Publications are starting to share their player ratings / rankings for the upcoming season. Sports Illustrated is releasing its top-100 this week, and today they shared 51 to 100. We could focus on other rankings, but hey, SI is good for a few head-scratching selections. On the initial batch of rankings are three Raptors:
- Fred VanVleet at 93
It’s no exaggeration to say that VanVleet (8.6 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 3.2 APG) was an impact stats god last year. The 24-year-old Raptors guard, who finished third in 2018 Sixth Man of the Year voting, was off the charts in virtually every lineup configuration. When he played with his fellow young reserves, who led the NBA among bench groups in net rating, Toronto was +17.1. When he joined a veteran-heavy and starters-dominated group as a floor-spacing third guard, Toronto was +24.9. Remarkably, VanVleet ranked No. 28 in the NBA in Real Plus-Minus and in the top 100 by both Win Shares and WARP. All this for an undersized, undrafted player who has yet to record a single start in two seasons.
The magnitude of VanVleet’s success in a limited role naturally raises some questions. How well would his contributions hold up if he was forced to play more than 20 minutes a night? How would he fare if he was asked to lead a less-talented bench group? How well would his game translate to the playoffs? The early returns on that last question were not pretty. As he worked back from an untimely shoulder injury, VanVleet couldn’t recapture his dependable three-point stroke and wasn’t about to single-handedly solve Toronto’s annual problems with composure and defense. The Raptors’ ugly ending poured some cold water on their much-hyped bench play, but it didn’t erase VanVleet’s substantial progress. The sweep against Cleveland didn’t kill VanVleet’s earning power either, as he cashed in with a well-deserved two-year, $18 million contract in July.
- Serge Ibaka at 78
Once the most fearsome shot-blocker in the league and an ideal smallball center for postseason matchup purposes, Ibaka (12.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.3 BPG) has skidded into an identity crisis. At the root of Ibaka’s troubles is major slippage on the defensive end: Toronto’s defensive rating was better without him last season, and his block rate was less than half of his peak levels during his early-20s. Remarkably, Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl both defended more shots within six feet and allowed a lower percentage on those shots than did Ibaka, whose three straight All-Defensive First Team selections already seem like a distant memory.
The 2018 playoffs weren’t kind to him either. When Ibaka, 28, was acquired in 2017, he was seen as the piece to help push Toronto over the top and as a rim-protecting linchpin of switchable smallball lineups that could slow down LeBron James. Instead, he largely no-showed in the embarrassing second-round sweep against Cleveland, struggling badly in Game 2 and getting benched in Game 3. At this point, Ibaka is essentially a replacement-level power forward whose primary offensive value derives from his three-point shooting because his once-impressive finishing has tapered off. His career arc sadly mirrors that of his former team, the Thunder: He rose to prominence years before everyone expected and then crumbled years before everyone wanted.
- Jonas Valanciunas at 63
As the NBA has plunged deeper into the smallball era, perception of Valanciunas (12.7 PPG, 8.6 RPG) has seesawed wildly. Once viewed as a potential All-Star, the Lithuanian center became a case study for natural selection on the hardwood: What chance did a lumbering 7-footer have of staying on the court during the playoffs? Rather than overhauling his game to become a full-fledged stretch five, Valanciunas has evolved in softer fashion: exerting maximum effort in fewer minutes, seeking out and exploiting undersized defenders for high-percentage scoring opportunities, dabbling with the three ball, and gradually improving his feel and confidence when forced to defend away from the hoop.
The result? Valanciunas, 26, proved to be a skilled battering ram in the 2018 playoffs, notching six double-doubles in 10 games, outplaying Washington’s Marcin Gortat in the first round, and pounding the Cavaliers for 21 points and 21 rebounds in Game 1 of the second round. Yes, the Raptors eventually went down in ugly fashion, but Valanciunas was hardly their weakest link. With excellent durability, well-honed post moves and greater comfort in his refashioned role, Valanciunas has managed to stave off stylistic extinction and trade rumors alike.