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Who's leading the charge, and who's taking the back-seat approach after one month?

If you have read any of my recaps or freestyle posts over the last month or so, you know that I was keenly interested in how the Raptors fared over the first 17 games of the season (through the end of November).

I thought the answer would give us a good indication of what type of team we were dealing with this year.

With a tough schedule in the opening month that included playing most of the legit title contenders and a couple of tough road trips, I thought that a 5-12 or 6-11 record should have the team and fans content. That record fell in line with my pre-season prediction of about 35 wins and a 10th place finish in the East.

Well, what do you know? The Raptors escape November at 6-11, with wins over Orlando and Boston to their credit, and a couple of spirited efforts against the Lakers and Heat. As a team, the Raptors may have surpassed expectations for the month, at least lived up to them.

But what about from an individual standpoint? For a young team learning to grow together, the development of the Raptors’ young talent will be more relevant than their win-total.

So, after one month, 17 games and six wins, here’s my evaluation of the 15 players that make up the Toronto Raptors, to date.

Solomon Alabi – We knew what we were getting when the Raptors traded for Alabi on draft night; a project. Anyone who thought the young Nigerian could make an impact this season was dreaming. He’s played a grand total of less than a minute for the Raptors, I believe, and is developing as we speak in the D-League with Erie Bayhawks. Alabi is averaging 9.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.75 blocks  in 21.5 minutes per game in four games with Erie. If he keeps putting up solid numbers in the D-League, perhaps an opportunity will present itself this season.

Leandro Barbosa – I don’t think Barbosa has been as good as advertised so far this season, but he’s also been far from a bust. He was probably the Raptors best player in the pre-season, but a wrist injury in the final pre-season game in Montreal and a shoulder injury earlier this season seem to have seriously hampered his season. When healthy, the Brazilian Blur has still shown the eye-popping quickness that once made him a star, and he is one of the few Raptors that usually decides to attack the basket. If you believed he could be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Toronto, then you probably see him as a major disappointment. But if you simply wanted him to be a solid contributor off the bench, you probably don’t have much to complain about.

Andrea Bargnani – He still struggles with help-side defence and the fundamental skill of boxing out, but let’s admit it together, Andrea Bargnani has upped his game so far this season. He has shoudlered the offensive load with Bosh gone, and has seemed more than happy to do it. Il Mago has expanded his offensive game to a nice mix of inside-outside, and is one of, if not the best, scoring centres in the league. His rebounding numbers dipped while Reggie Evans pulled down every board available, but with Evans out indefinitely, I think we’ll see Andrea’s numbers at least return to last year’s average. He’s no All Star, yet, but Bargnani is improving, and people are taking notice.

Jerryd Bayless – Finally, Bryan Colangelo made a move with the future in mind. And what a move it was, if you believe, like me , that Jerryd Bayless can become a star in this league. In three games with the Raptors, Bayless has struggled shooting the ball, but has shown an intensity on the defensive end and a knack for getting to the basket like no point guard this franchise has seen in years. It might take him a while to get acclimated to the offence, but once he does, and things start clicking, Bayless will become a major contributor to this team. Both this season and for the foreseeable future.

Jose Calderon – I’m one of the biggest Calderon doubters out there, so it means a lot if I’m saying he has impressed me this season. His jump-shot seems to be slowly coming back to him, as does his burst, and while his defence is still laughable, he no longer looks like the worst defensive player in the NBA. He still would have been the better point guard to trade for obvious reasons, but it looks like he’s stuck here, so let’s make it work. If he can run the offence effectively, put in an honest effort on defence, mentor Jerryd Bayless and eventually let Bayless take the starting job, I’ll have nothing to complain about. Having said all that, I expect that in a few weeks, I’ll be ranting and raving again when Jose proves he should not be starting in the NBA.

Ed Davis – Up until now, much of the debate about Davis has been whether or not he was classy for trying to interact with the fans, or incredibly stupid for risking injury to play in a bush-league pick-up game. With news that the 21-year-old Tar Heel should make his NBA debut on Wednesday, it looks like we’ll finally be able to discuss his game. He averaged 10 points, five rebounds and three blocks in 17.5 minutes per game in two games with Erie. Those are impressive numbers. Come into the Association, don’t try to do too much, play D, contest shots, and take what comes to you offensively. Those are the things I’m looking for from Davis in his first season. It will be interesting to see how Triano handles the rookie’s minutes.

DeMar DeRozan – This is going to be a frustrating season for DeRozan supporters. He has had games (Orlando) where he looks like a budding star ready to break out, and others where he looks like a deer in headlights. I guess inconsistency is to be expected from the second-year player, but DeMar needs to find a groove quickly. If his numbers are slacking but he’s attacking the basket and getting to the line, fans will forgive. If he’s playing like the shy kid on the playground while admitting he’s slacking, things could get ugly.

Joey Dorsey – We haven’t seen enough from Dorsey in a Raptors uniform, but Reggie’s injury likely means we’ll see a lot more in the coming weeks. In the small sample we have seen, Dorsey looks like a physical big who, like Reggie, knows his role and chases every loose ball. His rebounding efficiency will not compare to Evans’, but he has more finish around the rim and should provide some quality minutes here and there.

Reggie Evans – Reggie was, without question, the most pleasant surprise of the early season in Toronto. His hustle and energy became infectious on the floor, and it makes you wonder how much this young team will miss their vocal leader. Sitting in the top-three in the NBA with over 12 rebounds per game, you could make the argument that Reggie Evans is the most valuable player to this team. Time will tell if that is true, but for now, Reggie just has to work on getting back to 100 per cent.

Amir Johnson – I don’t know if you can say that Johnson has been a disappointment so far, but most would agree they may have expected too much, too soon. Amir’s penchant for picking up quick, silly fouls is still haunting him. Until he can learn to limit those calls, his numbers will continue to hover where they are and his place will remain on the Raptors’ bench. Though you have to wonder, in a season that’s supposed to be about development, what’s the harm in starting Amir and letting him foul out every night?

Linas Kleiza – He has been the biggest disappointment for me through 17 games. I didn’t, like some people. expect him to come in and take on the role of primary scorer. But I did expect him to put up more than 10 points per game and shoot better than 25 per cent from three-point range. I think we forget that Kleiza is only 25 and, like most of the roster, still has room to grow. But he is supposed to be one of the more polished Raptors, and he has only shown that in glimpses so far. If the Raptors are to succeed this season, they need more from Kleiza, bottom line.

Peja Stojakovic – Peja probably more showed more game in his first two appearances than most assumed he would show all season. But now he’s banged up and many, including myself, are questioning what his role on this team is. If the Raptors want to surprise some teams this season and squeak into the playoffs, Stojakovic could help get them there. If it really is all about the future, find a deal that works for all parties.

Sonny Weems – No one could have predicted that Weems would be the team’s second-leading scorer through 17 games. Sonny’s mid-range game continues to improve while he reminds us that he’s still a force when he decides to attack. I’d still like to see him attack more often on offence, but if his jumper keeps falling and he continues to play defence, he will have a place in the future of this franchise.

Julian Wright – This guy’s been the epitome of a pro in his limited appearances this season. He works his butt off on the defensive end, never gives up on a play, comes up with timely steals and blocks, shows some finish around the basket and rarely settles for poor shots that disrupt the offence. I think it would be wise to see what Wright can bring you on a consistent basis. It doesn’t hurt to have another athletic wing pushing Weems, DeRozan and Kleiza for minutes.

The Atlanta Hawks have had the Toronto Raptors’ number since last season — Atlanta won the 2009-10 season series 3-1 but the Raptors’ win was by one point while the Hawks’ average margin of victory in their three wins was 19.7 points. So yesterday’s 18-point loss was pretty much par for the course. The Raptors got blown out when they stopped hitting their shots in the second half and the Hawks had a comfortable 20-point lead after three quarters.

Three-point shooting was the primary differentiator in this matchup as the Hawks went 8-for-18 from that range while the Raptors only made one of their 12 trey attempts. Poor outside shooting has been an ongoing problem for this team and it shows in their 29th-ranked .308 three-point percentage. It’s tough to compete in the NBA these days if you can’t hit the long ball. Maybe we need Peja Stojakovic for more than just his expiring contract.

Marvin Williams sank a critical dagger with three minutes to go in the third quarter when his three-pointer gave the Hawks an 18-point lead. I know he’s not a renowned long bomber, but that doesn’t mean that Linas Kleiza should simply ignore him on the perimeter as he did here. Credit goes to Josh Smith for setting Williams up with one of his 10 assists that give him a triple double of 12, 13 and 10 on the day.

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Josh Smith and the Hawks had their way with the lethargic Raptors

The Raptors came in looking for a fourth straight home win and another Sunday afternoon stunner. The Hawks were less than 24 hours removed from a solid win at Madison Square Garden. Toronto was not expected to get the W, but was at least expected to compete, given the way the season has gone thus far.

So much for that.

The Raptors came out with adequate energy in the first quarter, and traded blows with the Hawks in a high-scoring opening 12 minutes. In the second quarter, Atlanta began to pull away, and the Raps showed signs of settling for poor shots. Toronto ended the half down by only six and were still in a game they didn’t deserve to be in, setting themselves up for a chance to steal one in the second half.

That’s where all hope died.

The Raptors shot a disastrous 3-of-17 from the field in the third quarter, netting just 11 points. Atlanta’s lead stretched and stretched as the quarter wore on, and the Hawks opened up a 20-point advantage to take into the fourth.

It was the Raptors who looked like a team coming off of a back-to-back, as they seemed to stop running and got noticeably lazy on the offensive end.

If someone had told you at halftime that the Hawks would only have 44 second-half points, you probably would have assumed that the Raptors had a good chance for the win. Too bad the Raps responded with only 32.

There was a stretch in the third when the Hawks went scoreless on five straight possessions, opening up an opportunity for the Raptors to chip away. Toronto came away with a measly two points during that stretch.

From an individual standpoint, there wasn’t much to like either. Andrea Bargnani had 12 and five after one half, and looked unstoppable again on the offensive end. He finished with just 14 and 6 after getting into foul trouble.

Joey Dorsey posted a solid line of nine points and six rebounds in just 20 minutes of action as a starter, but his hustle didn’t seem to have the same infectious effect as Reggie’s.

DeMar DeRozan’s game remained questionable, to say the least. DeMar refused to get involved until the game had already been decided. Don’t let his 13 points fool you; 10 came in a meaningless fourth quarter. If DeRozan wants to become a consistent contributor this season, he needs to stay aggressive and earn his teammates’ trust with the ball.

The only Raptor who did set his mind to attack mode was Jerryd Bayless, but he was given just 18 minutes of burn in what was one of Jay Triano’s numerous questionable decisions.

Jose didn’t have it today and it was evident early. Barbosa wasn’t much better. Sounds like a perfect game to see what Jerryd can give you, no? Not according to Triano. The most frustrating sequence came early in the fourth quarter. Bayless is attacking the basket on every possession and at least trying to make things happen. The Raptors are down 22 with only nine minutes left. And Triano goes back to Jose for the next six minutes.

I guess it’s not like Bayless could use those minutes, right? So much for letting Jerryd play.

Another head-scratcher came in the third quarter. Kleiza isn’t doing much offensively, so you figure he has to play well on the other end to warrant staying on the floor. Then, Josh Smith absolutely abuses Linas on three or four straight possessions. Fans are moaning, Smith is laughing and the very next play, Kleiza is still on the floor, guarding Josh again. A young boy beside me, maybe around 12-years-old, looks at his Dad and asks, “why don’t they bench no. 11 and try someone else on Smith?”

Jay, you’ve done a great job getting the best out of your guys this year, but today, you could have taken suggestions from children in attendance.

Lastly, I realized today that most Raptors fans do understand what this year is about. If today’s effort was on display last season, or in a season with any expectations at all, the Raptors would have been booed off the floor, and rightfully so.  But there was a sense of  “this will happen sometimes this season” in the crowd, and other than a few hecklers here and there, the fans were rather forgiving.

Raptors Player of the Game: Joey Dorsey – 20 Min, 9 Pts, 4-6 FG, 1-2 FT, 6 Reb, 2 Ast

Hawks Player of the Game: Josh Smith – 37 Min, 12 Pts, 4-10 FG, 0-2 3Pt, 4-6 FT, 13 Reb, 10 Ast, 3 Stl, 2 Blk

Goat of the Game: Jose Calderon – 30 Min, 3 Pts, 1-7 FG, 1-1 FT, 5 Reb, 5 Ast, 2 Stl, 3 TO (Most of the Raptors could have filled this spot today)

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Bosh doesn't seem to be enjoying life in the background

How about this Raptors team over the last 24 hours?

First they get a big win in Orlando on Friday night, then a day later they give the Heat all they can handle in Miami. The Heat were waiting at home after a tough loss and the Raps were coming off a hard-fought win, not to mention were missing three key players in Barbosa, Kleiza and Evans. Everyone would have been wise to predict a Heat blowout.

Miami looked ready to confirm that through the first few minutes, opening a quick 7-0 lead and controlling the game for most of the first half. Having said that, the Raptors looked fatigued and couldn’t buy a basket, so it was a little surprising to look at the score at the half and see Miami up by only 13.

In the second half, the Raptors’ hustle and heart really came through. Everybody made a contribution in some way, from Joey Dorsey grabbing 11 rebounds to Bargnani’s 22 points despite an ugly shooting night. What was once an 18-point ball game in the third quarter was down to four at one point in the fourth. Jose Calderon, who has played well off the bench in his last few road games, deserves credit for getting the offence rolling again.

On to Bosh and the Heat.

A couple of things stand out. The team as a whole looks rather pedestrian; more of a solid playoff team than a championship contender right now. The Lakers and Celtics would have absolutely punished the Raptors’ heavy legs, but Miami allowed Toronto to hang with them most of the night.

And as for Mr. Bosh. Let’s call a spade a spade. He is a role player for this team right now. 12 points and six boards in 21 minutes isn’t an awful line by any stretch, but the fact he only played 21 minutes, and was benched in favour of Udonis Haslem and Zydrunas Ilgauskas down the stretch (I realize he was in foul trouble), goes to show you how much faith Spoelstra and the Heat have in Bosh right now.

I thought it was ludicrous that people were bringing up possible trade scenarios for Bosh already. After watching this game, and watching Bosh mope on the bench while the rest of his team celebrated a win, I now believe Chris’s stint in South Beach may be over before it ever began. It’s definitely a situation to keep your eye on.

Back to the Raptors. What should have been another disastrous road trip is actually setting up quite nicely right now. If they bring the same effort and intensity into Washington and Philly, the Raps can win one or both of those games.

Raptors Player of the Game: DeMar DeRozan – 42 Min, 21 Pts, 7-12 FG, 0-1 3Pt, 7-11 FT, 6 Reb, 3 Ast, 1 Stl

Heat Player of the Game: Dwyane Wade – 35 Min, 31 Pts, 11-16 FG, 0-1 3Pt, 9-14 FT, 8 Reb, 2 Ast, 1 Blk

Goat of the Game: Jarrett Jack – 23 Min, 3 Pts, 1-6 FG, 0-2 3Pt, 1-1 FT, 5 Reb, 3 Ast, 1 TO

One of the oft-repeated phrases by supporters of Andrea Bargnani this off-season is that he will most likely increase his rebounds from 6.2 per game last season to between 8 and 9 per game next season now that Chris Bosh is no longer with the team. Considering that Bosh averaged 10.8 rebounds per game last season to finish sixth in the NBA in that category, it’s understandable on a surface level where this belief comes from. The question I’ll try to answer with this post is: Should we really expect the Raptors to experience a rebounding downgrade from Bosh’s replacements?

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