By Andrew Thell
The Toronto Raptors have quietly acquired a dynamic young trio of retreads and afterthoughts in Jerryd Bayless, Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan. Amir and Jerryd are two players we’ve discussed often here on ETB, while DeMar is a kid who is just starting to show flashes of the talent that made him a lottery pick a summer ago. In fact, all three players began their careers with slow starts and don’t get any publicity, but they’re heating up north of the border.
He’s bounced around the last few months, but let’s not forget that Bayless, still just 22 years of age, was the 11th overall pick in 2008 (and the Summer League MVP that season) and has continued to show plenty of upside in fits and spurts over his short career. He’s got the kind of natural talent and scoring ability that an NBA team can always use. The Blazers gave Bayless up for a conditional first round pick back in October and just a month later the Hornets essentially gave him away to the Raptors along with Peja Stojaković and some cash considerations in exchange for Jarrett Jack, Marcus Banks, and David Andersen – not exactly the haul you would expect for a guy I’ve always thought could be an extremely productive combo guard in this league (he was among my Players I want to See More Of a year ago).
He’s not a pure point, and he may never be, but Bayless’ quickness is elite and with his athleticism the guy can slash into the lane and finish around the basket. Bayless can shoot the ball, but he’s inconsistent and it’s an area he needs to work on. His quicks also mean Bayless can be a very good defender on the other end when he focuses himself, but that focus hasn’t always been there either. Jose Calderon is the starter in Toronto, but he seems better suited to man the point for a more established team that can play off of his passing skills and compensate for his lack of defense and inability to create his own offense.
This Sunday Bayless flashed his full arsenal, dropping 23 points, 7 boards, 6 assists and 5 threes on 8-16 shooting in just 27 minutes of action. To be fair, it was the Knicks, but it was still an impressive showing and with the Raptors sitting at 8-13 with little hope of competing it’s time to see how much more there is where that came from. I think he could settle in around 18 points a night in the right situation, and his per-36 numbers back that up: last season in Portland Bayless averaged 17.4 points per 36 minutes and in his first seven games as a Canuck he’s put up 20.6 points along with 7.6 boards and 6.3 assists per 36.
As the 56th pick of the 2005 NBA Draft Amir Johnson doesn’t quite have the pedigree of lottery picks like Bayless or DeRozan, but the 6-11 23-year-old’s ceiling may be the highest of the trio. We’ve thought quite highly of the kid for quite some time. It’s true that Johnson didn’t do much in his first five seasons in the league, but a long gestation period should be expected with a preps-to-pros prospect as completely unpolished as Johnson was when he came into the league. It’s also worth noting that Johnson has never been given much of an opportunity to flash his skills, topping out at 17 minutes a game last season. Johnson is another guy who has been efficient with his minutes though, racking up highlight-reel blocks and dunks and per-36 career averages of 12 points, 10 boards, 2.4 blocks and 1 steal on 60% shooting from the field. Not bad for his age 18-22 seasons.
The minutes have always been limited by foul trouble, defensive lapses, matchup issues, poor decision-making and various other inconsistencies, but this season in the Raptors games I’ve watched Amir has shown dramatic improvement in all areas. With the injury to Reggie Evans (and after a brief, foolish experiment with Joey Dorsey) Johnson has been handed a starting gig for the foreseeable future. In five games in the starting lineup Amir has posted 14 points, 8 boards, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals on 65% FGs (!) with just 1 turnover a game. That’s efficiency. He’s even hitting 84% of his free-throws on the season, and I think he’s poised to turn a corner over the next month or two as he settles into finally being a valued, consistent contributor. The ingredients have always been there, and while he could still stand to add quite a bit of bulk to that lanky frame, the pieces are starting to fall into place for Amir to be a productive, explosive complementary player for years to come.
The final young piece of the Raptors’ pie I’ve been tuning in to get a taste of the last couple of weeks is DeMar DeRozan, the youngest and most highly-regarded of the three, but a player who has been overshadowed by more prominent fellow 2009 draftees like Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin and Brandon Jennings at every turn. DeMar is a quiet dude, and it’s been a quiet start to his career, but at 6-7 and 220 pounds with huge hops and a healthy dose of athleticism DeRozan has the body to make some noise as a prototypical NBA wing. On top of the physical tools he’s a good kid who works hard on and off the court. But, like the other two Raptors above, he needs to continue improving if he’s ever going to cash in on his vast potential. Last year was a slow start to the 9th-overall pick’s career as he put up just 8.6 points and 3 rebounds a night with not much in the way of peripherals, but watching games you could see his shot selection improving and general basketball IQ growing each month.
DeRozan is still a project, but one undeniably showing more maturity and polish than he was a year ago despite the continued mediocre numbers. It’s true he’s been inconsistent again this season, but he’s also thrown together three strings of nice games between hamstring tweeks and looked good doing it. He’s playing more confident basketball on both ends, and confidence is something that can be an issue with DeMar. I’ve been especially impressed with his willingness to be assertive and get to the line more; that should be his bread and butter with his tools. It doesn’t show up in his block and steal totals, but DeMar works his ass off on defense and his performance on that end is something that could eventually be a calling card for him. He still needs to work on rounding out his game in terms of his jumper and ball skills, but DeMar DeRozan is finally looking like the long-term three on Toronto.
So the next time NBA League Pass sticks you with a Raptors game on the only HD channel, don’t despair. Have a seat and pay attention to these three kids. I think you’ll be entertained.