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Norm, Delon, and the Raptors’ young players are ready for their moment

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The core of the Raptors is the same, but Toronto’s young players know now is their time to assert themselves.

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Youth is wasted on the young, or so the thinking goes; the thought assuming young people know not the opportunities they’ve been given, and may only ever realize much later what was once within their grasp. In professional sports, there is a constant seesaw between youth and experience, a balancing act stretching out over years. For the Raptors that’s meant building a winning team with veteran players, while also grooming a new generation for the next step. Coming off back-to-back 50-plus win seasons, the veterans have done their part. But has Toronto’s youth been wasted? This year, we’re about to find out.

“I’m excited,” said Jakob Poeltl, one of the Raps’ back-up big men, when he was asked about the start of the new season. “Media day is always that first day when it’s about to get really serious. So, I’m looking forward to it.” Poeltl wasn’t the only Raptor fired up, but his response was indicative of Toronto’s status right now. The top of the roster still very much belongs to Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas — that’s the serious part. But the rest of the team — save for incoming vet C.J. Miles — will be handed over to the kids.

“They told us you gotta be ready, they’re definitely minutes to be had,” said Poeltl. “So if we bring it in pre-season, if we bring it now over the summer, if we work on our game, there’s room there for us young guys to play, and step up, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

In the backcourt, Poeltl’s former college teammate Delon Wright finds himself in a similar situation. He was a “little shocked” to see the more experienced Cory Joseph get traded over the summer, but Wright also knew what it meant. “I just had to look myself in the mirror and say, they have faith in you now and it’s time to get ready.” Delon’s assessment of the trade is not wrong, it was made in the Raptors’ belief of his — and Fred VanVleet’s — ability to step in and step up. “I don’t look at it as pressure,” added Wright, “I look at it as more of an opportunity.”

Speaking of VanVleet, the soft-spoken former “fourth” point guard of the Raptors will likely see more minutes come his way as well. There’s already a buzz heading into training camp about the impressive workouts VanVleet has put in. And with the Raptors needing as much shooting as they can get, VanVleet may very well have found his niche. No less than Toronto’s alpha dog Lowry believes VanVleet, while smaller, is better than he was at the age FVV is at now. A high compliment for a player once seen as merely a place-holding 15th man.

Of course, the guy the Raptors are most looking to for a leap is Norman Powell. The former second round pick has played his way into Toronto’s rotation, saved them in two different post-season runs, and is now battling with Miles for a starting spot. It’s been quite a journey. However, when asked about how he felt about the Raptors this season, Powell’s feelings were the same as his young teammates. “I'm ready for it. It's what I've worked for. It's what I've fought for my first two years,” said Powell. “Especially with the moves that have been made, not just the opportunity for myself but for all the young guys. We're here and we're going to play now and we're going to show what we can do.”

In one sense, the story of the Raptors this season is boring. The core of the team remains exactly the same as last year, their place in the Eastern Conference eerily similar, their championship aspirations admirable but still a ways off. There’s a level of acceptance or humility around the team now, or as coach Dwane Casey said: “There’s only one Golden State, only one Houston. We’ve got to be the best Toronto Raptors team we could be.” In truth, that’s fine — this is a franchise that’s had far more down years than up, so we should enjoy this run while we can.

But that sentiment — the idea of being complacently good — masks this other element of the Raptors, the one containing far more excitement and not a little bit of hope. It’s a train of thought that can drive you towards all kinds of wild conclusions. Just who are these young players after all? What can they do? What will they become? The Raptors of 2017-18 are going to be good, but there’s a reckless sort of fun to be had in their potential, and in their collective attempt to be great. It’s hard to call all of that a waste.