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Toronto Raptors Roster Review – Bigs

On February 7th, 2019, Masai Ujiri made the decision to trade for former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. The package to get the veteran Spaniard involved talented young big man Jonas Valanciunas, solid defensive guard Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a 2024 second round pick. The move was risky, not only did Gasol have to develop chemistry with the rest of the roster quickly, but there was a genuine debate whether he, at the age of 34, could stay on the floor at the highest of levels. Ten months later – – Gasol is a lock to make the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He’s now an NBA Champion with Toronto, a World Cup Champion with the Spanish National Team, and continues to be a positive presence for the 17-8 Raptors. 

The reason teams like Milwaukee and Golden State couldn’t render Gasol unusable last May and June has a lot to do with his basketball IQ. He is a savant, who recognizes sets before they happen and uses his anticipation to make up for his lack of foot speed:

He points out the down screen before it happens, and puts himself into perfect position to deal with the curl that ensues. Here he reads a flare screen and deflects the pass:

Gasol is like a linebacker that can decipher what the offense is about to run by looking at the formation. Along with prioritizing an opponent’s play-book, he emphasizes getting back on defense and limiting transition opportunities:

Opponents are scoring 10.5 fewer points per 100 possessions in transition when Gasol is on the floor, which puts him in the 97th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.

There’s not a better post defender in the entire league than Gasol – – who uses his quick hands to make things incredibly difficult on his opposition:

He made Joel Embiid’s life miserable in their encounter on November 25th. Embiid is used to being able to bully his defender under the basket, but Gasol is extremely tough to move:

Even if you gain a half of a step, he has impeccable timing on strips:

Embiid went 0-11 from the field and 0-3 from the free throw line, tallying zero points for the first time in his NBA career. 

Gasol’s counting stats do not jump off the page. He’s averaging 6.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and is shooting a ghastly 35.4 percent from two-point range, per Basketball Reference. For a guy that averaged 19.5 points just three seasons ago, he doesn’t appear very confident when he’s put in position to score:

It looks like he had a layup or dunk on that play, and instead opted to fade-away from 5 feet. Gasol’s post game was a valuable asset for the Grizzlies in his time in Memphis. That seems to be a thing of the past, as he doesn’t make post moves with any conviction anymore. Watch here as he tries to attack Kristaps Porzingis, and never appears to be in control of the situation:

Despite his massive struggles with his own offense, he’s still making a positive impact on that end of the floor. The Raptors are 4.2 points better offensively per 100 possessions with Gasol on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. Part of that can be attributed to his floor spacing, but it’s mostly due to his unselfish passing and playmaking. On this play, with the Charlotte Hornets going to a zone defense, Gasol moves to the free throw line area, sucks in the defense, and makes a touch pass back out to VanVleet:

He knows how to manipulate the defense to create openings for teammates – – using pass fakes and no-look deliveries:

He makes the little plays that go unnoticed, here setting a screen on his own man, who is in the best position to help on a VanVleet drive:

Or here, as he sets a screen immediately after a loose ball situation that frees up Matt Thomas for an open three:

Don’t let the traditional box score stats fool you, Gasol is still a really good basketball player. He’s shooting a respectable 37 percent from three, he’s elite with his passing and screening, and he’s making a huge impact defensively. 

Serge Ibaka was the part time starter prior to Gasol’s arrival. He is now a full-time bench player, and one of the best backup centers in the league. If Gasol is struggling in a particular matchup, Head Coach Nick Nurse can just opt to play Ibaka more minutes. It’s a nice luxury to have. Ibaka has always been a very talented shot blocker. Opponents are shooting 6.5 percent worse at the rim when Ibaka is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. He knows the precise moment he can leave his man to contest an opponent who thinks they have an opening:

That is a perfect use of verticality at the rim, just moments after having to defend a pick-and-roll at the top of the key. He’s also really good at dealing with two-on-one situations – – where the ball handler can either try to score or throw the lob:

Ibaka suffered a severely sprained ankle early in the season and has only played in 15 games thus far. Perhaps it’s due to his extended absence, but the mid-range shot isn’t falling so far this year. He’s been in the 92nd percentile in that statistic the previous two seasons, and I don’t see anything different mechanically that would suggest that won’t pick up. The three-point shot has been better this season than last, as he’s hitting 38 percent of his corner attempts, per Cleaning the Glass:

He still has great touch with the push-shot, a much more difficult shot than it appears:

The confidence in the mid-range is still there, as that area makes up 49 percent of his shot attempts, but at that volume, they better start falling sooner rather than later. The struggles of the Raptors primary centers from two-point range might be a key reason why the team hasn’t been quite as effective offensively as they want to be. 

A key free agent acquisition this off-season was that of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. He’s been a seamless fit so far in Toronto. The key weakness in his offensive game is his lack of a jump-shot, but the Raptors can always pair him with another big that can space the floor. That has allowed him to do what he does best – – which is attacking the offensive glass:

He is rebounding 11.8 percent of his team’s missed field goals while he is on the floor, which puts him in the 100th percentile for his position, per Cleaning the Glass. 

On defense, his weakness is his lack of rim protection, but the Raptors again are perfectly suited to deal with this, given that Gasol, Ibaka, and Chris Boucher (we’ll get to him in a minute) are all adept shot blockers. 

Hollis-Jefferson has quick feet and is capable of guarding multiple positions, something Head Coach Nick Nurse has put to good use:

Chris Boucher is another rotation piece that has come from seemingly nowhere to get meaningful minutes on this squad. He did win G-League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors last season, so perhaps him making an impact shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise. He got a lot of run due to Ibaka’s absence, and his combination of length and athleticism makes him a walking highlight-reel:

Here he is the recipient of an excellent pass from Terence Davis II, and he’s able to catch on the move and finish through contact:

Despite his thin frame, he’s a good rebounder, averaging 12.3 rebounds per 36 minutes. He’s not afraid to get physical to keep opponents off the offensive glass:

The big men on this roster are a huge part of the reason why this team is an elite defense, but they also might be holding them back from being as good on the offensive end as they want to be. 

Thanks for reading, and to put a capper on this series, I’ll leave you with this Raptors clip — which is maybe the funniest thing I’ve seen all season:

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