TORONTO – The rebuilding Toronto Raptors were a revelation last season.
Picked by virtually no one to make any noise, the Raptors won 48 games to finish fifth in the Eastern Conference and gave the Philadelphia 76ers a decent fight before being ousted in the first round of the playoffs.
And so, team president Masai Ujiri chose continuity over an off-season teardown, believing his young team has what it takes to — eventually — be among the league’s best once again.
“We won a championship and now we’ve kind of stepped back, got hit and fell down a little bit,” Ujiri said. “We’re starting to come up again and we want to go all the way again, right back to where we were.
“Are we good enough to win a championship? I don’t know that we’re there yet. Are we good enough to grow and make a jump? I think so.”
While chemistry and continuity are tough to quantify, Ujiri is a believer. His undeviating approach saw him keep a dozen players from last season, including a starting five who all averaged more than 15 points in scoring. Toronto’s equal-opportunity offence made it the league’s only team to achieve that feat. The Raptors did the same in 2019-20, becoming the first team in 46 years to have five starters who averaged 15-plus points.
And there’s no reason to believe the young core won’t be better this season.
“I think we’re gonna have a great team,” forward O.G. Anunoby said. “I think everyone will come back improved. We’re all on the same page. Last year, the beginning was more of a learning process (after off-season changes including the loss of perennial all-star Kyle Lowry). Everyone was trying to get up to speed.
“We have a lot of guys back. So I think we’re gonna be smooth at the start.”
Pascal Siakam had a slow start to last season after sitting the first 10 games to recover from shoulder surgery. He finished the season averaging 22.8 points and 8.5 rebounds, and boldly stated during the team’s recent media day that his goal is to become a top-five player in the league.
“I just feel like it’s time to take another step,” Siakam said. “I want to be one of the best.”
Starting guard Fred VanVleet has vowed to be smarter with his body after missing Toronto’s final three regular-season games, plus Games 5 and 6 of the playoffs with a strained hip flexor.
The starter, however, who Raptors fans are most keen to see is arguably Scottie Barnes, whose selection at No. 4 of the 2021 draft over Jalen Suggs raised some eyebrows. Barnes went on to average 15.3 points and 7.5 rebounds a night, while defending players of every position, and won NBA rookie of the year.
Barnes’ ankle injury in Game 1 versus Philly was a huge blow to Toronto’s post-season hopes.
The Raptors tip off the regular season on Wednesday against visiting Cleveland, and it’s not a moment too soon for VanVleet.
“It’s time, man, it’s time,” the 28-year-old all-star said. “Had a great pre-season, great summer. I think we’re all looking forward to getting out there and laying it on the line, and we’ll see what happens. The beginning of the season is an exciting time for us, for everybody, especially the fans. Can’t wait for Wednesday night.”
RETURN TO NORMAL: After being upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Raptors are eager for a sense of normalcy this season. Border restrictions forced them to move their home base to Tampa, Fla., for the entire 2020-21 season. They trumpeted their return to Toronto last October with the slogan “We back!”
But the joy was short-lived. The Raptors, who boast one of the best fan bases in the league, were reduced to half capacity for a pair of games last December amid a new COVID wave, and then completely closed to fans for 12 games. Record attendance for those games are listed at: 0. Toronto was the only team who closed to fans last season. The eerie mood in the cavernous arena was on display during one game that saw Ujiri and rapper Drake as the only “fans” in the building. They sat together amid a sea of empty seats.
6-9 IS PERFECTLY FINE: While last season’s roster was busting at the seams with athleticism, nobody stood taller than six foot nine. Siakam, who’s 6-8, was often Toronto’s starting centre, guarding much bigger guys. But the so-called “Vision 6-9” proved a success, largely thanks to a defence ranked in the top 10 for the fourth time in the last five seasons, plus consistent hustle on the offensive glass and ability to take care of the ball.
The Raptors added some height this season, drafting seven-foot-one centre Christian Koloko, who hails from Siakam’s hometown of Douala, Cameroon, with their No. 33 pick.
“It’s great having Christian out there,” Anunoby said. “Lob threat, rim runner, shot blocker, presence in the paint. He covers up a lot of mistakes. If someone gets beat or someone blows a coverage, he’s back there blocking, or if not blocking at least altering it. It makes a big difference having him back there.”
CANADIAN BANTON: Dalano Banton’s debut for Canada’s national team this past summer was a win for everyone. The Torontonian was the lone NBA player on Canada’s team for the FIBA AmeriCup Tournament and shone on the international stage. Against Colombia, Banton scored 14 of his team’s 18 points during a game-winning run. Nick Nurse, head coach of both the Raptors and Canada, believes the sophomore’s off-season growth will show this NBA season.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2022.