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From DeMar to Fred: A celebration of the new Raptors lineage

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It was something to see Fred VanVleet drop 54 points on Tuesday night. But what it showed us went beyond just one box score — it was a symbol of where the Raptors are now.

Toronto Raptors v Detroit Pistons Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Historical lineage in basketball team is real, but not quite in the same tangible emotional way to everyone. We can look in the history books (e.g. Basketball Reference), and see how the Raptors of old transitioned into and out of the Vince Carter era, understand what happened during Chris Bosh’ reign, and then nod towards what we’ve come through as of late: the rise of DeMar DeRozan, the spiritual engine of Kyle Lowry, and, yes, even that one-year walk-off with Kawhi Leonard.

For the most part, however, these three distinct time periods do not interact with each other by the people responsible for creating them. Yes, even as recently as just a year ago, when Carter was still playing against Lowry and Toronto’s current crew. That historical sense means much more to fans, of course, the people invested in the team beyond the measure of one player’s career — with a single team or in total. If you’re a former Raptor you may have good or bad memories of your time in Toronto, but it’s understandable if you’re not still thinking about the development of, say, Fred VanVleet. If you’ve been following Raptors basketball since 1995, though, it’s possible to take in that tapestry in full and see how this history fits together, each year weaving into the next to create an entire body of work.

Obviously VanVleet’s record-setting night on Tuesday was momentous for him as a player. He put in a career-high 54 points, smashing his previous high of 36, while leading the Raptors to a much-needed win in their quest to get back to .500 in 2021. It also enlivened what should have been a dull game against the Magic in February, which is something we can be thankful for in the moment. More broadly significant though is this: VanVleet now holds the Raptors’ franchise record for points in a game. And no matter how you define the word, he’s also now the historic leader for most points in a game by an undrafted player.

Much has already been written about how VanVleet got to his 54 — it was efficient, with Fred taking full advantage of a hot shooting night and bad defense — but I was struck by what happened afterwards, as the records were being announced and we came to understand just how big a moment this was for VanVleet and the Raptors. That’s where we got a true sense of the historic moment. And what’s more, we saw how history, specifically Raptors history, can reach out across the eras.

The former Raptors high-score in a single game was held by DeMar DeRozan, who hung 52 on the Bucks in overtime on New Year’s Day in 2018. This was during the peak of the “We the North” era for Toronto, when they’d assembled perhaps their deepest team in franchise history, fostering a bench unit led by none other than VanVleet. It was DeRozan, though, who was often the leader on that team. He, along with Lowry, were the squad’s twin engines, each doing different things on and off the court to put the team in position to win. It was also their friendship that set the tone for the franchise, the family atmosphere and brotherly love that carried the Raptors through their success — and past various disappointments.

By 2018, DeRozan had become the longest serving Raptor in franchise history, and the first star player to openly declare he would stick with Toronto. We know what happened next. DeRozan was traded from the Raptors, seven months after that 52-point scoring outburst, for Kawhi, who was coming off a lost season with one year left on his contract. It was a brutal reversal, even if the move ultimately worked out great for the team. The Raptors would indeed go on to win an NBA championship the following season, something that seemed unthinkable a decade ago in a different era. Nevertheless, that outcome complicated DeRozan’s legacy in Toronto. He defined a certain goodness for the Raptors, that’s for sure, but never quite got ahold of true greatness. At least that was the thinking at the time — especially as the team rode their parade buses through downtown Toronto with the Larry O’B in tow.

Last night though, we really did need some goodness. This Raptors season has been bizarre — the team’s been losing more than it’s been winning and they’re playing all their home games in Tampa, Florida, which feels like a cruel existential punishment. In all, there just haven’t been as many good vibes around Toronto. Seeing DeRozan on social media expressing his pride at VanVleet’s accomplishment was the kind of special moment we all needed. And it pointed to what exactly DeRozan did manage to bring to Toronto in lieu of a golden championship moment. We can go back now to those DeRozan-led teams and see how his goodness got Lowry onboard and invested, how DeRozan welcomed every new player to the team — from Serge Ibaka to Pascal Siakam to, yes, VanVleet — and how DeRozan and his iterations of the Raptors continued to strive for something more. He gave Toronto something to believe in.

It’s not nothing to consider VanVleet’s scoring explosion happened against the Magic’s Terrence Ross, who was also briefly Fred’s teammate and definitely someone who gained from his time under the wing of DeRozan. There’s a cosmic bit of coincidence at work here too. It was after all Ross who had held the Raptors previous franchise high-scoring mark in regulation, tied with Carter at 51, and representing another link to history. It’s amazing to note these connections. It’s amazing, in fact, to note they even exist, that there is indeed now a Raptors’ lineage of which to be proud. It’s a small thing perhaps, something that’s only truly important to fans of the team. But this joy and pride once felt just as unlikely a decade ago as Toronto’s championship win.

To see DeRozan celebrate the accomplishments of his former teammate, to see Lowry, now nine years on in Toronto, hold the game ball up in profuse appreciation, to see VanVleet accept the plaudits as the next player in that historic line is to feel something special about the Raptors. It’s not often this kind of bond is formed through history.

And win or lose, it’s definitely something to be cherished on and on into the future.