If the Toronto Raptors had this way this season, Malachi Flynn's year would have been very, very different.
Ideally, Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, Flynn would have spent much of this season playing in the G League with the Raptors 905, getting reps to develop his game on the court. It would have been the traditional developmental path the Raptors have almost perfected at this point. But this year, the best-laid plans have gone to waste.
Flynn played in all of six games in the G League, partially due to the league's truncated season, partially due to some injuries with the Raptors and COVID-19 issues. For comparison, Fred VanVleet played 518 minutes in the G League during his rookie season. For Flynn, it was 207 minutes of development down in the G League's Orlando Bubble.
So, it's been a little up-and-down, start-and-stop for Flynn this season who watched his minutes balloon to 18 one night early in the season only to see them drop down to two the next night and zero the following.
"It’s different, it’s something that I never had to deal with before," Flynn said last week of his constantly changing role.
But lately, with Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet both battling injuries, Flynn has been given a longer leash. He's played over 30 minutes in the last two games and his play has impressed Nurse.
Had you told Flynn that his defence would be ahead of his offensive game when he was drafted back in November, he said he would have thought you were crazy. Flynn was an offensive wizard in college, particularly adept at handling the pick-and-roll. So it was natural to think his offensive game would transfer to the NBA first. But that hasn't entirely been the case.
Defensively, Flynn has looked an awful lot like Fred VanVleet. The 22-year-old said he looked up to VanVleet in college and used to watch the Raptors star on TV trying to focus on the way VanVleet played defence. It was one thing, Flynn said, to watch VanVleet on television, but a whole other thing to watch him in person.
"He's a lot better defender than I thought just watching on TV," Flynn said. "So, [I'm] just trying to pick up different things that he does. He's a smart defender, [but] you can only learn so much by watching."
It appears as though Flynn has picked up a trick or two from working with VanVleet. He has shown that VanVleet-esque strip play in the last few games, typically reserved for when an offensive player isn't paying attention.
"I think he’s learning a lot from his veterans that he’s playing behind because he’s making a lot of similar plays," Nurse said of Flynn. "Instinctual, anticipation, quick hands, all those things come into play when you’re making plays like that."
Flynn even channeled his inner VanVleet after the game, complaining about the three so-called blocks he recorded and begging for those to be counted as steals.
On the defensive end, Nurse seems pretty content with how Flynn has developed. The coaching staff has asked Flynn to get a little dirty, as Nurse likes to say, and he's responded by collecting six steals — nine if you include his 'blocks' — in the past two games combined.
Surprisingly, considering Flynn's college career, it's Flynn's offence that Nurse would like to see a little bit more from.
"We've asked him to really start attacking the rim, right, and he's just got to be more aggressive, like right up the floor, when he sees an opening he's got to shoot in there," Nurse said. "If he can blast through there and gets a few layups here and there that goes a long way to helping our offense."
On Monday he showed some of that. Eight of his 16 points came inside the paint and he worked well with Toronto's bigs handling the pick-and-roll.
It's not necessarily about scoring, though points are indeed nice, it's more about forcing the defence to collapse and creating opportunities for others. Flynn did that perfectly on that last clip, attacking the rim, drawing in multiple defenders, and then threading the pass to Pascal Siakam for an easy dunk.
Going forward, it's not such a bad thing if Flynn's defence is ahead of his offensive game right now. For one, Nurse has traditionally preferred defensive intangibles than offensive skill if he's been forced to pick between the two. Then there's the fact that Flynn is by nature a talented scorer who is still trying to figure out the league and that will come, DeAndre' Bembry said.
"I think it's just more so, just him learning his spots. I think that's the biggest thing in this league. Everybody has their go-to shots or go-to area on the court where they try to go to. I think he's going to be good," Bembry said. "Offensively, he's gifted. He can score the ball from the 3 and obviously finish. He was finishing over Alex Len tonight with contact with his off-hand, so that's the last thing we're worried about."
Flynn should get another chance to show off those skills and stay aggressive on Tuesday night against the Lakers. VanVleet has already been ruled out with a left hip injury and based on Nurse's post-game comments on Monday it seems quite possible that Flynn will be tabbed for the start. This kind of constant playing time is the kind of development Toronto wanted to give Flynn this season. It would have been nice if it didn't come at the expense of VanVleet and Lowry's health, but Flynn is certainly making the most of his time and showing that Toronto's future remains bright.