TORONTO – With all eyes on the other team’s first-year point guard – LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets’s third overall choice in last month’s NBA draft – was Raptors debutant Malachi Flynn, who was selected 26 choices later, who passed the initial vision 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 an arena without fans – the 22-year-old never looked disturbed or out of place.
That stance and professionalism were among the things that stood out for the Raptors when they patrolled Flynn in the state of San Diego and throughout the pre-draft process. These are qualities that were at the top when they chose him with the 29th choice in general and are among the reasons why he excelled at the beginning of the training field.
“He behaves similarly to Fred [VanVleet], I think, ”said coach Nick Nurse after his team’s 111-100 victory on Saturday. “He’s a little bit quiet, but still a leader. You never see him really celebrating and you never see him really depressed. He has that kind of balanced game and composure. He is a good basketball player and has a great mentality. “
With Kyle Lowry late in Tampa for the first two Toronto exhibition competitions – both in Charlotte – and the rest of the starting lineers limited to first-time tasks, Nurse hoped to get a better look at some of his younger players, especially in the backcourt. Asked who he was most intrigued to see, the first name the nurse mentioned was Flynn.
Making his professional debut, the debutant guard entered the game at the end of the first quarter. If he was feeling nervous at the time – he lost a tray and his first two free-throw attempts – they quickly decreased.
“It was good to just go out and play,” said Flynn, who finished with nine points, two rebounds and four assists in 20 minutes off the bench. “I haven’t played since March, so definitely some nervousness, some emotion, but it was good to be back there.”
He has no lack of confidence – that was evident from the start. Early in the second half, Flynn jumped and drained a three-point ball 26 feet apart – his first of three triples (in six attempts) in the game.
His jump range and fluid stroke were encouraging, especially after he hit 37 percent with the Aztecs last season. His dominance of attack and decision-making with the ball in his hands also came as advertised – he did the right readings and didn’t make a comeback in his 20 minutes of play.
“Malachi has been great,” said Matt Thomas – another bright spot on Saturday night, hitting four three and scoring the game’s best 16 points by playing alongside Flynn with the second unit. “He understood the system and everything we do here very, very quickly. He is obviously an extremely intelligent and skilled player. He’s also fun to play with. He is a point guard who passes first and sees the ground very well. I just got impressed with him, how professional he is. He gets to work and does his thing. How quickly did he adapt to our attack and our schemes. Defensively, he is just a basketball player with a high IQ. “
Comparisons with VanVleet are not limited to their behavior. Flynn’s best work came on the defensive end, where – as his new teammate Raptors – he plays more than his size (1.80 m) or athletic profile.
He spent most of his night protecting Charlotte’s best guards, including Ball and Terry Rozier – refusing to give in a little while looking comfortable within the team’s defensive schemes. With a possession at the start of the fourth period, Flynn caught fellow newcomer Grant Riller on the backcourt, went down to nearly two-meter Jalen McDaniels and stopped the shot, forcing the Hornets to kick the ball out.
“He did what we were trying to train him on the system,” said the Nurse about Flynn – last year’s defensive player in Mountain West. “And similar to Fred, he has great feet from side to side and a tenacity and attack mentality on the defensive end. Good to see [because] that’s how we like to play. “
It was an interesting juxtaposition, with Flynn and Ball on opposite sides of the court. The 19-year-old dance also came as announced. He looked offensive dynamically and made some spectacular passes, including a long turnaround on the court for the former Raptor Bismack biyombo in the first half and a plate behind your back to Miles Bridges in the third quarter.
His advantage is immense – he hasn’t even played a game that counts and is already one of the best passers in the NBA – but his game is also extremely raw. He can be offensive erratic, at times he seems disinterested in defense and his jumper will need repairs. Despite catching 10 rebounds and registering four assists, the talented Hornets rookie was kept goalless in 0 of 5 shots in 16 minutes and made four turns.
In a club under reconstruction, Ball will have the opportunity to overcome his mistakes, while Flynn’s most versatile and NBA-ready game should be the perfect fit for a Raptors team that plans to compete at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Generally, Nurse’s stated preference is to trust her veterans early in the season – and he has some great ones in Lowry and VanVleet – and to bring in young players slowly.
However, it is not difficult to see Flynn forcing his hand. He received rave reviews from his coaches and teammates during the first week of the training camp in Tampa. On Saturday, he played a prominent role with the bank unit that gave the Raptors a boost after a slow start – they were left behind by 19 points in the first quarter – and helped turn the tide.
With the December 23 season opening against New Orleans just 10 days away, there is some uncertainty about the status of Lowry, whose absence this week was justified, but not fully explained.
It is unclear how much he participated in the camp up to this point, whether it was, or whether he will be available when the Raptors receive Miami in its pre-season final on Friday, but the Nurse indicated that they are only managing their cargo of work and that there is 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 turns 35 in March.
The addition of Flynn not only gives Toronto some insurance on the position, the rookie will help to lower the tribute to Lowry and VanVleet throughout the season.
We also know that Nurse likes to have several point guards on the court at the same time, and with Flynn’s ability to stand defensively against bigger players, as we saw on Saturday, it is increasingly looking like he can open the season in rotation.