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The Raptors’ Tampa experience has been wrapped in frustration and disappointment. Losing to a degree unfamiliar to the franchise for over seven years, emotions boiling over as a result, and being inflicted with a COVID-19 spread among both players and coaches has left them on fumes most nights.
It’s come to a point where, when asked about what the team’s goals would be over the course of the remaining 15-plus games, head coach Nick Nurse centred his answer on growth.
“I’m trying to get this team, the players, individually, to develop, try to get them to understand our system,” Nurse said Wednesday.
Between 10-day signing Freddie Gillespie, newcomer Khem Birch via waivers, or even someone receiving significant minutes for the first time in his career in Chris Boucher, there is plenty of learning to go around. Taking the bull by the horns, though, has been rookie Malachi Flynn, proving he’s a quick learner who has every desire to shine in a moment he has made his own.
Excluding one game against the New York Knicks where Kyle Lowry returned and took over primary ball handling duties, Flynn has averaged 15.7 points, 6.0 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.3 steals while shooting 45.2 percent from three-point range over seven April games. Over the course of the last back-to-back where he played nearly 70 minutes combined, he had a total of zero turnovers. He has had to wait for his opportunity, playing 350 minutes over the last 12 games after just 122 total minutes prior.
“It’s been a great opportunity for me to really play a lot of minutes, play through some mistakes, just continuing to learn the game at this level,” Flynn said. “It’s been a little bit of a learning process but just trying to get better every game and everybody else is just helping me along the way, so it’s been good.”
Flynn has made clear progress with his ability to get to the basket at the highest level, using feints and ball fakes to great effect while also understanding the importance of using changes in pace to deceive defenders with his movement. And then there’s the renewed confidence in his jumper. Prior to April, the 22-year-old had made just 7-of-40 three-point attempts and looked increasingly hesitant to shoot the ball. Now it looks like he’s got the ball on a string and the surprise is when he misses. Despite the losses for the team, Flynn has even emerged as a bit of a fourth quarter hero, making some big-time shots that have either kept the Raptors in games late or sparked notable rallies.
“I talk to him a lot, and I just think he’s understanding that the scoring will come,” Kyle Lowry said. “Before, I think, when he first started playing, he was like, ‘I gotta score, I gotta score.’ I think now he’s understanding that the scoring’s gonna come. But you’ve got to make the plays first. That’s where the maturation is coming in.”
Defensively, it’s easy to see how those moments Lowry and VanVleet spend mentoring their rookie guard reaps dividends. Flynn has learned to “block” shots the VanVleet way, swiping the ball away as opponents rise up to shoot, and constantly being a pest with his hands to poke the ball away if the opportunity presents itself. Like Lowry, he is understanding how to use his lower body to box out players he’s overmatched by physically, something Nurse made special mention of during a media session.
How much longer Flynn receives this much of an opportunity is anyone’s guess. Lowry has been dealing with a recurring toe infection but Fred VanVleet is set to return Friday against the Orlando Magic while Gary Trent Jr. missed Wednesday’s game due to soreness in his right ankle. There’s also the added drama of wondering whether the Raptors have their head tilted in the direction of ping-pong balls or the play-in tournament since, as of Apr. 15, they’re just a game back of the Chicago Bulls for the final play-in spot in the East but also 1.5 games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the fifth-worst record in the league.
Whether they do lean towards the present or the future, it’s clear that Flynn can be a vital part of both. The Raptors have put themselves in an interesting position heading into the off-season in the sense that they have two cores to consider: One for the present in Pascal Siakam, VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Trent Jr. and Flynn, and another for the future in the latter three names of whom none are older than 23.
Coaches in professional sports usually don’t have much of a shelf life, and so it makes sense for them to be focused on what’s in front of them. That being said, Nurse knows he’s got a good one on his hands and that the best way to help the team and himself—whether it be for now or in the years to come—is to find ways to have Flynn on the court.
“I’m so here, in the now, but I do know this: Players won’t develop without minutes on the court,” Nurse said. “That’s why we believe so much in the [Raptors] 905, and you gotta play, man, you gotta play in games. I think that he’s showing some—for a rookie—some good early flashes, I don’t worry about much with him, he’s a super hard worker, he’s tough, I think he’s a winner, and I think he’ll only get better with more minutes on the court.”
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