Coming off the 2020 Bubble experience, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri said he had a realization. He had seen how successful his team was going small in the late stages of the Boston Celtics series and there were discussions within the organization about how Toronto could replicate that.
But when the offseason rolled around Ujiri seemed to forget all about small-ball and decided to sign to immobile centers, Aron Baynes and Alex Len.
This year Ujiri has made sure that mistake won’t be made again. The Raptors have done away with anything replicating a traditional center and will be asking their new small-ball bigs to step far outside their comfort zone.
Almost a third of NBA possessions last season involved either a pick-and-roll or handoff, according to NBA Stats. Over and over again teams these days try to attack opposing bigs, hoping to lure them out to the perimeter and either nail a three-pointer when they sag off in coverage or blow past them whenever a slow-footed big tries to defend away from the basket.
This season the Raptors are going to ask their bigs to step up against ball screens, defend on the perimeter, and hold their own against some of the quickest guards in the NBA.
“What we ask them to do is not easy. It’s not ordinary and most people actually teach the opposite,” Raptors Summer League coach Patrick Mutombo said Saturday. “We want them up, pressuring. We want them active and getting people out of their comfort level.”
That’s exactly what recently acquired big Precious Achiuwa did in the final seconds of Toronto’s 80-79 come-from-behind victory over the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday night. The 6-foot-8 versatile center stepped up against James Bouknight, one of the Hornets’ best halfcourt scorers, and completely locked him down 30 feet from the basket.
“Give them credit because those guys are willing to move their feet,” Mutombo said of Achiuwa and his bigs’ willingness to defend the premier. “It’s good to see when the game is on the line and when we need it the most we are willing and able to execute this strong pillar of ours, which is ball pressure.”
That’s what the Raptors are hoping is their X-factor this season. Achiuwa and his starting counterpart Khem Birch aren’t the biggest or most talented bigs in the NBA, but what they are is versatile and determined. So while they may struggle against some of the biggest centers like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, their agility will make it difficult for opposing teams to target them with any sort of ball screen technique.