Back at the start of this decade, the Toronto Raptors were a rudderless mess, reeling from the departure of Chris Bosh and desperately seeking an identity. As a reprieve from the night-to-night drudgery those Andrea Bargnani-led teams slogged through, the organization and its fans focused almost solely on boosting a group of moderately promising young players - DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, and Sonny Weems - collectively dubbed the Young Gunz (or Young Ones, in MLSE-speak).
At the time, with the Raptors rooting around in the thick of the doldrums, it felt like there was a lot of wishful thinking and desperate marketing gimmickry baked into that campaign. But, lo and behold, DeRozan blossomed into a multiple All-Star and franchise cornerstone, and he and Johnson helped usher in the most successful era in Raptors history.
That era is ongoing, but the past few years have established a pretty firm ceiling for the current core, and in many ways the team came into this season seeking a new identity once again. Masai Ujiri's talk of a "culture reset" sounded nice it theory, but it became a punchline when the team's significant personnel remained virtually unchanged. Enter the next wave of Raptors youngs: a group of unique, fun, mutually complementary prospects - almost all of whom were drafted in the late first or second round, if at all - who are nudging the ceiling higher while combining to form one of the league's deadliest bench mobs. More than anything, they are what's made the culture shift possible. And as essential and iconic as DeRozan and Johnson ultimately became to the franchise, this group feels worthier of the Young Gunz hype.
This group won't be saddled with the burden of reversing a woebegone franchise's fortunes, but some of its members will be tasked with sustaining the team's success once the three-year window Ujiri established for the DeRozan-Kyle Lowry-Serge Ibaka-Jonas Valanciunas group closes. They don't all need to make DeRozan-like leaps for that to happen, but at least one of them does.
Twenty-one games into his pro career, Anunoby looks like the crown jewel of the Raptors' youth movement, and probably their greatest hope for a future foundational star. Toronto is the only NBA team to have never produced an All-Defensive first- or second-teamer. Anunoby is as good a bet as any to eventually end that 23-year drought.
The rookie forward - who isn't even supposed to be playing right now, let alone playing his way into Dwane Casey's starting lineup and occasionally locking down the likes of James Harden - has a combination of strength, length, footwork, and recovery speed that allows him to corral ball-handlers, hold his own in the post, and hunt for steals without wiping himself out of the play. He's already shown the ability to guard all three frontcourt positions, and once his burst comes all the way back and he adjusts to the speed of the NBA, he should add both backcourt positions to his list of defensive qualifications.
The offensive end of the floor is where Anunoby's projection is murky. His passing and 3-point shooting have been pleasant early surprises, but he still spends most of his time in the corners, and doesn't have much in-between to his game. He's been a savage when attacking along the baseline, but most of his north-south drives look unnatural.
Still, he's posting 60.6 percent true shooting, with a shot profile incepted from Daryl Morey's dreams. The 20-year-old has a long way to go, but the fuzzy outline of a star is there.
Poeltl is already the Raptors' best defensive big man, and arguably their best defender, period. He's nimble and intelligent, with impeccable defensive timing. He's almost never late on help assignments. After being plagued by foul trouble in his rookie season, he's learned to rely more on his quick feet and use his hands less. (He's also learned to not be a rookie, which helps with the whistle). He may need to fill out his frame if he's to improve as a post defender and defensive rebounder, but the Raptors will likely be cautious about bulking him up given how that route has played out for Valanciunas.
Offensively, Poeltl is a glue guy in the truest sense - he fills gaps, flashing into open space the moment it opens; and he makes snap decisions, allowing one action to flow seamlessly into the next. He has soft hands, and has improved by leaps and bounds as a pick-and-roll finisher. He's shown the ability to make reads and pick out corner shooters in 4-on-3 situations. He is a sorcerer capable of conjuring offensive rebounds out of thin air.
Poeltl's potential is hamstrung mainly by his lack of shooting range and ball-handling ability, which limit how often he can be on the floor (particularly if he continues to clank his free throws). Poeltl isn't a DeAndre Jordan- or Clint Capela-like lob threat who can create gravity without the benefit of a jump shot, nor is he a Rudy Gobert-esque vertical freak who can protect the rim so well his offense becomes basically irrelevant. There are almost no roadblocks to Poeltl becoming a solid starting center, but the roadblocks to stardom are real.
A pair of shoulder dislocations have interrupted Wright's progress the past two years, and the spindly combo guard has played just 68 NBA games since being drafted in 2015 - which wouldn't necessarily be a big deal if he weren't already in his age-26 season.
But while Wright's age ostensibly caps his upside, and his NBA sample remains small, he's flashed tantalizing skills to go along with his immense physical tools. He's a crafty ball-handler with point-guard vision and, at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-7.5 wingspan, shooting-guard size. He's already a masterful disruptor at the defensive end. His hands live inside passing lanes. Dribble-handoffs are not safe in his vicinity. He ranks ninth in the league in deflections per 36 minutes, and third among guards. For his career, he's averaging 1.8 steals and 0.7 blocks per 36. His ability to guard up a position allows the Raptors to thrive playing two- or even three-point guard lineups.
His jump shot still needs a lot of work, but he finishes everything around the rim, and is shooting an insane 70.3 percent on two-pointers this season. Coupled with his 93.8 percent free-throw shooting, he's posting an elite 67 percent true shooting mark (good for 14th in the league), which, for a guard who doesn't hit threes, is as impressive as it is unsustainable. There's still plenty of room for Wright to improve, but in a point guard-rich league, he probably tops out as a low-end starter.
His future in Toronto isn't crystal clear, either. He'll be extension-eligible next year, with restricted free agency beckoning a year after that if no deal gets done. Will the Raptors have enough data points by then to invest in him long-term? Will the injuries be a recurring issue? And if the Raptors decide to swing a big trade, will their backcourt depth make Wright expendable? Worthwhile questions all, but for now, he's the most likely player to eventually take the starting point guard torch from Lowry.
Siakam has been a whiz-bang ball of hustle since he entered the league last year, but the tools he honed (or in some cases, outright crafted) this offseason have made him into something more. Suddenly, he can face up, make plays off the dribble, finish in traffic, and make productive passes on the move. Suddenly, he can harness his manic kinetic energy into controlled, multi-positional defense. As a rookie, he looked like a more natural center, but he's quickly grown into something resembling a modern power forward.
Siakam may be the most dynamic of the Raptors' youngs at present, but he's also the most difficult to project. How long will he be able to catch teams off guard with leak-outs and cuts? How long will he be able to get by mostly on speed? And when he no longer can, what will be left? Much will rest on whether he can hone his 3-point shot, which has shown signs of viability but mostly remains a significant work in progress, in terms of both accuracy and mechanics.
Continuing to refine his offensive game could mean the difference between Siakam topping out as a Kenneth Faried-level energizer - useful but inherently limited - or becoming a well-rounded starter that defenses have to pay attention to. The safe money is on him topping out somewhere in the middle, but the fact that he's made such huge strides in such a short amount of time is cause for optimism.
Coming into the season, Powell was probably the young Raptor with the highest expectations and rosiest long-term projection. The team expressed its faith in his ability by handing him a four-year, $42-million extension - the maximum it could offer - despite his pedestrian counting stats and small-ish 2,000-minute sample.
It was easy to see why. Powell had flashed strong (if sporadic) perimeter defense, shot 40.4 percent from 3-point range as a rookie, and proved himself a big-moment performer by effectively saving the Raptors' bacon in their first-round playoff series in both 2016 and 2017. Those bona fides still mostly apply, but Powell's 3-point shooting has stabilized around 35 percent, his overall progress has been a slow burn, and at 24, he's older than your average third-year player.
The good news is Powell has already established a high floor as a rotation player with major two-way impact potential on any given night. He's a monster in transition, a relentless driver, an expert jumper of passing lanes, a capable ball-handler, and, by all accounts, a tireless worker. But it's hard to project him as a future star given the extent to which other areas of his game remain underdeveloped. His vision is limited, and his growth as a playmaker has been modest. He struggles to create in the half-court, and has shown virtually no ability to shoot off the dribble. His effort at one end of the floor often comes at the expense of the other.
That's not to say any or all of those things won't improve, but given where he's at on the development curve, Powell projects more as a high-end role player in the Avery Bradley mold than as a future All-Star.
Credit coach Casey for sticking with VanVleet through a tough start to the season. Casey's faith has been rewarded in a massive way, with the scrappy point guard providing a stabilizing presence in the absence of Wright (though stabilizing may not be a strong enough word when VanVleet is carrying the third-best individual net rating in the whole damn league).
VanVleet plays with all the chip-on-shoulder pride you'd expect from an undersized dude who lacks elite quickness or athleticism and didn't get drafted. He gets by on effort and smarts and a reliable 3-point stroke; he plays within himself and makes sound decisions; he fights like a maniac through screens, battles bigger guys in the post, and is an altogether better defender than he has any right to be. Is this ... sounding familiar?
The Lowry comparison is tempting - not least because VanVleet specifically cites him as a mentor and inspiration - but it's a bit facile, and far-fetched. (For Lowry to have reached the All-NBA level he has, with his physical profile, is some needle-in-a-haystack stuff.) Still, the fact that VanVleet is effectively serving as an understudy to the game's preeminent pitbull bodes well for his future.
It's just unclear if that future will be with the Raptors. VanVleet is still the Raptors' third-string point guard, and they'll likely have to pay him like a second-stringer if they hope to bring him back as a restricted free agent this summer. They'll be able to match any offer sheet, but if VanVleet keeps playing the way he's been playing, some team is going to offer him legit backup money. Given their investment in Lowry and Wright, the Raptors may well have to let him walk.