With NBA draft date set, Raptors have plenty of questions to answer

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In conjunction with the approval of its 22-team return-to-play plan, the NBA Board of Governors also approved dates for the league’s draft lottery (Aug. 25) and draft (Oct. 15).

Though not as sexy as the announcement of the format for play, the draft is still a very important date on the NBA calendar.

The lottery will include the eight clubs who aren’t returning to play and the six that fail to reach the post-season after the eight-game restart. From there, those 14 teams will be sorted and given odds according to what their records were as of March 11, when the NBA suspended its season.

Though not very difficult to grasp, this is still something the Toronto Raptors won’t have to worry about. Sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference with the league’s third-best record overall, it’s impossible for them to slip into the lottery as they already clinched a playoff spot before the season hit pause.

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With that said, while Aug. 25 isn’t of interest to the Raptors, Oct. 15 most certainly will be.

For the first time since 2017, when they took OG Anunoby 23rd overall, the Raptors have a first-round pick. That’s an exciting circumstance, as it gives Toronto added flexibility in terms of team building, which will be important in an off-season that’s shaping up to be very important for the club’s future.

Here’s a little more on some of the decisions the Raptors have to make this off-season and what they might be looking to do at the draft.

Why this off-season is so big?

Simply put, this off-season the Raptors have big decisions to make regarding three key pieces of their team: Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, all of whom become unrestricted free agents.

It’s worth noting that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will also be a UFA this off-season, but he won’t command nearly as much as that big core trifecta.

Complicating matters, too, is Pascal Siakam’s pending contract extension, which could lose value depending on how big a hit COVID-19 has on the NBA’s financials and next season’s salary cap.

Regardless, finding a way to fit everybody in could prove to be problematic — if not simply impossible.

The Raptors, in all likelihood, will have to settle on just keeping two of that big three in free agency with the decision coming down to Gasol or Ibaka.

In this regard, the Raptors could look to find that backup big man – or guard, if they think they can’t lock up VanVleet – in the draft.

Who would the Raptors target at the draft?

With likely a bottom three or four pick in both rounds this year, the Raptors won’t have the kind of so-called “can’t miss” high-ceiling talents available to them such as Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman or LaMelo Ball.

Instead, they’ll have good players to choose from who are probably viewed as either too raw right now or lacking enough potential to tap into at the next level (usually because they aren’t deemed athletic enough).

Names that fit those bills are guys like Arizona guard Nico Mannion and raw European talents Aleksej Pokusevski and Leandro Bolmaro. Then there’s San Diego State guard Malachi Flynn, a well-respected senior guard who makes sound decisions with the ball and whose rugged brand of basketball, combined with an innate scoring ability, makes him a highly-desirable NBA backup point guard.

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If the Raptors are looking at retaining only one of Gasol or Ibaka, however, and are in need of a big man who would be able to make an impact immediately, a player like smooth-shooting, rim-protecting Jalen Smith from Maryland could be a good fit. Or perhaps Washington centre Isaiah Stewart, who isn’t a great athlete but understands his role well as a strong positional defender with excellent hands.

Another intriguing big-man prospect is Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji an athletic specimen with the body to play in the NBA already but without all the skills to match.

Of all the bigs who are projected as late-first-rounders, Nnaji seems like he’d be the most intriguing for the Raptors, as the last time they took a kid with raw athleticism and motor and seemingly not much else was in 2016 — and that was Siakam, who’s now an all-star and the team’s leading scorer.

What else can the Raptors do with the pick?

Of course, selecting a player with their first-round pick isn’t the only option for the Raptors.

Since taking over as Toronto’s general manager in June 2017, Bobby Webster has made just two picks: Anunoby in the first round in 2017 and Dewan Hernandez in the second round last year.

So while we don’t really have much an idea of what Webster likes to do at the draft, we do have a pretty good idea that he likes making deals.

From the Kawhi Leonard trade to bringing in Marc Gasol, it’s clear that if Webster sees a deal to be made he isn’t afraid to use draft capital to help grease a deal.

So in that sense, it’s entirely possible that on draft night Webster could trade any of his picks away — or even look to use his picks to move up or down the board.

Webster probably understands the Raptors’ financials and competitive window better than anyone. And if he sees a reason to use a pick in a deal to help his team – even if the Raptors haven’t made a first-round selection since 2017 – then that’s exactly what he’s going to do.