“Are we good enough to win a championship? I don’t know that we are there yet. But are we good enough to grow and make a jump? I think so.
“So we expect to win … we have this patience with the team, but we want to grow. We know we have young players on our team and it takes time. We have a different set of styles of players on our team and that takes time to put together, and it’s a challenge to make that jump. But winning is why we play … We always want to win, and we are going to win again.”
He really does believe that, and the Raptors are laying long-term groundwork while the balancing act goes on. Ujiri’s long-awaited stylistic experiment — his army of looming, agile, long-armed, skilled and intelligent wings — is effective, and sustainable for now. Head coach Nick Nurse’s sky-high threshold for playing time might make it hard to add new players to the system, but it means a team that operates at the highest strategic levels. This is still an organization with championship DNA.
It just doesn’t have championship talent again, yet, because of the same old song: You need superstars in this league. Pascal Siakam says he wants to be a top-five player in the NBA, which is most rarefied air — if you picked names from a hat that would mean displacing two of Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic and Steph Curry — and until Siakam is an above-average three-point shooter at the very least he’s going to fall short. (There are some good early reviews on his further progress inside the three-point line, which is encouraging.)
And then there’s Scottie Barnes, who is clearly the future superstar in residence. His rookie-of-the-year campaign was remarkable for a lot of reasons, but maybe the most impressive one was this: He barely forced a play all season, couldn’t really shoot threes and still improved all the way along, figuring out the spaces in the game he could fill. Barnes will surely make a second-year jump. But the Raptors are waiting for him, too.
“Young players take time in this league,” said Ujiri. “We saw an example of that in Boston. They had young players and … went through some adversity, and grew to where they are. But it really takes time in this league, and we are happy with his progress. An exciting and incredible young player in this league that is going to have an incredible career, and hopefully win a championship here.”
Ujiri really does believe it. There might also be a shortcut, but not yet.
The Raptors did indeed look into a Durant trade with the Nets over the summer, and it was said the former MVP was interested in Toronto as a destination, but O.G. Anunoby doesn’t seem to have been enough of a headliner in return without enough first-round picks to fill a wheelbarrow.
By the standards of the crisis-a-minute NBA, the Raptors arrived at Monday’s media day with a franchise storyboard essentially bereft of headline-worthy drama.
In Boston, they’re not done putting out the firestorm around head coach Ime Udoka, who’s been suspended one year for conducting an inappropriate relationship with a female staffer. In Phoenix, there’s a nightmarish owner, Robert Sarver, now vowing to sell the franchise after a league-commissioned report that documented his refusal to stop saying the N-word even after he was repeatedly told to stop saying the N-word.
In Brooklyn on Monday, high-maintenance star players Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were back in the fold in the wake of an off-season soap opera that dominated social media. “Awkward” is how Irving described Brooklyn’s summer of uncertainty, which understated it.
Said Toronto president and vice-chair Masai Ujiri, speaking of pro basketball’s magnetic attraction to controversy: “You look at the last two weeks of the NBA, you can’t tell what is going to happen the next day.”
Media day in Toronto, by comparison, provided nothing approaching a hot button. Perhaps the most contentious moment came when Pascal Siakam announced his desire to be a “top-five player in the league.” Does Siakam currently reside in that elite neighbourhood? No. Did he sound a tad delusional suggesting a move there is imminent? Sure. Still, it’d be more alarming if he wasn’t aiming high.
As for Siakam’s team, if the goal is to improve upon last year’s first-round exit at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers — well, in a formidable East, such progress is hardly a given. And Toronto’s margin for error isn’t exactly enormous.
Which is perhaps why head coach Nick Nurse got momentarily prickly when asked about his impending usage of Fred VanVleet, Toronto’s starting point guard. Last year, after all, Nurse drove VanVleet like the proverbial rental — keeping him at or near the league lead in minutes per game all season before VanVleet’s wheels fell off come playoff time. VanVleet, who ended up ranking second in the NBA in minutes per game behind Siakam, suffered a hip injury in Game 4 against the Sixers, and didn’t play Games 5 and 6.
And it’s not like nobody saw it coming. Even VanVleet acknowledged at times that the workload was taking an unsustainable toll.
“With my size and my body, the way I play the game, I’m stumbling out of the locker room on most nights to make it to the bed,” VanVleet said last season.
On Monday, VanVleet said he’d spent the off-season seeing various doctors and “getting stronger,” while blaming the “adrenalin” of last season for making him less attentive to the realities of staying healthy.
Count Scottie Barnes in if the Raptors want him to play more minutes at point guard this coming season: “I can play any position.”
“I kind of zoned out a little bit in terms of listening to my body … I definitely had to listen to my body,” VanVleet said.
He also had to listen to a coach who sometimes isn’t much for considering alternatives to his go-to guys. Which on one level only makes sense. If the goal is to win, which it is, there’s no room for giving out minutes just to say you did. Even so, it’s up to the coach to strike the balance between the sprint of a 48-minute game and the marathon of a six-month-plus season. And given how last season ended, Nurse said he’s got a plan to avoid riding VanVleet to ruin.
“Yes, we’ll play (VanVleet) less minutes,” the coach said.
In case you’ve forgotten, Masai Ujiri spent part of the last offseason as one of the biggest free agents, if not the single-most important one, in Raptors history.
Raptors fans tracked the expiration of his five-year contract extension closely. Next to the Kawhi Leonard watch in 2019, it is probably the single greatest summertime curiosity with which the franchise had ever dealt. Faced with perpetual rumours of Ujiri going elsewhere — the Knicks, the Wizards, the Lakers, the Knicks again — fans were understandably conditioned to expect Ujiri might head elsewhere, either within the league or outside of it.
The Raptors retained him, of course, giving him a raise, a new title and more assurances that they would support his vision for the team and Giants of Africa charity, and the fanbase could relax. There are exactly zero NBA executives who resonate with fans the way Ujiri connects with Toronto. There aren’t many parallel situations across North American professional sports.
As the man who assembled one of the more unlikely NBA champions in recent history, that relationship is understandable. He has earned the adoration, and certainly the benefit of the doubt. Ujiri’s building philosophy will test all of that.
“I think in this organization we’ve always wanted to preach patience,” Ujiri said at Raptors media day on Monday, just before the team took off for training camp in Victoria. “We want to win.
The hope – obviously – is the destination ends up being a step or two farther than they managed last season when their 48-win, fifth-place regular season ended up in a good but not good enough first-round playoff loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
No, the Raptors did not “get their asses kicked” is the six-game series, as VanVleet put it, but it’s not immediately clear how they closed the gap on the top few teams in an Eastern Conference that has become packed with quality teams with big plans.
Adding Otto Porter and Juancho Hernangomez in free agency along with a full season of Thaddeus Young should help improve both the team’s perimeter shooting and depth – areas that required shoring up given the Raptors concentrated their minutes among the top of their rotation more than any team in the NBA last year and they finished last season ranked 26th in effective field goal percentage.
But Toronto will go as far as their young core – a group that now includes second year, do-everything wing Scottie Barnes – will take them.
How far is that? We’ll see. The Raptors themselves had questions. The Raptors were in the thick of the talk about acquiring Durant after the Nets superstar demanded a trade and were at least willing to listen when opportunities arose around the likes of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, though they were never too close to putting themselves in the thick of the trade talks for the two Western Conference all-starts jettisoned by Utah.
With no outside forces to divert the inevitable pre-season wave of hype and enthusiasm, the internal expectations are high.
“We always look at those things. I think working with Bobby and Nick, you have to open your minds to different things,” Ujiri said of the off-season player market. “But we also have a plan with this team. We’re focused on that and to grow this team.
“I think every team can make the playoffs in the NBA, can have a good year and make a jump. We have to make a jump now as this team and seeing how all these pieces fit together is a good challenge to have going into the future, going into the season,” said Ujiri. “We always look at things … and try to be as active as we can. We’re also focused on who we are as a team and where we want to go as a basketball team. Sports is about winning. We want to win here. Sometimes it’s good to be patient, too, and wait for the right moment.”
The continuity, the hope is, should lead to chemistry.
“I think that sitting up here a year ago today we didn’t have any idea who we were, identity-wise and how things were going to unfold,” said Nurse. “And that’s how things worked out in the first four to six weeks [the Raptors started 14-17] … so this year we know who we are a little more … I feel confident in knowing who we are quite a bit more than a year ago at this time.”
The Raptors didn’t make any drastic changes to their roster over the offseason and instead are banking on internal growth. After the team met with the media on Monday, Josh Lewenberg shares his takeaways from Raptors media day and discusses the expectations for Toronto this year.
Even if he doesn’t quite get there as soon as this season, on media day Monday it was pretty clear that where Barnes goes in 2022-23 will have a lot to do with where this team follows. A large chunk of the questions asked to Ujiri, Nurse and the players who came to the stage were about the prized sophomore.
Ujiri did his best to rein in expectations a tad, pointing to the Boston Celtics duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown gradually growing into their star status through experiences and adversity, saying, “Young players take time in this league.”
But then Ujiri admitted he believes Barnes “is going to make another jump this year.” The team vice-chairman and president isn’t even sure how to sum up Barnes as a player.
“Honestly, Scottie’s one of those guys like can you tell what that guy is going to be? He’s one of those players of the future. Like, I don’t know how to describe it,” Ujiri said.
He’s built like a forward, with more muscle being added all the time as he grows into his body (Barnes only turned 21 last month), but prefers to play point guard and has the passing and dribbling skills to initiate the offence. He also has what all good point guards possess: a love of helping his teammates succeed, as noted by O.G. Anunoby on Monday.
Barnes mentioned that he went to Florida State because that program promised they’d let him play the point and he hopes to do a lot of that in Year 2 (which should also help get VanVleet some much-needed rest).
“Who knows what position he plays. He’s one of those guys that just plays basketball and is an incredible basketball player and wants to win. Can pass, basketball IQ, will learn how to shoot — I think that will come with time — incredible teammate, incredible person, but just so dynamic on the court. Growing pains will come as usual, but you saw a player and somebody who’s committed to winning. I’m excited about his progress,” Ujiri said.
Nurse seems in favour of giving Barnes the ball and letting him make things happen. The coach is also enthused about how Barnes didn’t hit the dreaded rookie wall.
“He kept getting stronger, playing harder, being more physical 70 games in when the year before he had his feet up watching after have 35 games or whatever in college,” Nurse said. “So that was unique, I thought to see him get play more physically. So effort and physicality is going to take him a long ways, and we know his skills are improving as each day passes. The shooting is getting better as each day passes,” Nurse said.
“So those things will help him just kind of move up the status rank and all that.”
The last stretch of competitive basketball he had played was the Nike EYBL circuit where he competed for UPLAY Canada in the summer of 2021. In 12 games of action, the six-foot-six guard was electric averaging 22.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists while shooting 36.4 per cent from three-point range.
The sparse amount of tape was not a concern for new Blazers general manager Joe Cronin.
“When you have a player with his level of talent, he also has a potentially high ceiling. Getting him in our gym with our coaches is something we are excited about,” Cronin said in an email to The Canadian Press.
“Shaedon is extremely talented and has great feel for the game. He has great work ethic and things will fall into place for him in time.”
Sharpe does not lack for confidence in his ability either, having said in June that he sees himself “being one of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball,” according to James Boyd of the Indianapolis Star and that he aims to win rookie of the year.
“Working out on my game builds confidence because I know I can hit a shot, get teammates involved and play both sides of ball. That’s where the confidence comes from, just working out and staying in the gym,” he said. “But I feel like being a basketball player if you don’t got confidence, you can’t really play the games. I feel like you need confidence to be the best version of yourself (and) just have fun with it.
“I feel like I can have a big impact, play both sides of ball. Starting with defence and then transition into offence, just get my teammates involved score, and just really defend and lockdown players.”
Sharpe will now have the opportunity to develop and learn in Portland — especially from the likes of all-NBA guard Damian Lillard and head coach Chauncey Billups, a former 17-year NBA vet and point guard of the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons.
With training camp underway, Sharpe plans to soak in all he can.
“It excites me a lot because they’ve been in this league, what, 10-plus years? Dame 10 years. They really know the game, know how it works,” Sharpe said.
“For me, just trying to pick their brains, ask as much questions I can, and really just learn from them. It really excites me knowing that I’m going to be playing with these guys, going against them in practice and everything. I feel like I could really bring my game to the next level on this team.”