Five storylines heading into Raptors’ season

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The Toronto Raptors’ revamped offense isn’t the only intriguing storyline surrounding the team ahead of the 2017-18 season. (The Canadian Press)

Following a summer of soul searching and culture change, the Toronto Raptors are set to tip off their 2017-18 season on Thursday against the Chicago Bulls. Here’s a quick look at some of the prominent storylines as the Raptors prepare to challenge for another Atlantic Division title.

Reinventing the offense

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The Raptors unveiled a refined offensive approach in the preseason. Apparently gone are the days when Toronto’s predictable offense relied almost exclusively on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in isolation. This season the Raptors plan to catch up to the rest of the NBA with an offense that will shoot more 3s and focus on ball movement. Both were on full display in the preseason.

After averaging 18.5 assists and 24.3 three-point attempts per game last season, the Raptors dished out 23.8 assists and 38.4 three-point attempts per game during their five preseason contests. It wasn’t all rosy — Toronto made just six of its 36 three-point attempts against the Clippers on Oct. 6 — but the entire roster seems to have bought into an offensive approach that spaces the floor, crashes the paint and looks for the open shot.

There’s bound to be bumps in the road as the offense won’t completely reinvent itself overnight, but Toronto’s attack now has a noticeable team-first approach and that should be a welcomed development for frustrated Raptors fans.

Powell to start at small forward?

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It looks like Norman Powell will be getting the start at small forward when the Raptors host the Bulls on Thursday. Toronto spent the summer clearing the deck chairs to get Powell some minutes at the position — shipping DeMarre Carroll off to Brooklyn and letting P.J. Tucker walk in free agency. But with C.J. Miles in town, Powell was no guarantee to start.

Powell averaged 13.2 PPG in the preseason, showing an improved touch from deep with a .312 three-point percentage. His expected move to the starting lineup puts Miles with the second unit, where Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is sure to enjoy the instant offense from the bench — Miles averaged eight 3-point attempts, hitting 3.5 per game en route to 15.2 PPG during the preseason.

It is, however, important to note that the starting SF has the potential to be a fluid situation throughout the season. Casey will likely play the matchups with Powell and Miles, but the former appears to be the early frontrunner for the majority of the starts. Miles is a great fit in Toronto’s lineup, but that doesn’t appear to be enough to keep Toronto’s new $42-million man on the bench.

The youth movement

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Toronto’s reserves will feature Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, Fred Van Vleet, OG Anunoby and Alfonzo McKinnie, all of whom are under 25 years old. Miles’ addition to the bench will raise the average age of the second unit, but Toronto has committed much of its reserves to the team’s youth. The Raptors, however, don’t appear to be too concerned.

“That young group is really going to be a big part of what we do,” coach Casey recently shared with Sportsnet’s 590 The Fan. “How they come in and change the game by sustaining leads [will be big].”

Casey will likely sprinkle DeRozan, Lowry and/or Valanciunas in with the second unit from time to time, but the bulk of the Raptors’ bench rests on the shoulders of players with two seasons or fewer under their belts. How the Raptors’ youth movement will fare in 2017-18 is sure to have a heavy impact on the team’s success in the upcoming season.

What’s the deal with Jonas Valanciunas?

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Let’s review what we do know: Valanciunas will retain his spot in the starting lineup. Casey appears to be married to a starting lineup that features Lowry, DeRozan, Powell/Miles, Ibaka and Valanciunas. With relatively few options for a starting power forward outside of Ibaka, JV retains his starters role almost by default.

No one’s ever questioned his offense — in fact, some Raptors fans may boast about JV’s upside after averaging 11.6 PPG and a sterling .676 FG% in the preseason. If you happened to catch JV dropping 18 points and 11 rebounds in 21 minutes against the Pistons last week, you’re likely one of these fans. But it’s his defensive prowess that still leaves a lot to be desired.

Which leads us to what we don’t know: JV’s usage throughout the entire game. Yes, he’s retained his starter role, but that doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to see starter’s minutes. In recent years JV has often found himself sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter, watching as the other starters close out the game. It’s not an ideal situation for a starting center that was rewarded with a four-year, $64-million contract extension two summers ago.

Casey will likely continue to be creative with Valanciunas’ usage, potentially pulling him early in the first quarter and rolling him out with the bench unit to start the second. His usage will largely depend on nightly matchups, but it appears his role with the starters is safe … for now.

What will come of Bruno Caboclo?

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As we enter the fourth year of the Caboclo experiment, the Brazilian forward is beginning to look like he’s two years away from playing professional basketball overseas. He showed some promise late last season, leading the Raptors 905 to a D-League championship with 31 points and 11 rebounds in the final game, but he’s allowed all of that momentum to slip away with an absolutely forgettable preseason.

Caboclo scored just eight points on 3-17 shooting (2-13 from beyond the arc) in 51 minutes of play during the preseason. Sure, he sprinkled in a steal here and an assist there, but watching him on an NBA court can be awkward at the best of times. And you have to wonder where his head is at after he was kicked off the Brazilian national team for refusing to enter the game. Twice.

Raptors President Masai Ujiri has already taken the blame for Caboclo’s lack of progress, citing a desire to watch his prospect develop and perhaps bringing Bruno to North America a little too soon. But actions speak louder than words, and Ujiri’s mea culpa does little to suggest Caboclo has a future in Toronto.

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