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TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – Bobby Webster couldn’t help but daydream a bit after the most recent NBA draft.
With the fourth-overall pick, the Raptors general manager and his team had just selected Scottie Barnes – the long-armed point forward out of Florida State – and it caught some people by surprise.
In terms of roster construction, Jalen Suggs seemed like a natural fit with Kyle Lowry about to hit free agency and Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby already under long-term control, but Toronto’s front office had something else in mind.
“As we all see and we all know [with] the positionlessness of the NBA now, I don't think you can have too many of these big two-way wings,” Webster said back in July. “So I think from a positional standpoint, we don't really see any overlap. We see it as, let's have all five guys [on the court] look like [Barnes] and OG and Pascal.”
With training camp beginning this week, exhibition games tipping off next week and the regular season opener less than three weeks away, that vision may soon come to pass.
It’s true, the Raptors have a type, and it’s guided the way they’ve build this club.
Siakam: 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan
Anunoby: 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan
Chris Boucher: 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan
Khem Birch: 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan
Barnes: 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan
Precious Achiuwa: 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan
“I’m just worried about my playing time going down [after] they went out and got all these 6-9 guys,” joked Fred VanVleet, generously listed at 6-foot-1.
Of the Raptors’ 12 players on guaranteed NBA contracts entering camp, eight of them are listed between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9 in height, with VanVleet, Malachi Flynn, Goran Dragic and Gary Trent Jr. as the lone exceptions. Nobody on the 20-man camp roster is taller than 6-9.
Being considered a “tweener” (in between positions) used to make you a liability. Now, the ability to play and defend multiple positions is as coveted as any NBA skill set. The league has been trending in this direction for a while. Positionless basketball is not new, but this Raptors team could very well test the limits of it.
“I think when you start looking at some of the athleticism, speed and just the size of guys in different places, we should be very versatile,” head coach Nick Nurse said earlier this week. “That's one of my themes for the year. We should have guys that can play a lot of different ways on both ends of the floor.”
It’s an experiment that fits the organizational ethos. Team president/vice-chairman Masai Ujiri has always been a forward-thinking executive, and he’s always been drawn to rangy and athletic do-it-all wings. Nurse has always looked to innovate and progress the game. From the moment he was hired into the lead chair, there’s been a commitment to trying new things, thinking outside the box, and being proactive rather than reactive.
In his three-year tenure as Toronto’s head coach, Nurse has never been afraid to tinker with unconventional lineups or try different, and at times unusual, defensive schemes. The results have been mixed, as you would expect. He pushed many of the right buttons on the way to winning a championship in 2019 and Coach of the Year honours in 2020. Last season was a rough one for Nurse and his team, as the Raptors went on to miss the playoffs for the first time in eight years.

Even when they weren’t battling injuries or a mid-season COVID-19 outbreak, they were an inexperienced group with an imbalanced roster and a glaring hole at the centre position – proof that even the best innovators are only as good as the tools they’ve got to experiment with.
They’re still young and they’re still undersized. Whether these pieces fit together any better remains to be seen, but it nothing else, the versatility of this year’s team should give him plenty of options. And Nurse is a coach who loves having options.
“I know Nick’s basketball brain is always working and he’s never satisfied,” VanVleet said. “He’s not afraid to push the [boundary] of what is normal, especially in basketball which is such a copycat league, kind of just recycle same ideas over and over again. I’m sure he’s got some tricks up his sleeve.”
“There’s no positions, [Nurse] put it that way,” said Achiuwa. “He said it’s a bunch of guys that are pretty much 6-8, lengthy and can guard multiple positions, so there’s no positions. I think what they’re trying to accomplish is positionless basketball. The drawing is on the wall. They’re just going for guys that are athletic, long, can guard multiple positions on defence. That’s what the roster consists of.”
Most of the time there will be at least one traditional point guard (VanVleet, Flynn or Dragic) on the floor. Often, Nurse will pair two of them together like he used to with Lowry and VanVleet. From there, the rotation should be interchangeable.
Birch and Achiuwa are the fives but they could potentially play together, too. Boucher will be used primarily as a power forward this year but Nurse won’t rule out shifting him back to centre here and there. Barnes and Siakam, when he returns, will play everywhere and handle the ball some. Anunoby could conceivably play anywhere from the two all the way up to a small-ball five. On Tuesday, Nurse teased the idea of throwing out a lineup with Siakam, Anunoby, Barnes, Achiuwa and Birch.
The possibilities are endless, especially on defence. Their fall from the NBA’s second-ranked defensive team in 2019-20 to 15th last season was surprising when you consider all their individual defensive talent. VanVleet and Anunoby are both elite defenders, and Siakam can be too when he’s locked in. Lowry led the league in drawing charges. Still, the absence of a rim-protecting, mistake-erasing centre was often too much to overcome.
They don’t necessarily need a big, immobile seven-footer in the middle to solve that problem. It’s not like Serge Ibaka was a traditional centre. The hope is that Birch and Achiuwa can provide some of those things while also giving them the speed and quickness to switch and closeout on the perimeter.
“We believe in ball pressure,” Nurse said. “We believe in trying to get into the basketball and we think that letting people handle the ball with freedom and ease is not something we want to do. We want to try to be disruptive. I think all the same sized guys a lot of the time gives you a lot more switching to do… And I also think that all the length should enable us to play a lot more zone.”
Last season, the Raptors led the league in forcing turnovers as well as scoring off them, and that should be their strength again. The question is whether they’ll be good enough on the offensive end, where they could continue to have trouble scoring in the half court.
“Is there enough scoring there? I don't know,” Nurse said. “But I kind of believe in scoring by the system. I think we're trying to develop some guys. I think there's guys that'll score. Pascal, Freddy, Chris can score, OG's coming, as we know, as a scorer.”
“We're not trying to be some run and gun type of team, but we do like to put pressure on the defence and I also say that if we're gonna play all this defence we better get some offence out of it.”
Like a mad scientist in his lab, Nurse has had a week to tinker, to mix and max, to see what works, and more importantly, see what doesn’t work. We’ll get our first glimpse of what this might look like when the new-look, positionless Raptors tip off their pre-season schedule at home to the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday.