Heading into Toronto Raptors training camp to open the 2021-22 season, it seemed pretty clear that 23-year-old sophomore Malachi Flynn had the backup point guard position all but locked up.
After all, Flynn was one of the best players in college basketball and the best pick-and-roll ball-handler in his class when the Raptors selected him 29th overall in 2020. Flynn had an up-and-down rookie season with the Raptors — averaging 7.5 points and 2.9 assists on 37.4 percent shooting in 19.7 minutes per game — but so did just about everyone on the roster. And considering that Flynn didn’t have a Summer League, a full training camp, or more than six games in the G League to help him adjust to the NBA due to the COVID-ridden year, he was largely forgiven for an unspectacular rookie season and was expected to make a big jump in 2021-22.
Even if Flynn added nothing to his game, he entered camp with a good defensive base and playmaking instinct despite his 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame, a decent-looking jump shot, a tight handle, and smart pick-and-roll play. He also dominated 2021 Summer League, averaging 17/5/3 on 41/41/78 shooting splits.
But in each of the Raptors’ first two preseason games, Flynn has entered the game behind 21-year-old rookie point guard Dalano Banton — who the Raptors selected 46th overall in the 2021 NBA Draft and signed to a two-year contract soon afterwards — and has averaged 15.5 minutes to Banton’s 17.8.
“We’re in a bit of battle to get to see what we want from Scottie [Barnes] bringing it and Dalano bringing it and Precious [Achiuwa] bringing it, OG [Anunoby], all these different guys bringing it,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said after the first preseason game, when Flynn didn’t enter until midway through the third quarter. “We want to make sure we don’t naturally go back to Freddie [VanVleet] and Malachi and Goran [Dragic] a little bit because that’s kind of the way they are, who they are.”
On one hand, giving more reps to other ball-handlers early in the preseason makes a lot of sense, and Flynn did play more than Banton in the second game, a 125-113 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. But it’s also clear that Banton is ahead of schedule, with Nurse saying “he's probably improved the most of anybody since we got him,” and adding that, ““I think there are people putting heat on some of those guys you might expect to play.”
Despite his youth and inexperience, Banton could be coming for Flynn or any of the other ball-handlers’ minutes.
Banton is extremely raw. A Toronto native and the first Canadian ever to be drafted by the Raptors, he played just two college seasons compared to Flynn’s three. At Nebraska in 2020-21, he averaged 9.6 points per game and shot 24.7 percent from three, but he also led his team in rebounding (5.9 per game) and assists (3.9 per game). He has a shaky dribble that is a threat to get picked in tight spaces and a virtually non-existent jump shot, averaging four turnovers in preseason play and hitting zero threes through Summer League and preseason — two skills that most point guards need in order to survive in the NBA, not to mention skills that Flynn has in spades. Yet Banton seems to be fighting for a rotation spot with the Raptors in his first (pre)season there. What gives?
First of all, Banton does have one elite NBA skill and it’s his playmaking. Very rarely does a rookie come into the league with every pass in the book along with the playmaking vision necessary to make passes that nobody else even sees.
“I think he really has a high IQ and can play in this league and can be really interesting in this league," Nurse said of Banton. "Where that all meanders and goes here in the short and long term obviously remains to be seen but he’s got a vision, he’s got a special vision characteristic or quality, he really sees a lot of things with the ball. And he’s got an interesting rhythm, tempo that he plays with that’s kind of hard to figure out when you’re trying to defend him.”
But even with his advanced playmaking, you would think that given his young age, lack of experience, and the rawness of his other skills that Banton would be bound for the G League’s Raptors 905. After all, how does a point guard whose handle isn’t tight and whose outside shot isn’t there get rotation minutes on an NBA team? Well, if that NBA team is the Raptors, you might have a chance.
The Raptors want to make an identity on the defensive end and they want that defence to fuel transition opportunities. In fact, it seems like they have built their entire system around a roster full of athletic 6-foot-9 forwards who can handle the ball. And Banton is fighting his way into Nurse’s rotation not necessarily by being the most skilled player on the roster, but by filling holes on it and fitting into the system perfectly as he represents the next generation of Raptors players.
At 6-foot-9 with a plus-wingspan, Banton wrecks havoc on the defensive end by pressuring ball-handlers and getting his hands in passing lanes; he uses his athleticism and length to protect the rim even when his opponent gets a step on him or his teammates; and he helps on the boards with his quick bounce and good timing, all things that are necessary for a team that struggled to protect the rim and rebound last season, on a roster without anyone taller that 6-foot-9. And Banton does all of that to fuel the Raptors’ fast-break, their most effective source of offence and the one that the team might be more reliant on than ever given its lack of half-court creation. Banton uses his long strides to get down court in a hurry and his passing vision to find his teammates or take it all the way to the cup himself, where he is a pretty good finisher.
On most other teams, Banton’s lack of an advanced dribble and jump-shot would be detrimental to his ability to earn rotation minutes. And Flynn's pick-and-roll prowess would earn him the opportunity to run the second unit. But on the Raptors, where halfcourt offence is seen as a secondary option to transition, and where defence is supposed to give way to fast-break opportunities, Banton fits in like a glove. So far, he is +12 in two preseason games, and has shown really nice chemistry playing alongside fellow rookie Scottie Barnes.
I asked Nick Nurse pregame about Dalano Banton’s fit in the Raptors system and Nurse touched on his rapid development, improved shooting, and defensive learning curve. Full answer below: pic.twitter.com/KaLSj5q2P0
— Oren Weisfeld (@OrenWeisfeld) October 7, 2021
“It's pretty cool that he races the ball up the floor at 6-foot-9 and has tremendous vision and then he blocks a shot and then grabs a big rebound at the other end,” Nurse said of Banton. “He plays big at the defensive end and we like that. [He’s] versatile.”
“Yeah, he can really pass, he knows the game, he knows where guys are at,” Fred VanVleet said of Banton. “That pace is going to take him a long way, you don't have to run many plays, he just gets it and goes full speed and collapses the defence and he's kicking out. He's been great for us so far. He’s had a great training camp.”
We (myself included) are often guilty of focusing on the final roster spots when it comes to camp battles because we assume that certain things are settled, such as Flynn being the backup point guard to start the season. And that might still very well be the case, as Flynn’s outside shot has looked really good in preseason and he is a much-needed floor spacer and source of half-court creation for the Raptors. In fact, I would bet on him being ahead of Banton in the rotation to start the season, and Nurse has spoken about Flynn being more of an off-ball player this season given the wealth of ball-handling on the roster and Flynn’s ability to shoot on the move.
“Malachi hasn't (played off the ball) much. He's kind of had the ball in his hands, bringing it up the floor, probably since he's been in about sixth grade,” said Nurse. “So we're just trying to get him to learn that a little bit just because we want to get him out there. We think that catch-and-shoot game that he has is super valuable and we need him to learn how to put that to use a little bit.”
It’s very possible that Flynn and Banton play together at some point this season — perhaps after the trade deadline if a certain veteran point guard is on the move, freeing up backcourt minutes — but the fact that Banton even has a shot at rotational minutes this early in his Raptors tenure says more about his fit in Toronto's system than it does about anyone’s skill level.
And this isn’t about pitting Flynn and Banton against each other, either. Instead, it’s to show that fit can be just as important as skill for young players entering the NBA. More often than not, where you get drafted, who is on that team, and what style they play will all factor into how much success a young player is going to have.
It’s also important to note that progression is not linear, so if Banton is making quick strides in his development and Flynn is a little bit behind where the Raptors might have envisioned him at this point, that’s okay. Just because things are how they are right now doesn’t mean it’ll be this way a year from now, let alone a couple months out. If one or both of Banton and Flynn need minutes in the G League to have the ball in their hands this season, that should not be seen as detrimental to their development. Ultimately, they’re both interesting players with differing skill sets, and the better they fit into the Raptors' system, the more they will play.
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