The 2020-21 campaign was mostly a lost season for the Toronto Raptors. Between relocating to Tampa on short notice, starting out 2-8, being ruined by COVID-19 when they finally got their footing, and then tanking for the last two months, there weren't many positive moments.
But even in a down year, there was meaningful progress on the part of three players: OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher, and Khem Birch. They are tertiary players, but with a more normal year for the organization, and a clean bill of health for their main players, the improvements made by these three will help the Raptors restore their winning ways when they eventually return home to Toronto.
OG Anunoby’s expanded shooting
Anunoby had a strong year, bumping his scoring average by five points while being the most positionally versatile defender in the league. He excelled in every role he was given, whether it was bumping Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo as a smallball center, or being the go-to scorer during a stretch in April where he scored 20-plus in six-straight games. In that run, Anunoby showed flashes of a turnaround jumper, an ability to run pick-and-roll, and a bruising low-post game. It hinted at the potential makings of a future All-Star if he could string it together for an entire season.
But the most meaningful improvement from Anunoby was his shooting. He doubled his attempts from 3.3 to 6.1 per game over last season while still hitting at a 40 percent clip. The vast majority of his threes were on catch-and-shoot opportunities rather than pull-ups (9-to-1 ratio) but there was a marked difference in Anunoby’s confidence. He took more shots with less room, trusting that he would be able to fire over the contest using his length and his quickened release, and he was more willing to shoot on the move with subtle improvements like taking an extra dribble and sidestepping closeouts, or setting his feet quickly for trailing threes and pick-and-pop jumpers. His follow-through was much smoother, with his right hand no longer circling like the arms on a clock. These were subtle adjustments, but they added up.
The next step is for Anunoby to create his own offense. He is close to being maxed out as a finisher in catch-and-shoots, cutting, putbacks and in transition plays, but can he replicate his efficiency when he looks to create for himself? The data say he's not there yet. Anunoby’s percentages dropped according to the number of dribbles he took — he shot 42 percent from deep without a dribble as compared to 20 percent with one or more. He was also assisted on 97 percent of his threes, which shows just how reliant he was on the offense to create for him, instead of the other way around. And his efficiency in a small sample of self-generated sequences was modest, with Anunoby being in the 53rd percentile in isolation, in the 39th percentile as a pick-and-roll handler, and in the 12th percentile out of post-ups.
One area of promise is Anunoby's growth as a driver, where he can effectively leverage his advantages in strength and his athleticism. Anunoby drove 5.1 times per game, up from 3.6 and 2.3 in his previous two seasons, and he shot 52 percent on his drives, which puts him equal to Pascal Siakam. Anunoby also recorded assists on 11 percent of his drives, a rate higher than any Raptor who wasn't playing point guard, as he continued to show patience in drawing help and setting up teammates in the paint for easy finishes. If he can continue to expand this area of his game, there's no reason why Anunoby couldn't approach the offensive production that Norman Powell generated in the Raptors' system. Couple that level of scoring with his defensive abilities, and there might already be fringe All-Star buzz.
There is no sense in limiting Anunoby’s future just because there are presently gaps in his game. He has shown a strong work ethic and an ability to translate offseason gains into in-game results. Anunoby filled his own role as well as anybody on the Raptors this season, and there's no shame in getting the fundamentals down before expanding elsewhere. Don't forget that Anunoby is still 23, meaning he's younger than rookies like Freddie Gillespie, and that his numbers have climbed every year over the past four seasons.
Chris Boucher’s adaptability
The Raptors received no award considerations after finishing 18 games under .500, which is fair. But it is a shame that Boucher didn’t get more love for being a legitimate candidate for both Sixth Man and Most Improved, because he was on that level. In his first season of playing steady minutes, Boucher broke out in a huge way, doubling his production across the board while finishing with the fourth-best plus-minus on the team at plus-97 on the season (DeAndre’ Bembry was fifth, at plus-seven), placing him in a tier with Anunoby, Fred VanVleet and Siakam. I
Some of the numbers with Boucher are genuinely freakish. Only three players contested at least 400 two-point shots and 200 three-point shots, and Boucher hit that mark while playing two-thirds of the minutes as Deandre Ayton and Brook Lopez. Boucher led the league in three-point blocks at 0.84 per 100 possessions, which is twice as many as Robert Williams in third place. Just on three-point blocks alone, Boucher would have ranked fourth on the Raptors with 25 (Aron Baynes would be fifth with 23 blocks overall).
Boucher was also scorching on offense. He shot 45 percent from deep in the first three months of the season, and even after cooling off with the jumper, he still finished the year as the Raptors’ leader in true-shooting percentage. He broke his career-high in scoring four times, topping out with a ridiculous 38-point, 19-rebound showing against Chicago. At times towards the end of the year, Boucher was even making pull-up threes and running the very occasional pick-and-roll.
The Raptors also moved Boucher around a fair amount. Nurse initially had him as a second-string center sharing time with Alex Len, but Boucher quickly distinguished himself from Len and Baynes as the only capable five on the roster, so he would consistently finish games. Boucher then moved into the starting lineup for a time until the Raptors signed reinforcements, at which point Boucher seamlessly shifted to power forward. In every role, he managed to be productive and it's notable that he was the only Raptor who consistently delivered off the bench while everyone else struggled.
Boucher's next step is to become more consistent. The potential is there for him to impact games at a high level on both ends, but it only happens in spurts. Although he made significant strides this season, there are more levels for improvement in how he reads the floor, which will help him stay consistent. Playing at power forward will ease the defensive burden, but it will also put Boucher into competition with Siakam and Anunoby for minutes, and it may take him out of the pick-and-roll game he feasts in. In any case, Boucher's rise from undrafted, to third-string, to being close to a core piece is genuinely impressive and he's already exceeded the most lofty of expectations.
Khem Birch is a keeper
There was excitement when the Raptors added Birch in the buyout market, but it was more about replacing Baynes than anything else. Birch was solid but limited in Orlando, and it took vision on the part of the front office and from coach Nick Nurse to foresee Birch's ability to expand his game. Birch was a beacon of consistency in his 17 games, at least half of which were marred by the Raptors' starters sitting out, putting up numbers comparable to Serge Ibaka in 2019 and he is now a key free agent for the Raptors to retain.
The biggest surprise with Birch was his offensive skillset. There was more in his game than what he was allowed to show in Orlando. His career high in scoring after four seasons with the Magic was 14 points, a mark that he matched or surpassed eight times in two months with the Raptors. When he first hit 14 points as a Raptor, Birch remarked at how easy his chances were thanks to the passes from Kyle Lowry. But what became quickly apparent was that Birch had chemistry with every member of the starters, and it's a shame that he only played four games with all of the regulars available. The lineup of Birch, Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby and Siakam was plus-41, which was the highest-rated group on the entire season even though it only played together for 94 minutes.
The truth is that it's not particularly hard to play center within the Raptors' offense. Lowry, VanVleet and Siakam handle most of the playmaking, Anunoby provides spacing and cutting, and the five just needs to worry about screening, catching and finishing, which Birch excels at. But there was more craft in Birch's approach than the typical roll man. He showed great touch and awareness in changing up his finishes, using a short floater to great effect to evade challenges at the rim. Birch also showed an ability to spray passes out to the perimeter when the defense sent an extra defender to cut off the paint, which made the Raptors more dynamic in their offense. Birch even toyed around with pushing the break, and he showed the ability to occasionally space out for corner threes when his feet are set.
Re-signing Birch is an easy call for the front office. He won't be nearly as expensive as the more prominent bigs on the market, and he is already a proven fit with the Raptors' core players. Birch will need help in matchups against post-up centers, as bruising figures like Ivica Zubac and Jonas Valanciunas gave him problems late in the year, but that can be remedied with the right backup. Birch's utility is comparable to that of Amir Johnson, who became a fan favorite for his tireless contributions stewarding the power forward position. It's a position that will likely need upgrading if the Raptors return to contention, but Birch will solve a lot of problems in the interim.
Notable mentions: Malachi Flynn's quickness, Lowry's emerging floater game, VanVleet's pass fakes, Siakam's improved reading of help defense, Yuta Watanabe's measured closeouts, Gillespie's patient left hook, Bembry's efficient finishing, Stanley Johnson's pressure defense.
More coverage on Yahoo Sports Canada