The Toronto Raptors have come up short of the postseason for the first time since 2013, finishing in 11th place in the Eastern Conference and 24th in the league.
The next date to circle on the calendar if you’re a Raptors fan: the NBA Draft Lottery, which is set for Tuesday, June 22.
According to Tankathon, Toronto’s end-result places the franchise with a 31.9 percent chance of landing a top-four pick in the lottery. If the ping pong balls do not fall in their favour, the Raptors are projected – with a 33.9 percent chance – to pick No. 8 overall in the 2021 NBA Draft.
On my 2021 NBA Draft Big Board, I had Florida State freshman Scottie Barnes projected as the No. 8-ranked player in this draft class. His versatility as a 6-foot-8 forward that essentially played point guard in his lone collegiate season makes for an intriguing option for head coach Nick Nurse, who could work wonders with that type of flexibility.
Our other draft expert, Eric Fawcett, had Arkansas freshman Moses Moody as the eighth-best player on his 2021 NBA Draft Big Board. The shooting guard is one of the best pure scorers in this draft class, but there might be some overlap on the roster depending on what the front office elects to do with 22-year-old shooting guard Gary Trent Jr., who is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason.
So while Barnes and Moody are the two players whose rankings match where the Raptors are projected to land, who are some players around that projected No. 8 pick that would best fit what Toronto is looking for?
Davion Mitchell, Baylor
Mitchell should be a familiar name, as the 6-foot-2 combo guard burst onto the scene in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, leading his Baylor Bears to a National Championship.
While it’s somewhat uncharacteristic these days to see a 22-year-old junior projected this high in the draft, Mitchell’s potential as an elite two-way player that can play either point guard or shooting guard makes him a versatile fit for any franchise’s backcourt.
Mitchell is quick, shifty and explosive. He can play with or without the ball in his hands and is comfortable scoring from all three levels of the floor. His burst and speed makes him a threat when he gets downhill toward the rim, but he’s capable of stopping on a dime and pulling up from midrange or 3-point land. He’s a sound playmaker with a tight handle, and his perimeter defence is surely his best selling point. Pesky and gritty on that end of the floor, Mitchell takes pride in shutting down opposing guards and will pick up and put pressure on his matchup the second they cross halfcourt.
Regardless of what the Raptors elect to do with veteran Kyle Lowry or restricted free agent Trent this offseason, Mitchell would fit seamlessly alongside any combination of those guards, Fred VanVleet and Malachi Flynn. As you can probably tell, he’s a strong culture fit as well.
Keon Johnson, Tennessee
Johnson is one of the best athletes in this draft class and although he projects as a shooting guard, his size at 6-foot-5 would give the Raptors more flexibility to play him on the wing if they elect to bring back Lowry and/or Trent.
The 19-year-old freshman is elite on the defensive end, bringing an edge of toughness, high energy, active hands and great instincts to make winning plays. Offensively, he’s still a bit raw, but all of the tools are there to one day be a true two-way threat in the NBA. In his one collegiate season, Johnson relied on his speed and explosive first step to do most of his damage attacking the rim in the half court or in transition, but his jump shot mechanics are smooth and his ball handling improved throughout the season.
He’s still a ways away as a playmaker, but with VanVleet and Flynn on the roster, he would be much more effective as a two-guard or wing anyway.
It would be a gift if Johnson fell into the Raptors’ lap if they land the No. 8 pick, as the Tennessee freshman should see his draft stock rise, assuming he impresses scouts at the NBA Combine testing.
Kai Jones, Texas
If Toronto elects to go with a big man with its currently projected first-round pick, look no further than Texas sophomore Jones.
At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Jones would surprise you with his quickness and coordination for his size. He would gel perfectly with the fast pace this Raptors team likes to play at, as a mobile rim-runner with great footwork that makes him a switchy defender.
(For what it’s worth, that’s potential No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham that he’s sliding his feet with on the perimeter, keeping him in front before coming up with the block).
Defence is the 20-year-old’s strong suit, where he could thrive as a rim protector behind an aggressive Nurse defence, using his pogo-stick-like shot blocking ability as a last line of help.
Jones is a lob threat opposing defences would always have to keep tabs on, which could pair nicely with Pascal Siakam‘s development as a passer this season. If Jones were to sit in the dunker spot on the baseline and defences bring too much help to Siakam in the lane, he could make a split-second decision to alley-oop his leaping teammate for easy buckets.
His impressive ball handling skills for his size makes him a wild card as a pick-and-roll partner, not afraid to put the ball on the floor and try and use his plus-agility to get past clunkier defenders in the short roll. He doesn’t have an arsenal of post moves yet, he needs to work on his jump shot and his defensive IQ could improve, but while he may be a project at the beginning, who better than the Raptors to try and maximize his full potential?
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