DeRozan and Kyle Lowry contract to run the team for the near future. That’s good news, even though his numbers last year were perhaps artificially increased by his pending free agency. Lowry did a lot right last year, beginning with his strong, 3-to- 1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He shot well from three-point range and brought a physical toughness to the point guard spot. He and DeRozan wo r k e d we l l together last year and appear to be set for even bigger things this season. I t w i l l b e interesting to see how Valanciunas develops in the middle. The thirdyear Lithuanian seven-footer has demonstrated the ability to make shots close to the hoop, a fact borne out by his 53.1 percent field goal success last year. But he must become more assertive inside and capable of facing the basket, too. He can hit a 10-footer, but he isn’t so sharp further out than that. And though h e i s a l m o s t seven feet tall, Claus Andersen/Getty Images Valanciunas is 255 pounds, so it’s not like he’s going to crack heads inside. He’ll have to develop a better touch. And some more rebounds (he averaged 8.8 rpg last year) would be nice, too. The rest of the roster is comprised of offensive role players. Power forward Amir Johnson is very capable close to the basket, but when he steps out of the paint, it’s trouble. Patrick Patterson is better as a scorer from the four spot, but since his defense isn’t that great, he doesn’t get as much time on the court. Still, if the Raptors want their frontcourt to be more productive, Casey can turn to him. Small forward Terrence Ross is a good outside weapon, while backcourt reserves Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez can each score and handle the rock. Outlook Even though the Knicks re-signed Carmelo Anthony and have a new coach in Zen disciple Derek Fisher, and the Nets welcome back Brook Lopez inside, the Raptors have to be considered the Atlantic favorites. The Lowry/ DeRozan duo is extremely dangerous, and if DeRozan gets better with his outside shot, he could score 25 a game. Now happy with his long-term contract, Lowry can concentrate on becoming a better distributor while still putting pressure on defenses with his ability to score. The key to Toronto’s chances beyond the division is whether the frontcourt becomes more productive. Ross should score more, now that he’ll be the starter for the full season. But Valanciunas has to continue his development as a post weapon. That means scoring more efficiently close to the hoop and developing a shot that extends to 15 feet. Toronto should be able to win a playoff series, too. It doesn’t, however, have enough yet to knock off Cleveland or Chicago after that. SPOTLIGHT: Kyle Lowry In the past, it was tough to get anybody who started in Toronto to stay there. You can’t blame it on the city. It’s a cosmopolitan city, with plenty of great restaurants and neighborhoods of nearly every ethnicity imaginable. The weather isn’t great, but it’s not so wonderful during the winter months in about 10 other NBA cities, either. For whatever reason, the stars have left. Vince Carter didn’t stick around. Neither did Tracy McGrady. Nor Chris Bosh. But Kyle Lowry did. After his best statistical season as a pro—17.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 7.4 apg (career bests, all)—Lowry decided he wanted to be part of the Raptor resurgence, so he signed a four-year, $48 million deal in July. When he told Yahoo Sports, “Toronto is just the right place for me,” he was uttering a sentiment that hadn’t been too popular in the past. But Lowry has found a home and a starting gig in Toronto, and it is no surprise that he seems comfortable. He started every game he played last year, something he never did in Memphis or Houston. He has gone from a reserve with the ability to score and inject some energy into the game to someone capable of running the show and a big part of the Toronto turnaround. Lowry can hit the jumper and his tough to handle off the dribble, because of his size. He makes his free throws and is durable. Most of all, he likes where he is. For Raptors fans, that’s a big deal. The question or concern is whether Lowry’s career year was a result of free agency. If Lowry can maintain his production from last year, the Raptors should be in good shape. If post-extension complacency happens, the Raptors shine won’t be quite as brilliant.
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