The up-and-down roller coaster that is the Toronto Raptors' 2013-14 season is just about ready to level out as NBA All-Star Weekend soon approaches.
Over the last few months, we've seen a 51-point game, dramatic comebacks, vicious posterizations (just ask Kenneth Faried) and big wins over quality teams. All-Star weekend will give fans a chance to catch their breath and regroup as the team makes its final push toward its first postseason appearance since 2007-08.
The festivities in New Orleans won't be devoid of Raptors talent. Jonas Valanciunas will suit up for Team Hill in the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge, Terrence Ross will defend his Sprite Slam Dunk title, and DeMar DeRozan will be a part of the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, as well as the NBA All-Star Game.
To say that the Raptors' success has been mind-boggling may be the understatement of the century. Only the truly devoted (and possibly naive) could have seen this coming.
The idea of tanking games for a shot at Canadian prospect Andrew Wiggins has come and gone. The blueprint for another trip to the lottery has been torn in half by the collective effort of a group of guys who are sick and tired of losing.
It's once again time to hand out some grades and evaluate each key player on the roster.
I don't foresee myself using my trusty red pen much for this one, folks.
Note: All statistics/salary information is current as of Feb. 10 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
2013-14 statistics: 14 minutes, 2.7 points, 42.6 percent from the field, 4.5 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 0.6 turnovers, 10.2 player efficiency rating
When Chuck Hayes came over from the Sacramento Kings in December as part of a package for Rudy Gay, the expectations for what he could provide on the floor were kept to a bare minimum.
His impact was going to be felt more so behind the scenes. He has a reputation for being a great locker-room guy and a mentor for young players.
An injury to Tyler Hansbrough created some opportunities for the nine-year veteran to see some minutes off the bench. His most productive outing came against the Charlotte Bobcats on Jan. 20 when he posted a double-double of 12 points and 13 rebounds in 25 minutes.
Since then, Hayes has been used as insurance when starting center Jonas Valanciunas encounters foul trouble early in games. He may be undersized for his position at 6'6", but his strength in the low post with his 240-pound frame has caused a lot of problems for the opposition.
Now that his teammate is healthy, Hayes will see his playing time cut in favor of the more athletic Hansbrough. He played two minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 7 and six minutes against the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 10.
Even though his role has been diminished, Hayes will still be called upon from time to time whenever head coach Dwane Casey needs some extra toughness and defense from the second unit.
2013-14 statistics: 23.9 minutes, 6.0 points, 39 percent from the field, 42.3 percent from three-point range, 1.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 0.8 turnovers, 9.1 PER
John Salmons also fits the mold of a former Sacramento Kings veteran who has had a (somewhat) positive influence on the Toronto bench.
Coming north of the border has been a revitalizing experience for Salmons. His recent stint in California could have spelled doom for his career, but playing meaningful minutes for a team with postseason aspirations has given him a sense of purpose.
He's had nine double-digit scoring games as a Raptor, including a 14-point outing on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 22.
Salmons' shot comes and goes, so when he isn't putting the basketball through the hoop at a high rate, he provides value as a wing defender around the perimeter.
His role as the seventh or eighth man off the bench fits him to a T. Salmons can give the coaching staff peace of mind on both ends of the floor, although it doesn't all come together as much as you'd it like to.
He has scored four or fewer points in four of his last five games.
Hopefully he can shoot himself out of this rough patch, as the Raptors will need Salmons at his best over this final stretch of games.
2013-14 statistics: 16.1 minutes, 5.2 points, 45.3 percent from the field, 4.6 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.2 blocks, 0.9 turnovers, 13.9 PER
No one on the Raptors has had his season derailed by injuries more than Tyler Hansbrough.
He was out for nearly a month with a deep bone bruise and ankle sprain. Toronto has been a relatively healthy team for a majority of the season, but he has been one of the few exceptions, if not the only one.
There have been times when the Raptors would get crushed on the glass, and all you could think was, "I wish Hansbrough was out there." His averages of 10.4 rebounds and 4.6 on the offensive glass per 36 minutes would have been quite useful in those situations.
With Patrick Patterson emerging as a reliable sixth man in the rotation, there were worries that Hansbrough would lose a substantial amount of game time upon his return.
Now that may still be the case moving forward, but with the energy and physical play he can give Coach Casey, leaving him on the pine for too long will be hard to do.
He does have a tendency to throw caution to the wind when banging down low, so the probability for future injuries is quite high with his style of play.
2013-14 statistics: 19.4 minutes, 6.7 points, 34.8 percent from the field, 30 percent from three-point range, 2.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 0.3 steals, 1.7 turnovers, 10.1 PER
It hasn't all been peaches and cream for Greivis Vasquez, but you'd roll with him with as your backup point guard over the likes of the unproven Dwight Buycks and Julyan Stone any day of the week.
He can be frantic and overzealous with the basketball at times. He'll try to do too much, too fast and start to make ill-advised passes or hoist up shots that anyone would shake his head at.
Vasquez has never been a strong shooter, but his percentages from the field have still taken a kick to the gut since his time with the Kings (43.3 percent to 34.8).
He can handle the ball well and run the offense when his mind is right, which is why you see a lot of two-point guard sets late in games with Kyle Lowry. It gives the team more options and creates mismatches for the opposing side.
As I mentioned before, Vasquez is still an immense upgrade over what the Raptors could be throwing out on the court, so he has that going for him. His three-point shot isn't trustworthy, so he'll need to cut back on those attempts.
He has proved in the past that he has a high basketball IQ, so it's just a matter of showing it on a more regular basis.
2013-14 statistics: 22.3 minutes, 9.7 points, 50.7 percent from the field, 45.7 percent from three-point range, 5.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.6 blocks, 1.0 turnovers, 18.2 PER
The Patrick Patterson fan club is currently accepting applications. Form a line at the front of the room and prepare for a long wait.
In all seriousness, you can't help but fall in love with the way he has been playing.
Greivis Vasquez was considered to be the big get from Sacramento, but the 6'9" power forward out of the University of Kentucky has proved to be the better player.
He can shoot with range, rebound, defend, score off the dribble and hit big shots. I also hear he cuts julienne fries. He does it all.
Inserted into the starting lineup in place of the ailing Amir Johnson, Patterson led the team in scoring with 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting, including 3-of-4 from behind the arc against the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 10.
The Raptors have a keeper. Don't forget that he's just 24 years of age; he hasn't even hit his peak yet.
2013-14 statistics: 28.6 minutes, 10.3 points, 54.2 percent from the field, 26 percent from three-point range, 6.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.1 blocks, 1.6 turnovers, 15.0 PER
It's been clear as day for a long time. There's no beating around the truth any longer. Amir Johnson has been doing his best to toughen it out, but he's been playing hurt, via Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun: "Just certain movements on the floor (what he physically can't do). I feel like I can make a move and then I can’t just because I’m babying it. Just little stuff like being able to box out a defender and go grab the ball and do other stuff. That nagging pain is just bothering me."
Since Jan. 20, he has scored in double figures on just two occasions. His shot attempts have gone down along with his minutes. If he keeps this up, his physical well-being may be what goes down next.
A sore right ankle has given him a lot of grief. It's admirable how he's willingly played through the pain in order to be there for his team, but the time has come for him to sit down and get some rest.
The Raptors only have two games this week before the break. Dwane Casey elected to sit Johnson during Toronto's 108-101 win against the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday. That will also be the case on Feb. 12 when the visiting Atlanta Hawks come to the Air Canada Centre.
It may only be two games, but the fact that it coincides with All-Star weekend is a blessing in disguise. It will give him more of a chance to heal up and return closer to 100 percent once the team resumes action on Feb. 18 against the Washington Wizards.
You can't put too much stock into his falling numbers. We've seen what he is capable of doing with two healthy ankles. That's not the case at the moment.
2013-14 statistics: 25.6 minutes, 10.2 points, 40.8 percent from the field, 39.1 percent from three-point range, 3.3 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, 1.1 turnovers, 11.3 PER
It's amazing what 51 points can do to change your perception of a player.
That performance against the Los Angeles Clippers was unexpected, unforeseen and a little bizarre. His previous career high was 26, so that just goes to show how crazy that night really was.
He's only averaging 10.2 points (and was averaging just 9.3 at the time of the game) on the season. Guys like him shouldn't be scoring 50 or more points. It's illogical.
Terrence Ross was on fire, though. He went 16-of-29 from the field, 10-of-17 from behind the arc and 9-of-10 from the charity stripe. The Raptors didn't win the game, which is ultimately all that matters in team sports, but that shouldn't take away from what the second-year pro accomplished.
Perhaps he set the bar too high for himself. In his seven games afterward, he exceeded 10 points three times and shot above 40 percent from the field just once.
Still, 51 points are 51 points. It tied the franchise record set by Vince Carter against the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 27, 2000. It also had everyone in the basketball world talking about a guy who had previously only been recognized for his highlight-reel slam dunks.
Fans don't want that game to be a flash in the pan. They want it to be the beginning of something great for Ross, who is still very young at 23 years old.
It's just a matter of being consistent. There's nothing more frustrating than having the smile wiped off your face every other game.
2013-14 statistics: 27.9 minutes, 10.8 points, 51.1 percent from the field, 8.7 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.9 blocks, 1.8 turnovers, 15.1 PER
He's getting there. Slowly but surely, Jonas Valanciunas is getting there. I still haven't figured out where "there" is, but everyone will want him to be there when the time comes.
He is going through some struggles that any big man entering his second year in the league would likely endure. He's prone to picking up fouls early in games due to his failure in picking up more skilled frontcourt players under the basket.
He's the only true center on the roster, so when he exits games because of foul trouble, the Raptors are left scrambling and have to go small.
He has become a far bigger threat with his rebounding, compiling 18 double-doubles on the season. He's boxing out better and mixing it up more in clearing out his man.
His defense still requires work. Valanciunas has never been one to block a ton of shots, which is an aspect of his game that needs to change considering his 7'0" stature. Someone of his size should be swatting away more shots than he is.
He is improving at a reasonable pace. I've said in the past numerous times that expectations need to be tempered. He's come a long way since last season, but the buck doesn't stop here.
The fouls (3.2, 11th in the NBA) are his biggest problem. Everything else will continue to round out into form the more he sees the court.
2013-14 statistics: 36.3 minutes, 16.6 points, 42.9 percent from the field, 39.1 percent from three-point range, 4.4 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 2.3 turnovers, 19.7 PER
Kyle Lowry has been the best point guard in the Eastern Conference this season. That makes his snub from the All-Star Game all the more painful to endure.
I could go in-depth on why he deserved to be selected by the coaches over Joe Johnson of the Brooklyn Nets for hours on end. It's a debate that any strong-willed Johnson advocate will not win.
Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic provided a chart of how Lowry stacked up against his competition at the time of the vote. As you can see, he put up better numbers than some of those who ended up making it on the team.
Whether he has the official title of being an All-Star or not, there's no denying that he is among the cream of the crop at his position.
You can chalk it all up to him being in a contract year all you want. His numbers only tell half of the story.
His passion on the court is contagious. For someone who stands at just 6'0", the fact that he is tied for first in the NBA in charges drawn at 20 is quite impressive, via HoopsManifesto.com and current as of Feb. 7.
Now if only he could get more respect from referees while shooting contested three-pointers late in games. You know what I'm referring to.
2013-14 statistics: 37.7 minutes, 22.3 points, 42.7 percent from the field, 31.5 percent from three-point range, 4.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.5 blocks, 2.2 turnovers, 18.6 PER
We heard all summer long how DeMar DeRozan was working on improving his fundamentals, from his highly criticized three-point shot to his post game, dribbling and overall conditioning. No one has taken losing over the past five seasons more personally than him.
Having never taken part in meaningful playoff basketball since being drafted in 2009, he took it upon himself to raise his game to new heights and elevate his team from the depths of obscurity in the Eastern Conference.
His first-ever All-Star appearance validates his improvement and hard work, via Doug Smith of the Toronto Star: "I work extremely hard every off-season to try to be the best player I can be. I don’t ever look at myself as having a ceiling...I just work my butt off. Just to be part of the all-star game means a lot personally, it’s something you dream about."
This is a time for celebration in Raptors country. Only three other players (Vince Carter, Antonio Davis and Chris Bosh) in franchise history have ever been selected to participate in the big game. This was neither a fluke nor an uneducated selection.
DeRozan deserves to be in New Orleans.
He's still shooting 31.5 percent from three-point range, but it hasn't been nearly as much of a negative as it had been in years past. It's not his most reliable shot, but he can hit it.
DeRozan's decision-making in late-game situations still isn't perfect. There are occasions where he'll force bad shots or lose the basketball out of sheer clumsiness (see Feb. 1 vs. Portland).
He's not perfect, so you have to nitpick at things to get to his essence. The good outweighs the bad, though.
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