Raptors' pre-season highs and lows

Jonas Valanciunas has show early signs he could be everything the Raptors need him to be this...

Jonas Valanciunas has show early signs he could be everything the Raptors need him to be this season. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters file photo)

MIKE GANTER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:35 PM ET

MEMPHIS - So the Raptors finish the pre-season at 6-1, a high-water mark for the franchise in the get-ready games and life is grand, right?

Hold that thought.

On the way to compiling that 6-1 record, the Raptors showed off some of the new habits head coach Dwane Casey knows they will need to achieve the goal of a playoff berth, but he’s also hyper-aware that some new bad habits began to creep in.

It’s those latter habits that will be getting Casey’s focus over these next four days and presumably into the season regardless of how many wins his team picked up this pre-season.

So as not to discount the steps the team has made and regardless of Casey’s focus, we’ll run through both the highs and lows of this pre-season which, and this is key, will be a distant and foggy memory in no time.

THE HIGHS

-- Rookie Jonas Valanciunas steps on the floor — after missing all of training camp — and in the first exhibition game in Detroit, he gives the franchise (that drafted him fifth overall two drafts ago) exactly what they had hoped for. Valanciunas is big, quick and not shy about battling it out in the land of the giants. Sure there remains plenty to take in, but even on that front Valanciunas has already shown a knack for learning his lessons first time out. When he does make a mistake, he learns from it and corrects it the next time.

-- Kyle Lowry was a little slow out of the gate thanks to a strained adductor muscle in his left leg, but when he finally did get on the court in the fourth of a seven-game pre-season, Lowry wasted little time in showing what he will bring to this Raptors team. Lowry is a no-nonsense basketball player as comfortable setting up others as he is creating for himself — and certainly not shy about the latter. He brings a toughness and swagger that this Raptors team has lacked for some time. His end-of-game scoring abilities will be most welcome here.

-- Ed Davis, before a sore hip cost him some playing time in the latter stages of the pre-season, showed plenty. He averaged over seven rebounds in just over 18 minutes a night. His shot mechanics have been straightened out and he’s a much sturdier presence in the post and under the basket, having dropped some bad weight and added some necessary muscle. The biggest question is where he will fit in this rotation of bigs with Andrea Bargnani, Valanciunas, and Amir Johnson all poised for big minutes ahead of him.

-- DeMar DeRozan was a double-digits, high-teens, scorer through much of the pre-season primarily because of a newfound confidence in backing down his defender and getting to the rim. DeRozan worked diligently in the off-season hunting and absorbing contact from a willing cousin who was told to punish the athletic guard at every opportunity. Through the first six games of the pre-season that was in full evidence. Here’s hoping the letdown in Memphis — just six points and not a single trip to the free-throw line — was a one-off.

-- Amir Johnson was a revelation in the pre-season hitting on 27-of-44 from the field, many of those of the 18-foot-and-out variety. That’s a .614 shooting percentage, easily the best on the team. Despite assurances that he has stretched his range as far as the three-point arc, Johnson did not attempt a single three. That doesn’t mean you won’t see it. In addition to his improved shooting, Johnson is still as active around the basket and as quick up and down the floor as he’s ever been. Best of all, he’s healthy.

THE LOWS

-- Those slow starts that went from bad to worse as the pre-season went on are clearly the biggest concern heading into Wednesday’s season opener against Indiana. Teams have averaged 29 first-quarter points against the Raps over seven games. The only lead the Raps held after a quarter this pre-season came in the opener against Real Madrid. They have been stuck in double-digit deficits going into the second quarter in three of the other six games. As Casey said after the game in Memphis when they gave up 36, it’s a recipe for disaster.

-- This one really isn’t a low as much as it was a disappointment. Rookie Terrence Ross, because of a knee issue, and then a flu issue, never really got to shake off that rookie rust or get a proper this-is-the-NBA introduction in the pre-season. He missed out on three games that would have helped. The 27 minutes he got in the final tune-up were helpful, but those missed minutes were opportunities he could have used.

-- In the pre-season, Landry Fields looked more like the Fields of last season in New York than he did like the rookie Fields that the Raptors would like to see. Obviously it’s early. Fields, like any player, needs time to adjust to new teammates and a new scheme — and certainly Casey has said nothing to suggest he’s not happy with his new starting small forward. But really there was only one game in the seven where Fields looked at all comfortable this pre-season shooting the basketball.

-- And then there’s the turnovers. It got better in the final game in Memphis where the Raps looked like they had adjusted to the speedier pace being asked of them — but it seems everyone has taken a turn this pre-season being sloppy with the basketball. Lowry had his six-turnover game. Valanciunas was guilty of four in Memphis, although the team total of 12 committed in the final game was the best of their entire pre-season. It’s something Casey is watching very closely.


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