Raptors pick potential Gary Trent Jr. replacement at NBA draft

Ja’Kobe Walter has been billed as a shooter and has long arms and good defensive instincts.

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The Toronto Raptors opted on upside with the 19th pick of Wednesday’s NBA draft. Ja’Kobe Walter, a guard billed as a strong athlete who can shoot and defend was the pick. Walter, 6-foot-4 with a Raptors-esque 6-foot-10 wingspan, isn’t the playmaker the team could use behind Immanuel Quickley, but he a potential replacement for free agent shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. and an option to guard bigger wings as well.

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Walter will turn 20 in September and averaged 14.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.1 steals in his lone season with Baylor. Despite his nice-looking shot, Walter hit only 37.6% of his attempts, including 34.1% from three-point range, though he was at 79.2% from the free throw line, shot well in high school, and has good mechanics. He also attacked the paint when he wasn’t launching three-pointers, getting to the line often. Baylor was eliminated in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but Walter was named BIg-12 rookie of the year and the thinking is with better teammates and more refinement he could be a nice rotation piece for years to come.

The Raptors seemed thrilled to land him. General manager Bobby Webster said just before Midnight Thursday they weren’t sure if Walter would still be on the board, but the easy consensus in the war room was that he was the best player available when the time came to make a call. “Maybe he thought he was going earlier,” Webster said, describing Walter as “a winner, tough, a kid we followed since high school.”

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One of Walter’s strengths is his ability to move off the ball and get himself open, a staple of Toronto head coach Darko Rajakovic’s offensive system and something last year’s No. 13 pick, Gradey Dick, is also strong at. The team is putting shooters around franchise player Scottie Barnes and though he’s not “the best shooter in the draft” the way Dick was seen to be a year ago, he has the potential to be a threat from outside as well. The native of McKinney, Texas, a Dallas suburb, also drew high marks for his competitiveness, hustle and off-court intangibles.

“I think he’s got pretty good length. I think there’s just sort of an inner toughness when you watch him. And he rebounds the ball well. So (he’s) not afraid to kind of stick his nose in there,” Webster said of Walter’s defensive approach.

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Walter said on a Zoom session with the Toronto media he wants to show off more of his shot creation abilities in the NBA, but added: “I consider myself a competitor, a scorer and a two-way player, somebody that will sacrifice their body on the defensive end and do whatever it takes to win.” Walter also said while he didn’t work out for the Raptors and has never been to Canada, he is familiar with Scottie Barnes (“big personality”), RJ Barrett and Quickley and is looking forward to fitting in.

“I’m just trying to make an immediate impact in any way I can. Whatever they need me to do.”

Walter was given the name Ja’Kobe by his parents in an homage to all-time greats Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Asked if this night was pre-ordained then, Walter said: “I prayed so many times for this moment right here. It’s dreams into reality and I’m just grateful.”

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The Atlanta Hawks started the night off by selecting French forward Zaccharie Rissacher first overall. The Hawks, led by former Raptors forward Landry Fields as its general manager, won the draft lottery in May despite having just 3% odds of doing so. But like when the Raptors won the lottery back in 2006, there was no clear choice to go first. Time will tell if Rissacher becomes an all-star, a bust or something in between like Andrea Bargnani was. Rissacher joined Bargnani, Yao Ming and countryman Victor Wembanyama as the only international players who did not play in the NCAA to go first overall.

Washington went with another Frenchman, 7-foot-1 centre Alex Sarr with the second pick, who it expects will be a key part of a long-term rebuild that will also feature fellow French lottery pick Bilal Coulibaly, who went seventh overall last year (France had only had one player ever picked in the top seven prior to last year’s draft and now has five in the last two drafts, including consecutive top picks). The Wizards had earlier dealt away talented swingman Deni Avdija for four draft picks and oft-injured guard Malcolm Brogdan, who they will try to re-route. Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard, billed as the best shooter in the draft, went third to Houston, solid guard Stephon Castle, from the NCAA champion UConn Huskies, went fourth to San Antonio, while Ron Holland, of the G League Ignite, rounded out the top five, heading to Detroit. France’s Tidjane Salaun went sixth to Charlotte, with UConn centre Donovan Clingan surprisingly falling to Portland at seven. Kentucky guard Rob Dillingham went eight to San Antonio, but was dealt to Minnesota. Toronto’s Zach Edey was selected ninth by the Memphis Grizzlies, where he be teammates with fellow Canadian Brandon Clarke.

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The Raptors received the 19th pick of this draft from the Indiana Pacers as part of the Pascal Siakam trade. The team will also receive Indiana’s 2026 first-round selection if it’s not in the Top 4. Toronto lost the No. 8 overall selection to San Antonio thanks to the Feb. 2023 deal that brought Jakob Poeltl back to the Raptors. The team received the first pick of Thursday’s second round of this draft, No. 31 overall, via the blockbuster deal with the New York Knicks last season that sent OG Anunoby out and brought back Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett.

Toronto expects to receive many offers overnight before Round 2 kicks off at 4 ET.

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