Aaah media day.
In many ways, it's this day that really starts the season for us here at RaptorsHQ.
Sure, the actual season is still about a month away, and even the pre-season matches have yet to begin, but there's always a sense of excitement in the air and a feeling of new beginnings during this time period.
So was this year’s Media Day any different than seasons past?
Well besides the increased media attention regarding the team, things were pretty much status quo.
However while it’s only natural for this to be the time for supreme optimism amongst all NBA clubs, this year at the Raptors’ camp, there seemed to be a greater feeling of excitement and sanguinity than ever before.
And how could there not be?
The team is trotting out a legitimate two-headed monster in Chris Bosh and Jermaine O'Neal, has significantly upgraded its toughness and rebounding, has re-signed its break-out point guard from last year, and has streamlined the roster so that there should be many less questions about "who's going to play" and "what their role will be."
Perhaps my favourite thing about Media Day in general however, is that it’s a good chance to talk to players about things that you normally wouldn’t get a chance to during the season.
Favourite players, thoughts on dunk contests, toughest match-ups…these are all things that are easier to discuss prior to the season getting under way.
In addition, it’s always a good chance to get a feel for the new players and while I missed out on Will Solomon, I did have a great chat with Roko Ukic, Hassan Adams and Nathan Jawai.
Perhaps the most interesting part of my interview with Roko was that he admitted to feeling a lot less pressure being in the NBA and Jose’s backup, than he did playing for his own country’s national program. This of course is quite different than most players coming into the league out of the NCAA. The whole thing got me wondering if I haven’t perhaps underestimated his impact this coming season. As you can hear in the interview, he already has an excellent command of the English language, and seems to have a bit of grit in him, perhaps an excellent change of pace from the happy-go-lucky Jose.
The other interesting observation revolved around Nathan Jawai, the Aussie Shaq. Up close he was much smaller than I expected. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a big kid, but he doesn’t have the height or physique right now of a Kris Humphries. In fact it looks like he’s slimmed down some and he confirmed this when I spoke to him one-on-one. After Summer League, Jawai focused on his quickness and agility and it will be interesting to watch his development this season.
Unfortunately we may have to wait a while to see him play as the Raptors are reporting that they are holding Jawai out of practice until some questions concerning his heart are cleared up. These questions arose during pre-season cardiac screening apparently and hopefully for Nathan the testing comes back with positive results.
I’ll be talking more about some of the noteworthy things from Media Day later this week but for now, we move to my favourite part each year, the media scrum with Raptors’ GM Bryan Colangelo.
BC: What do we start with here?
Reporter: How many wins?
BC: (laughs) You know I'm not a predictions guy! I predict internally...
Reporter: What's the general mood as far as, not necessarily a numbers improvement, but what you've got as a roster?
BC: I think overall there's a lot of anticipation and excitement currently. Just what we've seen over the last week or so in informal workouts, not to mention all the progress that we feel has been made with development over the course of the summer; physical development with training and rehabilitation and all the things we were going through, and some of the basketball development which had a couple of our coaches all over the map. I can say that this summer has been one of our most positive in terms of development that I've seen in my career.
So just in terms of the growth basketball-wise that we've seen, plus I think you'll see some physicality out of this team because of some of the improved physical attributes that some of these guys have now. You know we're bringing in Jermaine O'Neal, he's got a presence on the interior and I mean, just from a standpoint of what Chris Bosh was able to accomplish this summer with USA basketball and the presence that he had being somewhat of an anchor for that team at the defensive end of the floor. And then once you see just in brief, one week of informal workouts here, the presence that Jermaine has inside the paint, a factor in not only blocking shots, but changing shots and being a presence in the lane...wow. It's widely known that he likes to take charges so I think all in all it's a contagious part of the game. When people are playing at a certain level defensively everyone else starts getting excited and focusing in on it too. Team defense is going to be something that I know Sam is going to stress this year and again knowing that he's got an improved interior presence and perhaps also has got a reinvigorated player like Chris, it's exciting to see.
And the other end of things is the rebounding aspect, when you bring in a guy like Jermaine, it changes the entire dynamic of what we've got in that respect. We're looking at it as a streamlined roster, it's a tight-knit group, you know, we're adding one or two new faces, one significant one in Jermaine when you talk about his coming into the starting line-up, and all in, there's a lot of excitement and I think a good feel, not only on the court and what we've seen informally, but also in the locker room; the camaraderie, the interaction and the interplay, it's all very positive right now.
Reporter: Should this be the best team you've had?
BC: Well, given that when I first got here there were nine new faces, there were a lot of unknowns, some would say we overachieved and I think that's a fair assessment. We felt as a whole that we got better last year, maybe on paper, but it didn't pan out in terms of the win-loss record at the end of the day. Sometimes on paper things look great and then you play the season; things happen, injuries occur, and chemistry issues develop. Although we were more talented and deeper last year I don't think we had the same chemistry and that's something that you know we'll be striving for this year. But on paper I'd say that, you know in terms of pure talent yes, I'd have to think that this is the best team yet.
Reporter: Is there a risk or an obstacle on this roster that you see to achieving whatever goals you might have?
BC: Well you know, you talk about areas of weakness I think we've addressed some of those, obviously some people have different opinions about what those weaknesses are, but we feel internally in terms of the things we like to talk about and focus on, yes. We've got some things we'd like to roll out in subsequent years, but for now, I think at every position we've got the talent that we feel we can compete.
Now obviously there's remarkable players on teams that you're always going to struggle with; some of the more talented guys, the Kobes, the Lebrons, (laughs) you're gonna be struggling. But you know, we like our guard tandems, you saw what Kapono was capable of last year in the playoffs and we hope that he can pick up where he left off. The indications at least from the workouts this summer are that he's in great physical shape and you know I think he's got probably a clearer head coming into this thing knowing that there's a defined role for him, the fact that Carlos is not here any more obviously leads to that, and so I think that helps not only with Jason but across the board.
Now, have we addressed everything? You can't ever address everything in one fell swoop, although you might say that Boston did it last year but those were extraordinary circumstances, but we as we strive to get better continue to build and yes, this is a constant process.
If there's one thing I'm a little nervous about it's the fact that we've got 13 guys under contract and we're up against the luxury tax. That's something we'll have to deal with as the year goes on. If there is a significant injury or something that holds someone out for an extended period of time, we might have to make some adjustments as the year goes on, that might mean exceeding the tax, and it might mean making some adjustments as the trade deadline nears so that we find ourselves in a position where we stay under the tax when all is said and done.
Reporter: But for kind of edict, not to go over that tax threshold?
BC: It's smart business, and it's basically that business that 30 teams are trying to live by. Certain teams are not in a position to do that because of some of the commitments that have been made over the years and at some point when you're over the tax and you feel like you've got a chance to go for it, and there's REASON to go for it, I think you'll always see a handful of teams pay the tax. This year there will be roughly the same number (as in other years.) I think the edict though is the same among all 30 teams, you try to operate under that luxury tax, because it is a significant impact on your business.
Reporter: Just changing gears, Bryan, anything you need to see from Andrea this year?
BC: I know there was a lot of disappointment last year externally, and perhaps internally, that he didn't take a major step forward in terms of improvement. Some of the reasons we can hash out again but physically he wasn't really healthy all year, he did require some surgery in the off-season that took place right away, he had a deviated septum fixed and also his adenoids removed; he has been, really, a different person this summer from all accounts. He spent a lot of time in Treviso working out with a strength and conditioning coach he's very familiar with, and put on some extra weight and he's looking really healthy and he's been aggressive all summer in terms of the work that he's done.
He ended up going to Vegas and working those two weeks with Jermaine and others at the IMPACT facility, and then a week at the Tim Grgurich camp and more progress was made. Gordy Herbert spent some time with him overseas and he had another opportunity to take things to another level. By all accounts, everything that came out of this summer was very positive for Andrea Bargnani. And you hope that's a situation that propels him to another level, and it should.
Physically he looks stronger, he's playing stronger, he seems more comfortable, he's expressing a lot more personality with this team, I think he's got a good comfort level now, and whether it's reality or not, I'd say that there's a little bit of pressure off of Andrea now that you're not taking him and throwing him into the starting center position as a sophomore player last year. You know there's clearly a staring 4-5 combination of Bosh and O'Neal and whether those are 4, 5 or 5, 4, I think they're interchangeable parts. Andrea is perhaps the most versatile of the bigs, because I think he can play 3 positions and I think that's gonna bode well. And I mentioned before, we do have a streamlined team and there's not many places to turn so Andrea is gonna have to do it, and do it quick, and kinda be with this team at the speed of the team and I think we're going to see some very positive things.
Reporter: Is most of his battle mental, I mean you talked about him being more personable, more personality coming through? We didn't really see that in his first couple of seasons.
BC: Yeah, you know, different players react differently to the league and the circumstances, you're talking about a guy who came in with the pressure of being the number one pick, then the pressure of being the starting center on a team with high expectations, a team that made the playoffs the year before, but, guys evolve.
He's just 22, 23 soon, it's interesting to see guys evolve and as guys get a better command of the English language, as you're around a group a while, it happens. Look at Jose, go back to that first year. Jose lacked confidence, physically didn't feel quite well, he had a couple of injuries that were holding him back, he came back and really blossomed his second year. He was much more mature emotionally perhaps, Andrea is still just a young kid. He's growing and going through this whole thing and as he continues to get more comfortable and as he grows into this league you're going to see more and more but I do think that his feeling more comfortable in the locker room, on the floor with these guys, in this group here with you, I think you're going to see a different player and a different person this year.
Reporter: How comfortable are you with your point guard depth? Up front you have some luxury there.
BC: First of all, I think you always want to have a lot of depth at the point. That's why when we sought the back-up or reserve role to Jose we were going to go with a couple of things. First of all we had the draft rights to Roko, it was a nice easy fit and it was something we had been working on for some time. There was some question as to whether he was ready to step in and be that number two player so we brought in a guy with some experience. And I think it gives Sam a little more of a comfort level knowing that he's got someone back there that has played in the league but has also really achieved a pretty high level of performance over in Europe.
This past year I saw him (Conroy) play in a game in Istanbul and his team was playing one of the better teams in the Euro League, Tau Ceramica, and he was unbelievable. He dominated the game, I think he had 28 points, but he was hitting shots all over, handled the ball, you know, if there's a knock on him it's that he's a little bit of a "tweener" and 6-2 he plays very long with his frame and his arm length and he has huge hands. So I can just tell you, based on what Sam saw, and meeting with him this summer before we made a decision to sign him, talking to him, talking about his mentality, why he wanted to come back, the fact that he was leaving money on the table, quite a bit of money on the table over in Europe, he felt it was his time to come back to the league and I don't disagree. It was perhaps like what Anthony Parker's impact was like for us that year, where he had elevated to a certain level over in Europe and it was time for him to come back. Well, we're talking about a guy that has cut his teeth in the most difficult of circumstances and in a pretty hostile environment, I think what we've seen in the informal workouts so far, I'm not concerned at all that between Roko and Will, we've got plenty in terms of you know that back-up role.
Reporter: Take us back the addition of O’Neal and the defense this year, outside of his addition, where do you see the rest of the team’s improvement in that area coming from?
BC: You know, it’s a little bit of a contagious reaction. They sense that we have a chance to be a good defensive team, coaches start to really get it moving and there’s a lot of emphasis on it, it becomes a contagious part of the game. Then you’ve got other guys who have worked all summer to get better, hopefully Andrea takes his positive developments onto the court this year, Joey Graham was by far the best player in our Summer League activity…just by virtue of him being there showed us a lot, and I know that this is an important year for him, it’s a contract year for him, and he’s gonna need to be relied on based on the structure of the roster. So, there’s all these things that look like they’re going to work out well, we just need to get into the season and get it going.
RaptorsHQ: Any chance you can give us an idea of the players you were looking at before the JO trade went down at those draft spots?
BC: (Laughs.) No…but obviously we felt comfortable that including the pick was not a major complication. At the end of the day we didn’t want to, you never want to throw a pick in, but…
RHQ: …you saw that opportunity there.
RHQ: Last question. A lot of the talk today has been around Jermaine O’Neal and what he’s hopefully bringing to the table, can you talk to us a bit about Hassan Adams?
BC: Hassan is one of those guys, you know I call him the ultimate utility player because he’s going to be able to come in and change the flow of the games. Maybe it’s on the defensive end, but, you’ll find he’s always around the basket, always around the ball, I’m not sure you can look at Hassan and say "he plays this position or that position," but I think he’s capable of guarding anything from a quick 1 to a small 4. He’s tough, and strong, a bit of a fireplug, a great athlete, maybe doesn’t quite have that same pop that he had at Arizona cause he’s had a few injuries in the past couple of years and has bulked up, but I think you’re going to see an interesting role for him as the season goes on. You know first of all the coach has to believe in him, and I know the coach believes in him and feels like he’s a piece that can come in and do some things.
RHQ: Thanks Bryan, best of luck this season.