Flynn’s most important growth, though, is less tangible. While he only played six G League games and missed a good chunk of time after contracting COVID, the latter part of Flynn’s rookie year was close to an ideal developmental opportunity. Not only was Flynn getting regular minutes — he even started 14 games and won Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for April — he also had the benefit of Lowry and VanVleet coaching him along. Watch any game from down the stretch of the Raptors’ 2020-21 season and you’ll see Lowry, VanVleet or both grabbing Flynn in a huddle off to the side at every timeout.
“It was a weird year, just in general. I mean, from going to the G League bubble, come out of it, getting COVID, sitting out for two weeks, it was a lot of up and down, not playing, playing,” Flynn said. “But overall, when I look back at, I think it was good for me, just to kind of see how the league goes, how the league works. And then especially learning from Kyle, kind of him just taking, a big brother role. I couldn’t ask for much more as a rookie coming in and seeing him and everything that he’s done. So definitely I was glad that I at least had him for a year.”
Lowry’s most elite skill is a difficult one to pass on: How to make those around you better. Lowry nudged him to take more of a floor-general role, a leadership responsibility that doesn’t always come naturally for the more reserved Flynn. Flynn believes he picked up a lot about how to organize his team and set a pace and a tone from watching Lowry, and it’s that level of calmness and collective purpose that he’s hoping to instill in teammates moving forward.
Some of that falls into leadership by example. In his brief G League stint last year, Mutombo got on Flynn to be more aggressive and disruptive defensively, something that Nick Nurse also mentioned early in Flynn’s NBA opportunities. In Las Vegas, Mutombo needed Flynn to not only be the steadying force with the ball; he needed more direct leadership for a fairly inexperienced group.
“He’s getting there,” Mutombo said. “I think he understands. And, you know, his personality is laid back. He’s a funny kid. But he’s been climbing into the ball and kind of leading by example, and when necessary, give us his voice, also.”
There has been a coherent throughline in everything the organization has done with Flynn the last year. He is well aware of what Lowry’s departure means for him this coming season, where the backup point guard role is his without much question and he could even push to start or close some games, depending on what Nurse envisions at the shooting guard position.
If Lowry’s tutelage was a broader half-year crash course on point guard play, VanVleet offers an ongoing seminar course with one overarching message.
“I think everybody can see where the opportunity is,” Flynn said. “I’m just trying to do my thing, continue to get better and then step up when my name is called. Fred is real good with that, just telling me little things here and there. He’s reiterated to me that it’s a chance to step up. I mean, you don’t know what it’s going to look like, but you do know you’ll have a chance to step up, and when you get that chance, you got to come up and show him that you got better. So that’s the main thing me and him kind of talk about: Just be ready for the opportunity.”
20. Toronto Raptors
2020-21 record: 27-45
2022 title odds: +10000
Post-Finals ranking: 19
Kyle Lowry heading to the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade at the start of free agency officially brought the golden age of Raptors basketball to an end. But behind a young core of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, Toronto will expect to remain a factor in the Eastern Conference. The decision that will loom over Toronto for years to come, however, was the choice of Scottie Barnes over Jalen Suggs with the fourth overall pick. The futures of those two players will be tied moving forward as a result. — Bontemps
The Raptors surprised a lot of draft analysts by selecting Barnes over Jalen Suggs, then picked up Dragic in the Lowry sign-and-trade to man the point for the time being. Outside of those two, the Raptors didn’t really add much in terms of win-now help, which makes you wonder what the future entails for players like Dragic and Pascal Siakam. As of now Toronto looks stuck between a rebuild and competing for a playoff spot — a precarious place to be in the NBA — but more moves could be forthcoming. Grade: B-minus
It helps, of course, that Ujiri has delivered on all of his bold promises and that he’s taken fans on a wild, unprecedented journey.
The Raptors’ 2019 championship was amazing, but so too was the build-up to it. He expects a similar journey will begin anew in the coming seasons, and given his track record it’s silly to doubt him.
“For me, it’s the fact that he speaks to the heart of the matter. He addresses how ‘we’ feel as fans … and he actually acknowledges the narrative of not wanting to come to this city, and speaks to it. He finds ways to work within it,” said Shannon Armstrong, a Toronto-area entrepreneur.
“He’s not going to give you the details, but alludes to enough that you know where the team stands. He believes in himself and the organization and his team so immensely that his confidence is palpable.”
But it’s more than that.
He’s preached social responsibility since the day he got here, and it’s given the fan base more causes to rally around: Black Lives Matter, educational programs for girls and boys in Africa, BIPOC issues in Canada. He fights the good fights, giving fans someone they can be proud of and want to be associated with.
“There are going to be things that we have to do as an organization that I think (are) going to be separate from the job, my job description as president of basketball operations,” he said. “I look at social justice and even the opportunities for the BIPOC community here. I think there is going to be more that we are going to have to do.”
He rhymes off programs with the NBA and the players’ association, NBA Africa and its sports and educational initiatives, Canada Basketball’s developmental system. A gamut of initiatives that fans want to be part of, and are proud of Ujiri for pursuing.
It’s a different era, for sure. No sports executive in Toronto has had the same opportunities, causes and platform that Ujiri has. He knows it, and it’s no small reason why he decided to re-up with the Raptors and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
The Raptors will travel roughly 40,000 miles (64,373.76 kilometres) this season, which ranks them ninth-lowest in the league. This is in part because their opponents are in somewhat proximity with each other when the Raptors go on road trips.
With regards to the strength of schedule and expected wins, the Raptors are in contention to be at least in the run for a play-in spot. However, it won’t be easy. Vegas has them around 36/37 wins on the season, but they have the seventh hardest schedule based on the win percentage of teams in the 2020-21 season. With Pascal Siakam set to miss time as he recovers from his shoulder injury, the Raptors will need every bit of luck and a fairly healthy team to reach that estimate.
This will be a season of reunions and proper goodbyes
Given the roster turnover since the team last played in Toronto, it should come as no surprise there will be plenty of reunion videos at Scotiabank Arena this season.
We start on Oct. 25 when DeMar DeRozan and the Chicago Bulls visit. DeRozan’s previous two games against Toronto at Scotiabank Arena were classics, so the bar is high.
Danny Green, who has won another championship and played on two different teams since he left the Raptors after the 2018-19 season, looks like he will finally get to collect his championship ring from MLSE when the Philadelphia 76ers play here on Dec. 28.
A few days later, Serge Ibaka will make his first return to Toronto when the Clippers come in on Dec. 31. Kawhi Leonard is expected to miss most of this upcoming season, so I’m going out on a limb and saying he won’t be here on New Year’s Eve.
Jonas Valanciunas will finally play his first game as an opponent at Scotiabank Arena on Jan. 9 when the New Orleans Pelicans come to town.
Two weeks later, Norman Powell and the Portland Trail Blazers will be here for a game on Jan. 23. Marc Gasol and the Los Angeles Lakers roll in on March 18.
I think those are all the significant reunions, which brings us to the main event:
Kyle Lowry’s return set for Feb. 3
This will be a Thursday night game on TNT and will be a very emotional night. Lowry has already told reporters he will be crying in his return, and lots of fans at the arena and watching at home will be, too.
I will be interested to see the crowd’s reaction when Lowry inevitably draws a charge on Barnes in the second quarter.
Another subplot to watch is if any current Raptor pays tribute to Lowry by wearing a throwback jersey of his to the arena. I’ve got four candidates: Fred VanVleet, Barnes, Trent Jr., and Dalano Banton.