it won't be, but with five games left in the preseason sched it's going be a storyline that gets more attention the closer the team gets to opening night.
The Raptors get another shot at Detroit on Friday, this time at the ACC, and you can expect two things after tonight's outing. First is that the club will not be so sloppy at the defensive end to start the game. Casey is going to want his team to show him that they can suffocate an opponent like they are supposed to and he'll probably less lenient about leaving guys in the game who aren't making the right reads. The other thing you can basically bank on is more minutes for Valanciunas. He was a part of one of the club's most positive runs at the start of the second half and gave the lineup a real pop when he was on the floor. He also defied expectations somewhat by managing to get through 13 minutes of play while only picking up one foul. He had the team's best plus/minus rating (plus-8) on the night and so long as he's pain free today and tomorrow he should probably see a small bump in minutes and an appearance with a few different lineup combinations.
The Raptors play Friday and then get five days to practice before their next contest against Washington. They'll have plenty of time to sort out some of the troubling issues that have cropped up as well as time to start locking in certain playing combinations that have worked so far (and eliminating the ones that haven't). We'll see how the approach to the Pistons changes between Wednesday's and Friday's game, especially since Casey will no doubt start turning the screws at the defensive end of the floor.