What a difference a 10-3 streak can make. What was looking pretty dismal is shaping up to be a very interesting second-half of the season.
Here's the From Deep mid-term report cards:
Overall Grade: B
Strengths: Willingness to change on the fly. By embracing a more aggressive defensive style he was able to utilize his roster better and get players competing rather than thinking on the defensive end. Young players have made progress under his watch and kept his head during the Raptors early season stumbles. Toronto consistently gets good shots on play calls coming out of timeouts
Needs to work on: Finding a way to get Hedo Turkoglu playing optimally. In Orlando his reputation was as a player who required a heavy hand to provide maximum effort. Nothing in Toronto has suggested otherwise. Can Triano drag the best out of the Raptors $53-million man?
Overall Grade: C+
Strengths: Attitude. Banks went about his business when he wasn't seeing the floor without disrupting his co-workers and earned a tremendous amount of respect throughout the organization for being ready and able to contribute when Calderon got hurt. Shot 48 per cent from the floor and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2:1 in December despite playing only minimal minutes the prior to that, even back to last season. Now back deep on the bench again but was in the gym working hard today.
Needs to work on: Getting out of town. Did his extended cameo show enough that Toronto could package his contract? Third point guard duties not what he wants heading into a contract year.
Overall Grade: B
Strengths: Consistency. Bargnani is in the midst of this third straight month of steady play, allowing for the odd blip. Gone, for now, are the month-long swoons that marked his first three seasons. He's also improved his shot-blocking - leading the team in that category with 1.4. Coupled with some improved one-on-one post defence and there is plenty of room for optimism here.
Needs to work on: His three-point shooting. Shot just 15-of-52 in December but has rebounding nicely in January. If he can finish this season at or around the 40.1 per cent mark he shot last season (currently 38.2) has a chance to be a very special season for the emerging big. As he rebounds better he seems to be realizing that he can. That will help too. The final piece of the puzzle will be passing the ball constructively.
Overall Grade: C
Strengths: Value for money. When the Raptors traded Jason Kapono to Philadelphia they replaced his role - to some degree anyway - with Belinelli. They do similar things - provide instant offence off the bench, though Belinelli provides a little more defensively and can handle the ball in a pinch. Most importantly he does it for $1.5-million, or about a quarter what Kapono was earning. When he's on he can be game changer, capable of draining some tough shots, scoring in transition and spreading the defence.
Needs to work on: Shot selection. He's too good a shooter and too skilled a player to shoot 39.6 per cent from the floor.
Overall grade: A+
Strengths: Strength. Is pulling three offensive rebounds a game which puts him tied for 13th in that category. No other elite scorer is rebounding at that rate on the offensive glass. His effort there and getting to the free throw line (9.2 FTA/game) allow him to carry the Raptors offensive load efficiently and without dominating the ball to the point it chokes off other guys. That he's played every game and is leading the league in double-doubles is also a tribute to his off-season work. Has been close to brilliant in how he's deflected chatter about his future.
Needs to work on: Staying healthy and maintaining his approach on the glass and in doing the hard work getting to the line. As the season begins to unfold as he hopes leading by example won't be enough; he'll need to actively bring the group together on and off the floor.
Overall grade: B-
Strengths: Shot selection and taking good care of the basketball are things Calderon has made a habit of in his NBA career and he's been at it again this year. Prior to missing most of December with a hip problem his lack of mobility against opposition point guards looked to be chronic too. Has played his best basketball since coming returning to the lineup Jan. 6.
Needs to work on: Coming of the bench and running the second unit. Playing with the second group allows Turkoglu more touches and gets him going in the first quarter and allows Calderon to pursue his offence more aggressively when he hits the floor. He's shooting 55.8 per cent from the field and averaging 12 points and 5.5 assists in 24 minutes in that role since rejoining the team in January.
Overall Grade: B+
Strengths: He has superior quickness and is beginning to show it as his ball-handling continues to improve. Fearless about going to the rim and clever about drawing contact he's becoming more reliable with his jumper which will enhance the overall package. Shooting percentages trending up while turnovers trending down - DeRozan's shooting 56 per cent through eight games in January and has made just four turnovers. He's drawn raves from staff for his willingness to put extra time in and learn on the job.
Needs to work on: He is not strong enough to manage the calibre of athletes he's required to guard at his position, as a result he gets called for fouls when he tries to get overtly physical and gets rubbed off a lot of screens. Time will fix this.
Overall Grade: B+
Strengths: After a sluggish start is now approaching or exceeding his career averages per 36 minutes. Perhaps the most articulate and confident personality on the team, he's slowly allowed his leadership qualities to shine through as his performance has improved. His comfort playing off the ball meshes well with Turkoglu and his ability to push the ball at the defence in transition earns the Raptors four-to-six easy fast-break points a game. Shooting 50 per cent from the floor as a starter; 41 per cent off the bench.
Needs to work on: Maintaining his production if shift to the bench should happen.
Overall grade: C+
Strengths: There is very little not to like about Johnson's effort so far this season. Watching him sprint the floor like a wide receiver at 6-foot-11 and finish in transition or dive on the floor for loose balls is a pleasure. He's also a surprisingly deft finisher around the rim as evidence by his 56.7 shooting percentage. The Raptors could benefit if he could play more than 17 minutes a game
Weaknesses: By far his biggest weakness is his tendency to foul at the rate of 6.8 per 36 minutes. It reduces his court time and reduces his effectiveness. He will never over-power his opponents but his length, speed and quickness means he doesn't need to pick up as many lazy fouls as he does. His foul rate has increased each year in the league and his free throw shooting has got worse. These obstacles are preventing him from becoming one of the league's truly top-notch energy players and are well within his control to fix.
Overall Grade: B
Strengths: the 33-year-old veteran stays ready. Playing time has been sporadic with the emergence of Johnson and durability of Bosh and Bargnani, but has delivered in small spurts.
Weaknesses: Several (running, jumping) but none he can work on.
Overall grade: C-
Strengths: For all the heat he's taken in Toronto he's still the Raptors second-most effective player after Bosh, at least by 82games.com standards. Has passed the ball well and taken care of it well five assists for every two turnovers and has shot the ball well from deep, converting 39.6 per cent.
Needs to improve: First impressions are lasting and Turkoglu's (team supported) decision to take two weeks off to start training camp combined with his generally slow start - on a per minute basis he's heading for career lows in most significant categories - and his lack of apparent intensity has him running the risk of becoming a lightening rod of sorts in the first year of his five-year contract. A strong second half and some solid playoff contributions would fix that quickly. At his best can effect the game without scoring in big bunches, but he needs to perform.
Overall grade: B-
Strengths: his remarkable athleticism and ability to play in transition was one of the factors that convinced Jay Triano to go to a more aggressive, trapping style defensively. More offensive feel than he may have been given credit for early. A pleasant surprise as a throw-in in the Carlos Delfino trade.
Needs to work on: A bit of everything. Has all the tools to make the transition from athlete to basketball player. Watch his free throw percentage: Will it improve or will it hover around 57 per cent? Working on free throw shooting isn't fun but if you're doing that you're probably working on other parts of your game too.
Overall grade: C-
Strengths: The Raptors most experienced defensive player on the perimeter; strong enough to match up against stretch fours and crafty enough to chase shooting guards.
Needs to work on: Fitness. His initial impact was compromised after missing considerable time in training camp with a knee problem. Offensively doesn't offer what DeRozan or Weems or even Belinelli does. Look for the Raptors to try and package his expiring contract before the trade deadline.