The primary goal for most NBA teams during the preseason is to just make it through healthy. In that sense, the success of the Toronto Raptors’ training camp is still to be determined. The team is treating that as a main objective, but injuries sometimes occur, and accidents are still going to happen when the proceedings don’t count.
Like in a preseason opener, when someone steps on your big free agent signing’s foot. Or in a league-mandated open practice, when your potential breakout bench player tweaks his knee trying to awe the crowd with a 360 dunk. Things happen, and a team can’t be faulted for being on the wrong end of some minor setbacks.
As time wears on, though, Raptors fans would be justified in looking at practice reports and injury updates a little more closely. After all, the regular season begins next Wednesday, and Jared Sullinger’s stepped-on foot has kept him out of every preseason game – and most practices – since. Terrence Ross’ twisted patella has limited him to conditioning work for the better part a week now, too. The Raptors are approaching each injury with caution, as they should, bringing each player along as slowly as necessary.
Head coach Dwane Casey was unable to provide a firm update on either injured rotation player at practice Monday, but there’s optimism that both will be ready for the season opener on Oct. 26. Sullinger may even be able to suit up as soon as Wednesday’s preseason game in Detroit, conceding that he’d probably be playing if this were the regular season, anyway.
“Yeah, if there was a game today I’d probably play. Most definitely,” Sullinger said Monday. “It feels great. Slowly getting better. It’s still a little sore but it’s preseason, it’s early in the season, they don’t really need me right now. So it’s something we just want to take care of so it doesn’t linger throughout the whole season.”
Sullinger’s injury was originally considered so minor he was only expected to sit out one exhibition. As he continued to try to practice on it, setbacks kept popping up, and the team changed course, limiting the power forward to work in the gym and on the bike. In the meantime, Sullinger is attempting to play the role of sponge, soaking up as much knowledge as he can from other players and the coaching staff in order to get up to speed with his new systems and surroundings.
“The thing about it is he’s a smart player. We’re putting him in sets and plays. The main thing he has to do is (learn) the terminology,” Casey said. “A guy as smart as he is, I’ve seen older players and veteran players miss the whole training camp and jump right in. J.R. Smith is going through it right now in Cleveland. I’m not that concerned because he’s such a smart player and he’s done a good job with his weight and his conditioning.”
Casey said that he saw enough in the early parts of camp to retain confidence in starting Sullinger alongside center Jonas Valanciunas, a pairing that has the potential to goose the offense and dominate on the glass but could pose some problems on the defensive end. There’s no telling how, exactly, that will play out once the season starts, and if there’s any cause for concern, it could be whether or not Sullinger will be at peak start-of-season conditioning. That’s been an issue for the 260-pounder in the past. While the claim that he’s down 40 pounds is something the Boston Celtics heard before, too, the Raptors were thrilled with the results of Sullinger’s offseason, which included a month in Vancouver to work on his body.
Sitting on the sidelines hasn’t been the easiest for Sullinger when he could be getting important reps in with his new team, but he, like the organization, is taking the appropriate long-view.
“For sure, it’s frustrating but one thing about this team is everybody’s a family. So when I was down they understood, because it’s not about right now, it’s about April,” Sullinger said. “We just want to be as healthy as possible, something that won’t linger around, and play 82 games. A little injury like this can linger around so we’re just trying to solve that early.”
As for Ross, the team is hopeful he can be back for the regular season opener and maybe even get some minutes in the preseason finale. Entering his fifth season with the team, the lost repetitions for Ross are perhaps not quite as big a deal, but the injury could stand to dampen the momentum he was building with a strong camp.
“He’s in good condition, good shape, until he tried the bonehead move of trying to do the 360 in a scrimmage game, open gym or whatever it was,” Casey said Sunday. “So he was doing a good job up until that point. I like Terrence’s approach, he’s got a seriousness about his approach that is coming and we wanted it to be there last year, but again, he still was a young man. He’s having a serious approach about his game and that’s what you like to see.”
It’s important for all parties involved to keep the bigger picture in mind, eager though they may be to get a full team practice or proper dress rehearsal exhibition in before the season starts in earnest. These are minor roadblocks most teams have to deal with, ones the Raptors have the depth and the patience to manage in the short-term.