In what was one of the strangest draft nights in recent memory, the Toronto Raptors didn’t reach with their 9th overall pick. The teams after them took risky selections, guys with a larger chance to bust, but the Raptors took the player largely viewed as having the least chance to bust in Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl isn’t a flashy player, and on the surface doesn’t appear to be an immediate fit with the roster. A tall, lanky European center who did most of his damage with his back to the basket in college immediately looks redundant, especially after Jonas Valanciunas looked so dominant and ready for a bigger role in the playoffs. With Poeltl’s selection also meaning the strong likelihood of no return for fan favorite Bismack Biyombo, it’s easy to see why, on the surface, this wasn’t a popular choice. Masai Ujiri had previously been someone who swung for the fences on draft night, reaching for players like Bruno Caboclo, now just two years away, instead of playing it safe. On the other end of the first round the Raptors did that precisely when they reached past Deyonta Davis, who many had going to the Raptors with their 9th pick and was still sitting there at 27th, to grab relative unknown Pascal Siakam, an athletic, long, power forward who’s highlights show shades of Bismack Biyombo.
So what was the plan on this draft night? Going in, most of us were looking for the Raptors to shore up their shooting, something neither of the picks does, or to pick up via trade an upgrade at the power forward spot, the weakest link in the Raptors’ strong roster the season past. And on this night two players seen as Raptors targets were moved in draft day trades in Thaddeus Young and Serge Ibaka, diminishing the pool of available assets to fill that hole going into next season. With Ibaka, the Raptors were in talks to move the 9th overall pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder to acquire him, but talks fell apart when the Thunder rebuffed the Raptors’ offer. It’s interesting that the one player seen among Raptors fans and media as most likely to be moved in a deal this summer, Terrence Ross, wasn’t rumored to be in the offer for Ibaka, especially given that the eventual centerpiece of the trade that brought him to Orlando just a few picks later was Victor Oladipo. If the Thunder were looking for help at the guard position, as most suspected, why not send the enigmatic Raptors 3-point specialist out to acquire a power forward who would be the perfect fit beside our core of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas? Does Ross’ absence from this trade signal that next season the team intends for him to be a member of the roster? Maybe Ujiri saw that the rental of a player who, despite his fit on our roster, did decline some this past season, simply not worth surrendering significant assets and emptying the war chest.
The best thing, in my eyes, about the Poeltl selection is that it works in a vacuum. While any Raptors fan can see the value in upgrading the power forward position for next season in a trade, there’s no guarantee that a move is out there, and especially no guarantee that the price will be something palatable to the team. Ibaka seems like a perfect fit, and likely would’ve helped the team, but the package Orlando ended up giving up for him was a high price to pay for a player on the last year of his contract. The truth is, Patrick Patterson is a quality option there, a guy who won’t require a lot of touches offensively and is a good teammate who loves the city and wants to be here. In the playoffs when the team started Patterson, there were problems, but if given time during the regular season next year to adjust he could be a solid solution to start at that spot, while Poeltl and Siakam look to both be capable of giving them spot minutes in reserve there. With Biyombo’s price possibly soaring this summer with the amount of cap space available in the league and a relatively weak free agent class, it’s entirely possible that they weren’t going to be able to bring him back regardless. This draft night also served to give them a backup center to step into his role on a team-friendly rookie contract.
At the same time, Valanciunas’ dominant playoff performances showed that while the league has been moving away from big men who can dominant in the post in past years, there is also currently a lack of players who can defend post-up players in the NBA as well right now. While there are clear questions of fit here, especially with the team’s offense often centered around DeRozan’s ability to drive into the paint to create his own offense, it’s also possible that lineups including both Poeltl and Valanciunas could dominate opposing teams inside. Valanciunas already has an effective mid-range game, scoring efficiently this past year out to twenty feet, and Poeltl showed signs of a solid jumper of his own. It’s easy to look at those two players and dream of high-low action between the two European big men, with either in the high post and the other dominating down low. To pull this off effectively without allowing the opposing team to simply load up on defenders inside and stop any action before it has a chance to score high efficiency baskets, you would need to surround the two players with shooters who can take advantage of any help offered to mitigate inside mismatches.
The questions come into play on the defensive end, where Valanciunas or Poeltl would have to show at least some mobility to be able to move out to the perimeter and guard smaller players in order for any lineup featuring both to work. While I’m not sure either player has that in them, I find some hope in the fact that Oklahoma City was able this offseason to play Steven Adams and Enes Kanter together for stretches and find effectiveness on both ends. Kanter is more limited defensively, and Adams offensively, than either Valanciunas or Poeltl appears to be, so while the Thunder pairing is more polished players for the time being, there is a model for what the Raptors may be trying to do with the selection.
Going into the night, I would’ve rather have been writing about a trade for Serge Ibaka or Paul Millsap, a home run to bring our roster into championship contention, but sometimes those moves aren’t there, or the price is simply too prohibitive to be worth it. In the case where you can’t find immediate improvement, finding solid players that fit your team culture, one of the strengths of the Raptors this past season, and keep you moving in a forward direction is hard to find fault with. Ujiri is a hard General Manager to read often, and either or both of the new members of the team may yet be gone by opening day next year, but he didn’t limit himself in this draft to needing to move any particular piece. And that seems to be what he’s always trying to do, find a path forward where he has the assets pull the trigger on a big trade to land that big piece to push the team forward, while at the same time not putting himself in a position where he’s required to make a panic move, because the depth is there to keep the Raptors’ window open for years to come. After years of seeing the Raptors run like a frantic game of whack-a-mole, frantically attempting to cover one weakness by exposing another, it’s refreshing to see a team building strength on strength.Follow @raptorsrepublic