The biggest surprise of the first half of the season for the Raptors was probably the stellar play of their bench. Conversely, the biggest question ahead of the stretch run and the playoffs beyond that is whether the mostly young group can continue to turn heads as the games start to matter more. But before we get to that, a recap. Point guards Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet have been nothing short of excellent at both ends of the floor. VanVleet’s been the best-shooting, high volume three-point gunner on the team (41.7%), both he and Wright have hit at a team-best 86.7% rate from the free-throw line, their advanced metrics are good and they’ve frustrated opponents on defence. Big men Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl have also changed games with their two-way work and the veteran of the group, C.J. Miles, finally sprung to life ahead of the all-star break, hitting three three-pointers a game on 51.4% shooting in six games this month. Norman Powell has had a trying campaign, but he could re-enter the mix at any point. “Our guys, they’re kind of the lifeblood of our team a little bit, our bench,” assistant coach Rex Kalamian told Postmedia after coaching at the Rising Stars event to kick off the all-star weekend on Friday. “The spirit of our young guys is infectious and I think it’s kind of taken over into our locker room, into the games. It’s fun. We have a lot of moments, a lot of fun moments on that bench where the second unit is pulling for the first unit, the first unit comes out and they love watching the second unit go on runs.” Kalamian spent plenty of time working under Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City and while he might not be helming a bunch of future league MVPs here the way he was with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden with the Thunder, he says there are some similarities in terms of the enthusiasm and effort the youngsters in both places brought to the table. “In OKC, we used to call it Thunder U, Thunder University, that’s what it was. It was like college practices. Our games were like college games,” he said. “We were just so young, I don’t think we really knew what we were doing, or how good we could really be, we just concentrated at getting better one day at a time.” Which is what this group does, though they have the added advantage of being surrounded by all-stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, as well as solid veterans like another former Kalamian pupil, Serge Ibaka. “This year is a little different, where we do have a starting four of our five that have been in the league for a long time. They play great basketball together and then when they come off the floor the second unit comes in,” Kalamian said.
After crushing expectations early, can Raptors bench keep it going?
Toronto Sun | Feb 21