TORONTO – With all eyes on the other team’s first-year point guard – LaMelo Ball, the Charlotte Hornets’ third-overall pick in last month’s NBA draft – it was Raptors rookie Malachi Flynn, who was selected 26 picks later, that passed the initial eye test in Toronto’s pre-season opening win over Charlotte.
Even with the usual caveats that apply to exhibition games – and considering the fact that they were playing in a fan-less arena – the 22-year-old never seemed fazed or looked out of place.
That poise and professionalism were among the things that stood out to the Raptors when they scouted Flynn at San Diego State and throughout the pre-draft process. They’re qualities that were top of mind when they took him with the 29th-overall pick and are among the reasons why he’s been an early standout in training camp.
“He’s got a similar demeanour to Fred [VanVleet], I think,” head coach Nick Nurse said following his team’s 111-100 win on Saturday. “He’s somewhat quiet, yet still a leader. You don’t ever really see him celebrating and you don’t ever see him really down. He’s got that even-keeled kind of game and composure. He’s a good basketball player and he’s got a great mindset.”
With Kyle Lowry hanging back in Tampa for Toronto’s first two exhibition contests – both of them in Charlotte – and the rest of the starters limited to first-half duties, Nurse was hoping to get a better look at some of his younger players, particularly in the backcourt. Asked whom he was most intrigued to see, the first name Nurse mentioned was Flynn’s.
Making his professional debut, the rookie point guard checked into the game late in the first quarter. If he was experiencing any nerves in that moment – he missed a layup and his first two free throw attempts – they subsided quickly.
“It felt good, just getting out and playing,” said Flynn, who finished with nine points, two rebounds and four assists in 20 minutes off the bench. “I haven’t played a game since March, so definitely some nerves, some excitement, but it was good to get back out there.”
He’s not lacking for confidence – that was apparent right out of the gate. Early in the second quarter, Flynn vaulted up and drained a three-pointer from 26-feet out – his first of three made triples (on six attempts) in the game.
The range on his jumper and his fluid stroke were encouraging, especially after he shot 37 per cent with the Aztecs last season. His command of the offence and decision making with the ball in his hands also came as advertised – he made the right reads and didn’t commit a turnover in his 20 minutes of floor time.
“Malachi’s been great,” said Matt Thomas – another bright spot on Saturday night, hitting four threes and scoring a game-high 16 points playing next to Flynn with the second unit. “He’s caught on to the system and everything that we do here very, very quickly. He’s obviously an extremely smart and skilled player. He’s fun to play with, too. He’s a pass-first point guard, and he sees the floor really well. I’ve just been impressed by him, how professional he is. He comes into work and gets his stuff done. Just how quickly he’s kind of adapted to our offense and our schemes. Defensively, he’s just a smart, high-basketball-IQ player.”
The comparisons to VanVleet aren’t limited to his demeanour. Flynn’s best work came on the defensive end, where – like his new Raptors teammate – he plays bigger than his size (six-foot-one) or athletic profile.
He spent most of his night guarding Charlotte’s best guards, including Ball and Terry Rozier – refusing to give them an inch, while also looking comfortable within the team’s defensive schemes. On one possession early in the fourth quarter, Flynn picked up fellow rookie Grant Riller in the backcourt, switched off onto the six-foot-10 Jalen McDaniels and cut off his drive, forcing the Hornets forward to kick the ball out.
“He did what we’ve been trying to coach him into in the system,” Nurse said of Flynn – the Mountain West defensive player of the year last season. “And similar to Fred, he’s got great side-to-side feet and he’s got a toughness and kind of an attacking mindset at the defensive end. That’s good to see [because] that’s how we like to play.”
It was an interesting juxtaposition, with Flynn and Ball on opposite ends of the court. The 19-year-old Ball also came as advertised. He looked dynamic offensively and made some spectacular passes, including a length-of-the-court heave to former Raptor Bismack Biyombo in the first half and a behind-the-back dish to Miles Bridges in the third quarter.
His upside is immense – he hasn’t even played a game that counts and he’s already one of the best passers in the NBA – but his game is also extremely raw. He can be erratic offensively, seem disinterested at times on defence, and his jumper is going to need work. Despite grabbing 10 rebounds and recording four assists, the Hornets’ talented rookie was held scoreless on 0-of-5 shooting in 16 minutes and committed four turnovers.
On a rebuilding club, Ball will have the opportunity to play through his mistakes, meanwhile Flynn’s more versatile and NBA-ready game should be the perfect fit for a Raptors team that plans to compete atop the Eastern Conference.
Generally, Nurse’s stated preference is to lean on his veterans early in the season – and he’s got a couple great ones in Lowry and VanVleet – and bring young players along slowly.
However, it’s not hard to see Flynn forcing his hand. He earned rave reviews from his coaches and teammates during the first week of training camp in Tampa. On Saturday, he played a prominent role with the bench unit that gave the Raptors a lift after a slow start – they fell behind by 19 points in the first quarter – and helped turn the game around.
With the December 23 season opener against New Orleans just 10 days away, there’s some uncertainty regarding the status of Lowry, who’s absence from the team this week was excused but not entirely explained.
It’s unclear how much he’s participated in camp to this point, if at all, or whether he’ll be available when the Raptors host Miami in their pre-season finale on Friday, but Nurse has indicated they’re just managing his workload and that there’s no cause for concern. That would certainly be understandable, given the short off-season, Lowry’s importance to the team and the fact that he’ll turn 35 in March.
Not only does the addition of Flynn give Toronto some insurance at the position, the rookie will help lessen the toll on Lowry and VanVleet over the course of the season.
We also know that Nurse likes to have multiple point guards on the court at the same time, and with Flynn’s ability to hold his ground defensively against bigger players, like we saw on Saturday, it’s looking more and more like he could open the season in the rotation.