The Toronto Raptors knew coming into the offseason that they needed to have options at centre. By all accounts, their frontcourt priority this offseason was to retain last year's bigs, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. But when things started to go the other way late Saturday night with Ibaka signing a multi-year deal to join the Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors moved to Plan B: Aron Baynes.
In a down free agency year, Baynes is a pretty good Plan B. He averaged a career-high 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last season while starting 28 of 42 games for the Phoenix Suns.
He's a better defender than stats indicate.
He said the Raptors were in communication with him early in free agency and made their interest known, but when Ibaka left for L.A., things really began to heat up and eventually the two parties came to a two-year, $14.3 million deal with a non-guaranteed second season.
"I'm excited to get out there first and foremost," Baynes said to open his first Raptors media availability. "So I'm excited to come in, work under Nick Nurse, and get to know the guys."
While the soon-to-be 34-year-old Baynes likely won't be able to produce on the defensive end the way Gasol and Ibaka did last season, he offers some intriguing offensive versatility.
Prior to last season, he had attempted just 89 3-pointers in his entire seven-year NBA career. Then that number skyrocketed last season as he took 168 3s, averaging four attempts per game and shooting 35% from behind the arc.
"It's definitely been an evolution throughout my NBA career," Baynes said.
It wasn't until he arrived in Boston in 2017 that he said he really began devoting time to his 3-point shot. He remembered a conversation he had with Celtics coach Brad Stevens and being told that he needed to take open 3s or he'd be hurting the team. So for the first time in his career, he began letting them fly, shooting 3-for-21 that season.
Today, Baynes is a legitimate floor-spacing centre. Though his shooting percentages aren't astounding by any means, his four attempts per game were the 10th most in the NBA for centres, forcing teams to respect his willingness to shoot. For Raptors coach Nick Nurse, that's an advantage.
"In the early discussions I've had with Nick [Nurse] as well, he said, 'Look, we're going to need you to be aggressive,'" Baynes recalled. "But at the same time, I'm never trying to force it, I'm trying to find the best shot for the team."
But for Baynes to find success in Toronto, it's going to come down to his ability to play defence. His 112 Defensive Rating last season was the worst of his career, but that undoubtedly had more to do with the Suns' lackluster team defence than his own personal inabilities.
"I always love playing defence," he said. "I think that is where you can really change a game and I always try and lock in on that first and foremost."
From playing against Toronto so many times over the years, Baynes said he knows that's what it's going to take to stay on the floor.
"I’ve experienced the other side of it as well and I know that when you can take away people’s momentum it definitely changes the game," he said. "That is something Toronto has been able to do over the last few years numerous times."
Now, with the starting job expected to be in hand, Baynes will finally have an opportunity to really show what he can do for the first time in his career.