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Malachi Flynn was largely as advertised in his rookie season with the Toronto Raptors.
The No. 29 pick was billed as a polished senior who could immediately contribute at the next level, and while he hardly saw the floor early on because Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet played most of the minutes at point guard, Flynn produced when it was his turn. Over the last six weeks of the year while Lowry and VanVleet mostly sat out, Flynn averaged 12 points, four rebounds and 4.5 assists in 29 minutes per game, setting career highs in scoring (27) and assists (11) while winning Rookie of the Month in April.
But there is still the question of what's next with the 23-year-old, who still wears the label of having a lower ceiling due to his age and size. He's an undersized guard with good but not great quickness, and his shooting isn't as accurate as you would need from someone who can't always get to the rim, so is there a path for Flynn to being a starting level point guard, or will he mostly be a backup?
What Flynn does well
Part of why Flynn is less sexy than other prospects is because he lacks a standout skill. He isn't freakishly athletic like Ja Morant, he's not dropping people with his moves like Kyrie Irving, nor does he inspire wonder with his passing like LaMelo Ball. Flynn's game is being well-rounded, and it's always easier to imagine a next-level athlete fleshing out the rest of their game than it is to expect a jack-of-all-trades to develop an elite skill out of an ordinary set of tools.
But there is value in doing the small things right, and that's where Flynn exceeded expectations. He took good care of the ball, finishing second among rookies with 3.2 assists for every turnover. Flynn was above average defensively, stepping in for charges, catching the attacker by surprise with timely help defence and generally showing a willingness to do the dirty work. Flynn had a game with four steals and three blocks in a win over Washington when Gary Trent Jr. nailed a buzzer-beater, and even while he struggled with his offence early in the season, Flynn was a reliable defender who could effectively contain dribble penetrations from quicker guards. His defence is ahead of his offence at the moment, which is rare for rookies.
Offensively, the one common refrain from teammates and coaches was that Flynn was confident in his ability to score. It didn't look that way at first while Flynn averaged two points on 28 percent shooting in his first 13 games, but a stint in the G League gave him the space to showcase his skillset. Flynn averaged 21 points in six games, topping out with a 35-point performance before he was called up as an emergency reserve in Milwaukee. And while it took another month before Flynn saw time again, he was noticeably more steady. Flynn was far more comfortable as the main ball-handler rather than playing off VanVleet or Lowry, and he showed an ability to score in various pick-and-roll scenarios. Flynn made the pull-up three at a respectable rate (34 percent), was able to turn the corner on most mismatches against wings or bigs, and he could get to the floater if defences denied the three and the rim, although it was rarely his first option.
Perhaps the most impressive flash in Flynn's game was his effectiveness in fourth quarters. Flynn scored double-digits in four fourth quarters, which puts him on par with VanVleet and Pascal Siakam despite playing only half as many minutes, and bested only by Lowry (6). One of Flynn's most memorable sequences was him nailing four threes in the last two minutes in a comeback bid against Atlanta. He was cold through three quarters as he shot 1-for-7 on jumpers, but came alive late and nearly stole the game. And in a season where the Raptors were so abysmal in clutch scenarios, Flynn showed promise in a key area even though it came in a small sample.
What's left to improve
For one, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse disagrees with the idea that Flynn is a finished product. After a 26-point game from Flynn late in the season, Nurse left Flynn with an extensive list of things to improve as if he were an overzealous teacher handing out homework over the summer.
"I think he's at a stage where shooting needs to improve. He's got to really get to work to get those percentages up," Nurse said. "His finishing, I have mentioned that I want him attacking the paint a lot ... We will do our best to get him in some group settings that he can work on each read out of the pick-and-roll, how do you hit the roller from the pocket pass, how do you hit the roller on the lob, how do you fire it out to the corner, if nothing is there how do you Nash out and hit the slot cut, all the reads that he needs to make as well."
It's not surprising that Nurse pointed out the scoring first because Flynn is going to need that aspect to open up the rest of his game. Flynn is not a traditional point guard who calls out the set and then dumps it off to the scorer. He is a modern guard who looks for his own offence and will distribute based on how the defence reacts. In order for his game to work, Flynn needs to establish himself as a threat in the pick-and-roll, where he showed good tools with the pull-up three and the ability to burst to the rim and finish with either hand, along with two counters in the occasional floater and a short turnaround jumper on the baseline. But to be clear, none of those moves stand out nor are they at the level where Flynn would even feature in a scouting report.
Flynn's shortcomings are common to most small guards. He shot 50 percent within five feet of the hoop, which is a step up from VanVleet's 43 percent (he really needs to improve here), but still below league average. Flynn's quickness is his main advantage in getting downhill and he's slippery when attacking bigger players, but he doesn't impact the rim enough as a main playmaker especially when facing a set defence. This led to prolonged stretches in many games where Flynn was passive and unable to generate offence for himself or his teammates.
The other aspect for Flynn to improve is his shooting. He couldn't buy a basket in the first half of the year, shooting just 9-for-36 on jumpers despite only two attempts being contested, but his percentages evened out as he got extended run. Flynn's shot selection could have been better — he took 72 pull-up midrange shots compared to 76 pull-ups from three — but the percentages were acceptable while his form and footwork looked good. He was confident in taking the three when defenders went under screens which is an absolute must for someone who mostly operates in pick-and-roll.
But the area Flynn is most lacking is his ability to play without the ball, which is hardly surprising since this was the first time in his career he played with better playmakers. Flynn hit 40 percent of his catch-and-shoot scenarios after the all-star break, which is a solid mark, but most of those were standstill looks where the ball rotated out to him. Flynn doesn't yet have the feel for hunting his looks away from the play using screens and by relocating like Lowry or VanVleet can, and it's a hugely important skill given that Nurse likes to play dual point lineups. Flynn would also really benefit from extending his range to give himself more space, an addition that helped Lowry and VanVleet elevate their games.
What's in Flynn's future?
Flynn showed enough to earn his spot during a difficult rookie season. From a developmental standpoint, it was almost a wash given the circumstances. There was no Summer League for Flynn to get started, no summer workouts in Los Angeles with his teammates, while training camp and preseason were truncated. Most importantly, the entire G League season was condensed down to a one-month bubble in which Flynn made just six appearances before getting called up because the Raptors suffered a rash of injuries, and then the entire team was rocked by an outbreak that effectively sunk their season.
Even by the time Flynn started getting steady run, the lineup changed so dramatically from game to game with so many core players missing and so many new pieces being integrated that Flynn often found himself responsible for anchoring lineups that were entirely foreign. In the last game of the year, Flynn was the only guard to suit up in a roster of six players while Aron Baynes played small forward (Flynn somehow scored 27 points in this game.)
But uncertainty is also fundamental to life in the NBA, and very few players are afforded the basic decency of deciding their own careers. Flynn showed he can play, which already makes him a success at the 29th pick, but his opportunities will largely be decided by others. If Lowry re-signs and no other major moves are made, Flynn is back to square one sitting on the bench behind two veteran point guards. If Lowry leaves, the Raptors may look to fill his absence by using the No. 4 pick on a playmaker like Jalen Green or Jalen Suggs, which again puts Flynn into more competition for minutes. So even if he improves, the chance might not be there for Flynn to show it.
Odds are that Flynn will spend next season as a backup point guard. The tired comparison between Flynn and VanVleet is playing out in the start to their careers. VanVleet was the Raptors' fourth-string point guard as a rookie, had to grind his way through the G League, and got some reps at the end of the season when others were hurt. By Year 2, VanVleet became captain of the bench mob, which is also where Flynn will likely end up. Flynn struggled as a reserve this season, but this was also true of every single player on the team outside of Chris Boucher and maybe Yuta Watanabe. In any case, with a few upgrades through the draft and in free agency, as well as a clean bill of health to allow some chemistry to form, Flynn should at least be in the rotation as a main piece of the reserves.
He won't be able to determine which chances come to him, but Flynn can control what he does with them. The general impression he made as a rookie was that he was serious, hard-working, skilled and humble. Flynn immediately attached himself to Lowry and VanVleet as his mentors, and more importantly, the vets seemed to reciprocate that same respect. That's where Flynn is most fortunate because there could not be two better players to learn from even if they are the biggest hurdles keeping him from playing more. The concerns of height, long-term potential and the ability to start — these are the same ones Lowry and VanVleet once faced. They were able to answer it, and they spent the year passing that game down to Flynn.
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