Players Who Must Step Up for the Toronto Raptors Next Season
Now, it’s not that a team needs all-stars to contend for the playoffs, but having players with that sort of potential can go a long way in determining a team’s fortunes.
The Raptors are one such team with a few of those players. In fact, they might have more potential all-stars than any other team.
Of course, none of them have reached that potential as of yet.
With the exception of DeMar Derozan, who made excellent strides last season, each of the Raptors’ key players can stand for significant improvement.
If a few of these players can push their games to new heights and realize their potential, the Raptors will be in for a great season.
*All statistics acquired via NBA.com
1. Kyle Lowry
Lowry is still growing as a leader.
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
After last season’s tumultuous ride, Raptors fans are well versed in the tale of Kyle Lowry.
He’s a 6’0” point guard with toughness, speed and strength.
He's a shoot-first, injury-prone player who's still learning how to be a leader.
And he’s capable of completely dominating ballgames.
As of right now, those first two points might as well be facts. The third point, however, is conditional on his development and maturity as a player. Lowry really is that talented—he can shoot, drive, finish at the rim, rebound, pass and lead.
The problem is, we only we get to see a few of those aspects of his game at a time. Yes, it’s a testimony to his versatility, but it’s also proof of the inconsistency in his all-around game.
Consider these box scores:
On April 14 against the Brooklyn Nets, he had seven points, six assists and nine rebounds.
With 2-of-10 shooting.
On January 18 against the Philadelphia 76ers, he had 11 points, 11 assists and five rebounds.
With five turnovers.
Clearly, there’s not a lot on the court that Lowry is incapable of doing. When he’s hot and focused, he can absolutely wreck an opposing team’s defense.
Lowry’s never been an all-star, but if he can average 17 points, six assists and six rebounds, coaches will have no choice but to include him in the conversation.
Here’s one last box score to make note of:
Against the Sacramento Kings on December 5, he had 34 points, 11 assists and five rebounds.
2. Terrence Ross
Ross is still very raw.
USA Today Sports
Coming off a disappointing summer league, expectations may have dipped for former lottery pick Terrence Ross.
While he should have been dominating the competition after a full season in the NBA, he failed to impress, averaging just 12.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per summer game.
Not only did he fail to demonstrate his scoring ability (his meal ticket to the NBA), he also didn't show improvement in any other area.
He didn't play tough defense, he didn't set up his teammates and he was completely overshadowed by newly-acquired guard Dwight Buycks.
Last season, Ross averaged 6.4 points, 2 rebounds and 0.7 assists per game in 17 minutes of action. Obviously he wasn't given a whole lot of playing time, but that’s a fairly disappointing stat line for a lottery pick.
It's especially discouraging when considering that he was picked over promising big men Andre Drummond and Jared Sullinger, both of whom have put up superior numbers to Ross in limited action (20.7 minutes for Drummond and 19.8 for Sullinger).
Given that the Raptors have DeRozan and Rudy Gay as their starting wing players, they can afford to bring Ross along slowly.
However, what they can’t afford is for Ross to regress or remain complacent. If he can provide a solid scoring punch off the bench or even create easy buckets for a teammate, he’ll be a critical piece in the Raptors’ playoff hopes.
It may be wise for him to just stick to scoring though, seeing as in his last five games last season, he averaged exactly zero assists per game.
3. Rudy Gay
Gay has all the skills to be an all-star next season.
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport
Of all the players on the Raptors with all-star potential, Gay has to be the closest of the bunch.
For years now he’s put up numbers resembling a player just on the verge of stardom (19.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game last season). But for reasons surrounding his questionable shot selection (42.5 field-goal percentage last season) and seeming inability to eclipse 20 points a game, he has never been selected to an all-star game.
Meanwhile, both of his former Memphis teammates, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, have both been named All-Stars during their tenure with the team.
It certainly doesn’t help his case that he’s paid like a superstar (his 2012-13 salary was $16,460,538).
However, despite his shortcomings, Gay remains the single most important piece to a Raptors’ playoff run next season.
He’s the one who’s going to take the big shots, the one who will shoulder the glory for wins and take the blame for losses. He’s the only one who can consistently demand a double team at this point in his career.
Gay hasn't proven himself to be a superstar, but he has the potential to be one. He’s not getting any younger, so his time in the sun has to come now, with the Toronto Raptors.
4. D.J. Augustin
Augustin will need to step up in case of injuries.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
The acquisition of D.J Augustin was a puzzler.
The team already had John Lucas III and had the option to keep him. When Toronto decided to let him go (via The Star's Curtis Rush), fans were probably expecting an upgrade.
Thus far in his career, Augustin has not proved that he's a surefire improvement.
Last season with the Indiana Pacers, he averaged 4.7 points and 2.2 assists per game. Those aren't the kind of numbers fans will want backing up Lowry, who's proven to be very injury-prone.
With Jose Calderon long gone, Lowry is the team’s best playmaker. But what happens when he goes down? Does the team hand over the keys to the offense to Augustin, Mr. two assists per game?
In his defense, he does average a whole two more assists per game for his career, bringing his average to four.
The good news is that Augustin does have a couple of nice seasons under his belt. In 2010-11 with the Charlotte Bobcats, he averaged 14.4 points and 6.1 assists. However, that was in 82 games as the team’s starting point guard.
He’s not likely to receive many minutes when Lowry is healthy, especially given the acquisition of Buycks. All Augustin needs to do is average 5.5 points and 3.5 assists and he’ll be a serviceable role player off the bench.
He’s no upgrade over Lucas III, but the Raptors need solid bench play and production from this position. Hopefully for Toronto fans, last season was rock bottom for Augustin. He can only go up from there.
5. Jonas Valanciunas
The NBA world knows all about Valanciunas now.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Fresh off a summer league MVP award, Valanciunas has suddenly become the darling of the NBA world.
With averages of 18.8 points and 10 rebounds per game with a 56 field-goal percentage, Valanciunas was easily the most dominant player whenever he was on the floor.
He’s even on the cover photo of this Rotoworld column! You know you’re a big deal when you become a stud in fantasy sports.
Kidding aside, Valanciunas had a coming out party this summer, and it’s going to pay huge dividends for him as well as the entire Raptors organization.
Obviously, he’s going to be a bigger part of the offense next season.
However, while Valanciunas enjoys his time at the top of the NBA hill, it’s important to remember to temper our expectations.
Yes, Valanciunas is the future face of the franchise and a blossoming all-star candidate. He’s still very young, however, and he can’t be expected to carry the offense just yet.
Clearly he needs more plays run for him and touches, but it will be more important for him to assert himself on the defensive end of the floor. The Raptors don’t have any lockdown defenders, but they do have Valanciunas.
If he can commit to both ends and set the tone defensively for the Raptors, he’ll instantly become the team’s most important player on the floor.
Come next season, if he can average 16 points, nine rebounds and one block a game, he’ll be in All-Star contention and the Raptors will become a significant player in the Eastern Conference.