The Toronto Raptors were already one of the best stories of the young NBA season when they arrived in Detroit on Dec. 18 for a game against the Pistons. Despite losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency, the Raptors were putting up a more formidable title defense than anyone anticipated, again firmly entrenching themselves among the Eastern Conference’s elite. Toronto was on its way to another win when an escalating series of mishaps in the Motor City threatened to derail all of the positive momentum the team had worked to build.
Marc Gasol started wincing as he ran back in transition, grabbing his hamstring in pain and exiting after only eight minutes. Then Norman Powell fell to the floor after getting laid out by a Blake Griffin screen that would result in a partial dislocation of his shoulder. As if losing two key rotation pieces wasn’t enough, the Raptors announced after the game that the team’s new star, Pascal Siakam, would also be sidelined with a groin injury he suffered while trying to dunk on Andre Drummond in crunch-time.
Toronto was already weathering injuries to Fred VanVleet, Matt Thomas, and Stanley Johnson. Kyle Lowry was just starting to get up to speed after missing three weeks with a fractured thumb. This type of injury misfortune would be enough to sink any team, yet, against all odds, the Raptors just keep winning.
Toronto’s winning streak was extended to four games two nights later against the Wizards, and pushed to five games after a miraculous comeback against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday. The Raptors trailed by 30 points in the third quarter only to erase the deficit with a frantic push led by Lowry and supported by four end-of-bench players in Chris Boucher, Malcolm Miller, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Terence Davis.
After winning 58 games last season, the Raptors are currently on pace for 59.4 wins after the loss of an all-time great in Leonard and an ideal complementary starter in Danny Green. Toronto is doing it because Nick Nurse is becoming one of the game’s top coaches. They’re doing it because Lowry remains a monster performer who is staving off decline from Father Time. They’re also doing it because the team has found a new series of reinforcements that were overlooked by every other team in the league.
No organization is better at finding diamonds in the rough than Toronto. Siakam’s rise into a certified superstar is already legendary. VanVleet’s rags-to-riches story is just as inspiring. This is the next generation of Raptors who are keeping the franchise’s success moving.
Chris Boucher is the Raptors’ latest G League gem
Chris Boucher might be the most unlikely player in the NBA. Boucher was a high school drop out who was washing dishes to help support his family at age-19. He had never played organized basketball in his life. That’s when he was noticed at a YMCA and started a career that took him to two junior colleges before he landing at Oregon, where he made a name for himself as a shot-blocking, three-point shooting big man with the frame of a stick figure (Boucher’s backstory was once expertly chronicled by former Sports Illustrated writer and current Raptors employee Luke Winn).
Just as Oregon was starting its postseason run in his senior season, Boucher tore his ACL. He would go undrafted, but was picked up by the Golden State Warriors on a newly-introduced two-way contract. Toronto signed him the next season, where he would blossom into the G League MVP and then join the big league club as a sparsely used reserve.
Boucher has made the most of his minutes whenever he’s gotten a chance this season. The comeback vs. the Mavericks was his finest moment, finishing with 21 points and seven rebounds in the win.
Boucher still gets the occasional DNP. He’s only averaging 5.7 points in 12 minutes per game when he does play. But in the moments when Nurse allows Boucher to put his unique skill set on display, he gives the Raptors another long, skilled big man who never stops playing hard. His story is already incredible, and it isn’t done yet.
OG Anunoby is back to being a core piece of Toronto’s future
Anunoby was totally overlooked by evaluators coming out of high school before he was noticed by Indiana coach Tom Crean as he scouted other players. Despite entering the program ranked outside of the top-250 in his recruiting class, Anunoby quickly put himself on NBA radars with his long arms, muscular frame, and stout defense. That’s when he suffered a torn ACL and slid in the draft to No. 23 where Toronto picked him up.
Anunoby was promising as a rookie as he recovered from the injury, but suffered another set back with an emergency appendectomy that sidelined him during the Raptors’ championship push last season. He has ascended to a spot in the starting lineup without Leonard and Green, establishing himself as an ace perimeter defender whose offensive skill is slowly starting to catch up to his physicality.
Playing nearly 30 minutes per night, Anunoby is giving Nurse another long-and-strong forward who can stretch the floor as a shooter. So far this season, he’s hitting 38.1 percent of the 3.8 threes he’s taking per night. Anunoby, still only 22 years old, is just starting to hit on the potential scouts first noticed in him at Indiana. He’s going to be a factor for the Raptors for a long time.
Terence Davis bet on himself. It paid off.
We’ve already covered Davis, who chose to go undrafted out of Ole Miss when teams were only interested in taking him in the second round if he would agree to a two-way contract. Davis declined, and wound up earning a guaranteed offer from Toronto after one standout summer league game.
Davis is one of the best rookies in the NBA on an adjusted per-minute basis and is becoming a critical bench piece for Nurse. His impact is bigger than his numbers.
Toronto keeps uncovering more pieces
There’s Malcolm Miller, the former Holy Cross star who the Raptors have spent three years developing in the G League. There’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a former blue chip recruit at Arizona turned first round pick who Toronto nabbed on a minimum contract this summer as his career started to sputter due his outside shooting struggles. There’s Thomas, a dead-eye shooter who spent multiple seasons in Europe before joining the Raptors as a three-point threat off the bench.
No team develops in-house quite like the Raptors. It helped the franchise surround Leonard with the pieces he needed to win an NBA championship last season, and now it’s helping them reload after his departure. This is turning into the next model NBA franchise, and it’s happening one sleeper success story at a time.