TORONTO – At this time last year, Nick Nurse had no idea what kind of team he had or how the season might play out, and the Toronto Raptors coach admitted as much.
Gone was longtime leader Kyle Lowry, rookie Scottie Barnes’ was still unproven, and the team had no true centre.
Fast forward a year, and continuity was a theme of Monday’s traditional Raptors’ media day.
“I was sitting up here a year ago and we didn’t have any idea who we were, identity-wise … For the most part, we played really good basketball after we kind of clicked into that mentality,” Nurse said. “I feel confident in knowing who we are quite a bit more than a year ago at this time.”
In what was intended to be a rebuilding season, the Raptors went a solid 48-34 last year, and saw Barnes win rookie of the year. They were eliminated by Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs, and headed into their longest off-season in five years.
Amid a frenzy of player movement around the league, the Raptors had a relatively quiet summer, going with the status quo instead of a major shakeup. Fourteen players returned, making Toronto the league’s top team for roster stability.
“We made a commitment to grow,” team president Masai Ujiri said. “We’re a young team, a young growing team. That’s all we talked about last year, lots of players who can make a jump. Even our veterans are young veterans in the league, with Freddy (VanVleet), Pascal (Siakam), O.G. (Anunoby), we’ve always wanted to preach patience.
“We want to win. We’re expecting to win. Honestly, we can’t react to what’s going on in the league. Yeah, we see other teams. We study all of that. But in terms of our plan, it’s to grow our young players and continue to develop and see (where) that takes us.”
Media day, held in a sunlight observatory in a posh hotel near the Raptors’ practice facility, had a sense of normalcy — finally — after a couple of seasons rocked by COVID-19. The pandemic hit the Raptors hard, forcing them to relocate to Tampa, Fla., for a season, and then playing much of last season in front of no fans at Scotiabank Arena.
“It’s really good to see us coming back from a normal summer again,” Ujiri said. “Hopefully we get through this winter and we have a bit of back to normal.”
The Raptors were scheduled to board a flight to Victoria immediately after media day, marking the first time camp has been held in an alternate Canadian city in three years. It was in Tampa in 2021, and Toronto last season.
“We want to feel the love of the people of Canada because we know of the support,” Ujiri said. “It’s been a couple of years since we’ve been able to do stuff like this.”
The Raptors have exhibition games Oct. 2 in Edmonton versus Utah, and Oct. 14 in Montreal against Boston.
While Tuesday marks the first official day of camp, most of the players gathered in Los Angeles weeks ago, prompting Clippers star Paul George to heap praise on them during one of Rico Hines’ famous scrimmages.
“Shout-out Toronto, man. Y’all came and y’all represented,” George said. “It’s crazy, I saw y’all on YouTube the first week, came and played the second week, now it’s Week 3 … and y’all still here. I’d be disappointed, coaches, if y’all ain’t come out hot to start the season.”
Nurse, who’s added Hines to his coaching staff for this season, was thrilled to see the players connect weeks before camp opened.
“I just kind of sense a little urgency, I sense some togetherness and I sense some real intensity this summer, and I think those are all three really good words going into a training camp,” Nurse said. “I think the team’s shaping the identity that showed up a little bit late last year. They know who they are and are looking to expand it. It was a good summer.”
One change Nurse has planned for this season is lightening VanVleet’s load. The guard stepped admirably into Lowry’s shoes as team leader, but logged am onerous 37.9 minutes, and the 28-year-old was walking like an old man by season’s end, his body battered before the playoffs even began.
VanVleet blamed himself on Monday.
“Just with the adrenalin and the way that the season was going and the last push that we made to get to that position that we were in, I think that I kinda zoned out a little bit in terms of listening to my body,” VanVleet said. “Definitely had to listen to my body. We lost and I had to go to the doctor and all those things to plan out the rest of my summer. I had to get stronger. I had to make some changes and I did those things, and I feel great.”
Barnes could lighten some of his load. The six-foot-seven, 225-pound sophomore had Twitter in a frenzy when the Raptors listed him as a guard/forward.
“I’ve always been a point guard, I always had those point guard things,” Barnes said. “I feel like I can do it all, no matter what it is. I can play any position, so I don’t really try to limit myself to one position.”
Barnes, who said he chose to attend Florida State because of their promise to let him play point guard, averaged 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 35.4 minutes per game in his first season, starting all 74 games he played.
Ujiri called the versatile Barnes “one of those players of the future.”
“I don’t know how to describe him,” Ujiri said. “I don’t know what position that guy plays. He’s one of those guys who just plays basketball and is an incredible basketball player.”
The Raptors will practise at the University of Victoria. Their first pre-season game in Toronto is Oct. 9 versus Chicago. They open the regular season Oct. 19 at home against Cleveland.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 26, 2022.