Raptors continue to show they're playing the long game with selection of Ja'Kobe Walter


TORONTO — We were never going to be able to draw widespread conclusions about the Toronto Raptors’ direction based on one pick in Wednesday night’s first round of the NBA Draft.

At this point, this draft class has been panned for years. When focusing just on the picks themselves, there are not many conclusions to draw with any team. (Except for the Washington Wizards. They are tanking — hard.) There were no surefire prospects destined to define any franchise’s path. Combine that with the Raptors having as many holes as they do, and this was always going to be a best-player-available evening.

If you want to reach for any semblance of a pattern, you might return to the day Masai Ujiri addressed the media after the Raptors’ 25-win season. He said some rebuilds take a long time — five years or more. (Hi again, Wizards.) Now, for the second year in a row, and the third time in four years, they’ve selected a teenager. The Raptors took Baylor wing Ja’Kobe Walter, who turns 20 in September, with the 19th pick.

Although Walter, who spent just one year at Baylor, talked up his ability to create with the ball, as he did in high school, the Raptors undoubtedly would be happy if he developed into a quality 3-and-D starter. The last guy who did that for the Raptors, OG Anunoby, agreed to a $212.5 million deal with the New York Knicks on Wednesday, reaffirming that keeping the old core together would have been untenably expensive for a team that struggled to hang around .500. (To be clear, Anunoby is one of the most versatile defenders in the world, while Walter could become a solid defender of guards and lither wings.)

Walter’s selection is another sign that the Raptors will not rush this thing. That two college seniors who would have fit nicely, Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht and Colorado’s Tristan da Silva, went with the selections right before helped cement that approach.

“I think we’re still (focusing on) the best available. I’m not sure we have enough talent to say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to go forward with’ and can start picking and choosing,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said Wednesday night. “So I think we’re still sort of amassing the group. And then we can let them battle it out and compete against (themselves) as opposed to saying we took this position and now we need to have it affect our future decisions.”

Interestingly, Walter didn’t work out individually for the Raptors in the lead-up to the draft. Raptors assistant general manager Dan Tolzman said Tuesday that the Raptors were having the usual problems getting certain prospects whose agents thought they would go before 19 to town, although many outlets mocked Walter around Toronto’s pick for most of this process.

Webster speculated that was the case for Walter but noted the Raptors were hoping he would fall. He said there wasn’t much debate in the room when he was available. Webster said he went to Baylor to watch Walter play this year, and that Luke Winn, the Raptors 905 general manager, spent about a week at the school.

“(He has) always been a winner, tough, kind of fits the mold of a two-way Raptor player, can make a shot, play defence,” Webster said. “(He’s) somebody we followed for a while and didn’t initially think he’d be there at 19.”

The Raptors could have gone in any direction. Even with Scottie Barnes and Immanuel Quickley, they could use more on-ball playmaking. (An interesting road not travelled: Isaiah Collier, picked by the Utah Jazz with the selection the Raptors traded to them for Kelly Olynyk and Ochai Agbaji.) They have no centre who aligns with Barnes’ likely peak. They were one of the worst teams defending on the perimeter last season, at least following the trades of Pascal Siakam and Anunoby.

Walter represents an attempt for the Raptors to marry their needs with an upside swing. He was one-and-done at Baylor, and his shooting stroke projects to be better than his 34.1 percentage from 3 suggests. He shot all types of 3s this year, which could eventually help the Raptors fill the void Gary Trent Jr. would leave if he departs as an unrestricted free agent. If Walter pans out, it is easy to imagine him and Gradey Dick spacing the floor for Barnes and Quickley.

Walter has a 6-foot-10 wingspan, which should allow him to be a solid defender. The Athletic’s draft expert Sam Vecenie noted that Walter shows good instincts away from the ball. His on-ball defence was spottier this season, but he has the frame and lateral quickness to get there.

Now, the Raptors are on the clock to start the second round, which is Thursday afternoon. They got that pick for — you guessed it — Anunoby. Webster said there was some debate about whether they should try to use that pick to move into the end of the first round.

Instead, they can now sit on the clock for a few hours.

“I’m gonna try not to think about it until probably,” Webster said. “I wake up and then try and (will) come in here fresh tomorrow and not have … the preconceived notion of what we thought (Wednesday night).”

(Photo of Ja’Kobe Walter shaking hands with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being drafted: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)





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