With key players hurt, lesser-known Raptors have chance to open eyes

With key players hurt, lesser-known Raptors have chance to open eyes

Let’s just assume that Scottie Barnes is lost to the Toronto Raptors for the rest of the regular season.

We should get some definitive news on the subject in the coming days. The do-everything, all-star forward wasn’t in the building as the Raptors hosted the visiting Charlotte Hornets on Sunday night in a matchup of two teams trying to play out the string on the season as gracefully as possible.

The only news regarding Barnes and his broken left hand is that “nothing is off the table” in terms of treatment going forward, according to Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic, which leaves the door open for a surgical solution.  Barnes is out of the country, being evaluated by specialists, and whatever the next steps are will be determined based on that appraisal.

Without knowing the details of the fracture to his third metacarpal, it is – obviously – difficult to project a return date for the 22-year-old, who is the Raptors’ leader in total points, rebounds, assists, blocked shots and steals this season.

No player in the league can make the same claim. Barnes’ importance to the Raptors is hard to overstate.

“Scottie’s a big part of what we do, it takes a group effort to make up for what he does,” said Raptors point guard Immanuel Quickley, who had 22 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds in the Raptors’ 111-106 win over Charlotte.  “It takes a lot more effort, honestly. He does so much that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, so a lot of effort things we have to make up for, the intangible things, the extra possessions he gives us, the defensive versatility. So it’s a group effort to make that up.”

It will be a work in progress. The consensus seems to be Barnes will miss four weeks if there is no surgery or double that or more if surgery is required to fix the injury he suffered Friday night when it appeared that Barnes’ hand was inadvertently kicked by Quickley late in the second quarter of a loss to the Golden State Warriors.

“I didn’t even know it until today,” said Quickley. “I called him [Saturday] and even then I didn’t know. I probably got to call him back — ‘my fault bro.’”

So the best case is Barnes being ready to return to the lineup sometime around Easter on March 31, which would leave roughly eight games to play before Toronto wraps its season up April 14 in Miami against the Heat.

If he does require surgery, his impressive third season will be over, and there’s a very real possibility that even if Barnes could be ready to play by early April, the Raptors might shut him down rather than risk a fluke injury late in the year that would set back his off-season training. 

So these are all interesting developments to follow. Perhaps even more so after Raptors centre Jakob Poeltl left the Hornets game after 15 first-half minutes with a dislocation of his baby finger on his left hand. Encouragingly there was no fracture, but we’ll see how long that keeps him out of action. The Raptors went 2-11 when Poeltl sprained his ankle in early January. Over the past 20 games prior to Sunday, the Raptors were outscored by 17.8 points per 100 possessions in the 278 minutes that Barnes didn’t play.

So wins could be few and far between, it seems safe to say.

The Raptors almost gave one away to the lowly Hornets, but they were able to weather their self-inflicted storm. The game was in a good place when RJ Barrett (23 points, nine rebounds, five assists) put Toronto up 10 with 4:24 to play with a lay-up off a feed from Kelly Olynyk. But Toronto promptly gave up an 11-0 run and was down a point when Charlotte’s Davis Bertans hit a three in transition with 1:06 to play.

However, Quickley got himself to the line three straight possessions, made all his free throws and the Raptors were able to improve to 23-38 while the Hornets – led by impressive rookie Brandon Miller (26 points, 10 rebounds) – fell to 15-46.

Technically, the Raptors are still in the hunt for the final spot in the play-in tournament – they are three-and-a-half games behind 10th-place Atlanta. But the more likely scenario – especially with Barnes out and more so if Poeltl misses extended time – is that the final quarter of the season will likely be a launching pad for next season and a chance for players looking to carve out a niche on the team and in the league to solidify their standing.

Take Ochai Agbaji, for example. The second-year wing was acquired at the trade deadline from Utah along with Olynyk and in the space of 48 hours went from being a young role player fighting for rotation minutes to starting in place of Barnes. A run of good performances could change his career.

“I think it’s never taken for granted. Never taking any opportunity that I get, whether it’s five minutes, 30 minutes, whatever it is,” said Agbaji, who made his first start as a Raptor and the 33rd of his career. “Just being in that position, I think is where I want to be and making the most of it is what I’m trying to do.”

The athletic six-foot-five wing showed some flashes. He scored the Raptors’ first four points on a pair of smart cuts to the rim and finished a monster alley-oop in the second quarter after a back cut, all on passes from Poeltl.

“It’s really nice, really, really nice to be found on those cuts,” said Agbaji. “Because it’s always a short window of when you’re open and all that, so having those bigs that can have that ability to pass and play-make like that is really cool. It’s really fun to play with.”

His offence was hit and miss otherwise – he finished six-of-20 from the floor and was one-of-seven from three, which is problematic because being able to knock down a solid percentage on what were mostly open three-point looks will be critical to his ability to stay on the floor in the NBA. But he does plenty of other good things – his best sequence was a block on the Hornets’ Miles Bridges at the rim that he followed up with a nice finish in transition late in the third quarter.

But the most important thing is, he should get more chances: “I talked to the guys individually before the game,” said Rajakovic. “And what I told them was they’re going to have expanded roles and minutes, and I told them, ‘I’m not going to make any conclusions based on one game, good or bad … “

The Raptors got some good moments from Jordan Nwora (11 points in 18 minutes off the bench) and another strong showing from rookie Gradey Dick (11 points, on seven shots, three of five from deep, four rebounds and a steal in 24 minutes) and recent two-way signee DJ Carton, who was energetic on both ends in his 12 minutes.

Even as the Raptors’ season likely slides into a long stretch of so-called meaningless basketball with their best player potentially sidelined for the rest of the year, there is plenty at stake for those looking for a chance to prove they belong.

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