Taking a Deeper Look at the Toronto Raptors’ Free Agency Signings

The 2020/21 Toronto Raptors starting day roster is more or less finalized. Which is good, cause, like, there are less than two weeks until preseason — TWO WEEKS!

This year’s “offseason” additions to the team were limited and measured.

And that was a good thing.

The 2020 NBA Free Agency Class was…modest to say the least. Toronto’s resigning of Fred Van Vleet was the League’s biggest grab.

Which is exciting, but only in a subdued way like when your Dad’s birthday gift to you is forgiving the $200 bucks you borrowed to buy that new pair of Jordan’s you only wore once cause you realized your legs looked too fat in low tops and they hurt your feet when you played in them…I’m not mad, you’re mad. I’m not mad. You’re mad.

Really, though, Fred’s signing is integral, just not transformative — which is something we all unrealistically anticipate at Free Agency and Trade deadlines. Excitement was also diminished by the emotional toll processing the familial losses of scruffy Cousin Marc and sexy Uncle Serge.

Toronto’s transactions suggest a patient, purposeful approach. One which considers this year as a year to develop once again. That sounds odd when you have recently maxed out one dude and handsomely-paid another. But consider it a holding pattern to assess Toronto’s current talent and to position/lure/kidnap some of 2021’s free agency spoils.

Before you start foaming at the mouth dreaming about the prospect of acquiring a certain Giant Alien from Wisconsin, though, let’s take a look at the Toronto Raptor 2020/21 Free Agent signings.

In: Aron Baynes, Alex Len, Deandre’ Bembry, Henry Ellenson, Yuta Watanabe, Alize Johnson

Out: Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Malcolm Miller

Aron Baynes, Two-Year/$14.4 Million

The Yikes: Unreliable offensive option, Injury-plagued last 2 seasons, Old(er), Uncertain culinary prowess

Masai Mind Palace: Soundly fills the centre/culture/salary void left by Gasol and Ibaka without compromising future flexibility

Talking Business: The 6'10", 230 lbs man-o-meat from Australia comes to Toronto after a sort-of break-out year. Odd for an almost 34 year-old to have such a late evolution, I know. But Modern Basketball demands quick adoption; the alternative is prompt extinction.

The majority of Aron Baynes’ career was spent banging and bruising in the paint. A back-up centre who reliably rebounded, defended, and, well, banged and bruised. From 2014 (his third year in the NBA) to 2018, Baynes averaged around 6 points, 5 rebounds, 0.5 blocks and 2.5 fouls on 16 minutes. His career trajectory, like so many of his hulking back-up centre peers, was destined for obsolescence, succumbing to space and pace’s violent revolution.

But, then, in 2018, his second year with the Boston Celtics, Aron Baynes saved his career. He made 21 three-pointers (!) on a whopping 34%. The five years previous he had scored 5 threes. Total. In Phoenix the next year, Baynes made 58 threes on 35% shooting. He also set career highs in minutes played, rebounding, assists, and points.

Baynes is a Marc Gasol-lite. A similarly-unathletic, less-aware, perimeter-shooting, beast-of-burden who makes way for Siakam to twirl about and FVV and Kyle Lowry to bowl down the lane.

All the while he dutifully slows down the League’s best bigs. In 2019–2020, centres shot 41% on Baynes (Gasol allowed 44%). He, like Señor Gasol before him, will serve as a worthy foe dueling Embid and as a meaty impediment in the Giannis-wall. He’s going to have trouble in the pick and roll, but most his size do.

Baynes ain’t quick laterally. He can’t really jump. Nor playmake. But he’s smart, dogged, reliable, self-aware, and fits seamlessly within the Raptor milieu.

Deandre’ Bembry, Two-Year/$3.7 million

The Yikes: Unreliable three, Defensive question mark

Masai Mind Palace: The NBA suffers a dearth of wings, when someone resembles one: buy low; sell high.

Talking Business: General Managers are cursed, or blessed, with seeing players as the player they want them to be. In the era of 3 and D, this is especially so with wing-types. Guys — like Jeff Green or Maurice Harkless — who resemble a lengthy, switchy, playmaking wing, and have, every other random game in the middle of the season, flashes of one, but, really, are not.

Deandre Bembry, at 26, is not yet that forbidden fruit. He’s the guy before the guy that rouses GMs’ imaginations. Exactly like his wing-predecessor, and now teammate, Stanley Johnson. Or Malcolm Miller before him.

Masai Ujiri has a penchant for acquiring dudes who conceptually fit archetypes and then letting the Raptors organization massage them into efficacy. They drafted OG Anunoby under that exact premise. The approach has had mixed results — see aforementioned wings — but gave Alfonso Mckinnie life in the NBA and revived Bismack Biyombo, James Johnson, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s foundering careers.

Bembry, a 6'5" scoring guard, has spent the entirety of his short career adrift a piece of debris in the Atlanta Hawks quag. The blow-up/rebuild took place right around him. He was a remnant of the old regime, but young enough to remain with the new. He had momentary flares of playmaking acumen. His career per 36 minutes are 12 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals. But he was not a part of the new GM, Travis Schlenk’s, Golden State Warrior emulation vision. And never proved that he could be.

He has yet to shoot the three consistently and is bereft of any shiny defensive statistics. Of course, NO ONE playing on Atlanta demonstrates any semblance of a living and breathing defensive human being. So, take that for what it is.

Toronto expects little from Bembry, but also expects a lot of its development system, and for that, his size and capabilities make him a promising signing.

Alex Len, One-Year/$2.3 million

The Yikes: Slow Big Man, Slow Big Man, Slow Big Man

Masai Mind Palace: See first Noice point

Talking Business: Despite only being 26, it feels like the 7'0" centre is already a veteran. The same way your more responsible but younger sibling who found a job with a prestigious financial institution right out of university keeps ridiculing you for paying off your line of credit instead of investing seems older than they really are.

Toronto will already be his fourth team. And he-is-who-we-think-he-is. We think.

Len is one of a litany of failed Phoenix Sun draft picks. He was a big, slow-footed centre drafted at a time when big, slow-footed centres were getting gobbled up in pick and rolls like a dog facedown in a tray of turkey trimmings.

But he, like Baynes, wisely found the three-point line (in 2018–19, he hit 74 threes at a 36% clip) which opened up his game and kept him on the floor. That year, and the following, his Per 36 numbers were…astonishing: 20 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks.

Likely, his potential is limited. Especially when he is pulled out to the perimeter on defense or asked to do more than he’s comfortable with on offence. But that’s okay. Len is there to deal with big boys and hit the occasional bomb. Anything more than that and the signing is a grab.

Henry Ellenson, Two-year/Minimum Salary, ($50,000 guaranteed)

The Yikes: Too slow to play 3 or 4, Too small to play traditional 5, No post presence

Masai Mind Palace: Ellenson’s youth proffers upside. He plays a style oppsite Len and — to some degree — Chris Boucher giving Toronto more options at the centre position. Another low-risk, lump of clay for the Toronto institution to get its hands on.

Yuta Watanabe, Undetermined/Training Camp Contract

The Yikes: Too slow to play 3, too slight to guard larger 4’s, Lacks explosiveness on both ends of the floor

Masai Mind Palace: Yuta, like Henry, represents Toronto’s desire to find smart playmakers at the forward position (see: should-be-two-time-most-improved-player Pascal Siakam) to develop — particularly at power forward where its roster is currently quite thin.

Alize Johnson, Undetermined/Training Camp Contract

The Yikes: Lu Dort potential? Can’t/won’t shoot the three, Not a playmaker

Masai Mind Palace Reasoning: Move over Stanley Johnson! If the 24 year-old finds range, he could provide some gritty minutes as a 3 and D pestering larger ball-handlers like Jayson Tatum or Jimmy Butler.

Policy Analyst; Strategic Foresight Analyst; Freelance writer; Basketball Opinionist.