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Veteran Leadership Brings Certitude to Young Raptors Core

With new additions, Thaddeus Young and Otto Porter Jr., joining the Toronto Raptors, the veteran presence lost with Kyle Lowry's departure is back big time.

The Toronto Raptors’ cross-Canada training camp tour kicked off today on a gloriously [sorry, Torontonians] warm, sunny day in Victoria, B.C.

Spending the first of four days on the island, the Raptors, and their armada of coaches, trainers, and PR staff, began training camp – or “tryouts”, for some – at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Athletics, Recreation, and Special Abilities.

The smallish gym made for a fervent atmosphere. With just one main court and some side hoops nearby, players and coaches were strewn about: coaches passing and shagging balls; players running half-speed shooting drills; Freddy standing around shoeless; Assistant Coach, Jamaal Magloire, yelling at who knows who; and above them all, on a secondary level overlooking the court, sat Masai Ujiri and company, like some Magistrate and his retinue, observing their citizens.

As we media finally entered, serpentining our way to the “scrum” area, I felt just like a kid again. Like it was summer camp or try-outs: everything, so large and looming and enthralling. 

My awe aside, there was another vibe I felt in the gym. I admit that what I was sensing, while listening to Nick Nurse, Thaddeus Young, and Otto Porter Jr. speak to us reporters, was, likely, warped by the high-volume of sugar and coffee I had nervously crammed prior and/or by the climaxing adrenaline-high I was getting while interviewing NBAers for the first time. But it was there nonetheless.

It wasn’t excitement, though; I know there’s lots of that. Questions and anticipation abound.

What is Scottie’s sophomore year going to be like?

What about Precious’ third year?

Will Pascal, Freddy, and, hopefully, O.G.’s [note to reader: O.G has requested that his name, moving forward, have two periods separating the initials, as it was once-upon-a-time] games take another big leap?

Is Toronto the sneaky Eastern Conference dark horse that many a pundit have suggested?

But that’s not, exactly, the energy I felt. It wasn’t a whirling kind of unharnessed energy; it was calm, focussed, and intentional.

It was confidence. And it exuded from Coach Nurse and the two veteran players like proud proprietors of product.

Coming off the Tampa Terribles, 2021 was a transition year. With Kyle Lowry, the last veteran remnant of the 2019 championship team, off to Miami, an old identity was shed and a new one sought. And, with that, plenty of uncertainty.

For “veterans” Pascal, Freddy, and OG, they had to prove capable of filling leadership voids on and off the floor. For the rest: the newbies – like Scottie, Malachi, Precious, Dalano, Justin Champagnie – and the roleplayers – Chris Boucher, Gary Trent Jr., Khem Birch, and Yuta Watanabe – it was an opportunity to find and explore their NBA identities. 

Last year, seemed like more of a “wait and see” year. Raptors management wanting to watch who fell in place and where – truly, I was surprised they acquired zero veterans, though, perhaps, He-who-shall-not-be-namedić was supposed to be that guy.

Now, after such a successful year, while much remains unanswered, there is greater certainty in identity, in hierarchy, and in purpose. Pascal and Freddy are All-Stars. OG’s a blossoming elite wing defender. Gary a scoring dynamo. Precious and Scottie brimming with potential. Boucher the frenzied workhorse.

What was missing was true veteran presence. Guys who could bring rigour, professionalism, calmness, and intelligence. Guys like Thaddeus Young and 2022 NBA Champion, Otto Porter Jr.

“It’s always super helpful. Their [Thad and Otto’s] experience, their wisdom, all the stuff that they can do, their composure, advice, all of the things that they can do because of their experience,” said Nick Nurse when asked about having true veterans on the roster.

And that is exactly so. Last year, Pascal and Freddy were the “old guys”. And, while they’ve had plenty of experience thus far in their nascent careers, they’re not. They’re young dudes. Fred even said as much on Monday’s media day, “I’m 28. I know I might feel old on this team… I don’t feel old…”

Pascal is also 28, but this is only he and Freddy’s 7th year in the league, and 2nd as leaders of this team. They, by virtue of their youth and “later” start to their careers, lack the credentials to proffer unfiltered candour or bark reactive ire that those who’ve “been around awhile” have earned.

Those, like Thad and Otto.

Thad, at 34, has played for 7 teams in 17 years. How old is that? Well his very first NBA game, a DNP, was, lo’ and behold, against the Toronto Raptors who fielded a starting lineup of Anthony Parker, T.J. Ford, Chris Bosh, Jason Kapono, and Andrea Bargnani. Ya, old.

And, though, Thad’s been with the team since last trade deadline, it’s only now he’s comfortable and ready to truly integrate with this team.

“Last year when I got here, like, I was kind of, like I was fine. But, you know, that’s because I’m a tough individual. But mentally burned out, just for the simple fact that I didn’t play the first half of the season, I spent a lot of time conditioning myself and burning myself out to try to be ready for the second half of the season. And then I think when I got here, I wasn’t able to really play to my full potential and my full reach, so now I get a fresh mind fresh, fresh start…”

With that fresh mind also comes the work ethic, preparation, routines, and everything else required of an NBA professional. All of which younger players, who may think they have it all figured out or don’t, can see and observe first-hand. Thad isn’t going to be shy saying how it is either.

“I like to pick apart and dissect everybody that I’m playing with because I know you have to approach everybody differently. That’s what I try to do, approach everybody in a way that they need to be approached in order to help us win.”

It also means in games, when shit’s hitting the fan, or frustration arises, or uncertainty blooms, that Otto and Thad’s steadfast hands and calm voices can bring clarity.

“Me and Otto are guys that are like stabilizing forces. Guys who can come in and keep everything stable from what the first unit is doing. Make sure that we’re facilitating and not giving up leads but building onto leads or keeping leads where they are and just not letting the game get out of hand. Just bringing that savviness to the group of guys that are going to be out there with us.”

Otto Porter Jr., who was teammates with Thad in Chicago – and who, according to Thad, called Thad before doing anything else to ask if he should come to Toronto (in case you’re curious, Thad’s supposed response was “come on through, we’re family over here,” cue heartmelt) – is, suddenly, an NBA champion, after signing with the Golden State Warriors on a veteran’s minimum last year.

He, too, has experienced plenty. From battling in playoffs series in Washington with superstars like John Wall and Bradley Beal, to dealing with his own injuries and challenges in Chicago, to finding redemption and purpose as a “veteran” roleplayer on a championship team, Otto’s seen a lot in his 10 years and knows his purpose on the team, among many, is to share that:

“They [young guys] want to get to that elite level and it’s our [Otto and Thad’s] job to pass on information that I got from Golden State or from my previous years playing, definitely want to share that with the younger generation.”

What’s funny, is Otto’s 29 – barely older than Freddy and Pascal – which kinda debunks what I said above. But with three more years of playing experience and a somewhat tumultuous career path, he brings a veteran perspective that neither do.

Thad represents longevity. His hard work and attention to his craft demonstrate how one can have a prolonged career in the league. Otto is a testament to resilience and humility. Realizing that his fate was not as an All-Star, but as a reliable roleplayer. He went from 20+ million/year contract to a veteran’s minimum. But that decision, in turn, resulted in a championship and a 2/$12 million contract with Toronto.

Perhaps, that humility and self-sacrifice will passively or explicitly emphasize to younger Raptors the importance of team play and commitment, and that individual success can look and manifest in many ways. Particularly, for those who are on the outside looking in.

Certainly, entering this season with so many a question still unanswered, Otto and Thad’s wisdom will bring even more confidence to a team that, at least to me so far, is radiating it.

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