February 28th, 2020 was the last time the Toronto Raptors had a normal day at Scotiabank Arena. They played the Hornets, lost a close game, and then hit the road for the West coast trip that would conclude in Utah. You know what happened next.
Nearly 18 months to the day, the Raptors congregated at their home arena again for this season’s media day, and it felt almost... normal?
Sure there were six feet between each chair and masks and vaccination proof at the door, but otherwise, all the first day of school vibes you expect from media day were very much in the air.
Bobby Webster, Nick Nurse, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr. and Goran Dragic took to the podium to field the usual string of preseason-y questions. Here’s the big takeaway from each of their pressers on Monday.
The Star’s Doug Smith rightfully didn’t waste time asking the Raps GM the question surely on the mind of every Raptors fan who read the recent Rolling Stone piece on anti-vax sentiment among NBA players: what’s the team’s vaccination status?
The news is very good on that front. Per Webster, the team is a single second dose away from achieving a 100% vaccination rate — a landmark he says the team will formally announce. It’s expected that’ll happen before opening day.
It’s disappointing that this has to be viewed as huge news, but with all sorts of players across the league showing their asses when asked about their vaccinations or lack thereof on Monday, it’s a relief that the Raptors discourse won’t be dominated by that conversation all season. Nor will there be any issues with missing guys for games in the cities where vaccination is required to take the court.
Other than that very welcome update, Webster was pretty vague in his assessment of the season to come. He made mention of the team having a good mix of long and versatile defenders, along with a collection of ball-handling guards which could allow them to continue the grand Raptors tradition of playing multiple point guard lineups.
Webster also spoke a lot about the transition from the Kyle Lowry era into the one led by Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. There seems to be an understanding from the front office that this won’t exactly be a contending season for the team. But it does not at all sound like the team is expecting another year refreshing lottery odds.
“Our expectations are always to win, to be competitive, to hold our guys accountable, to make sure they’re playing the right way,” said Webster of the balance between developing a younger roster while keeping up the franchise’s winning tradition. “There is a core that has won, there’s a core that has been in the league a decent amount of time,” said Webster, pointing to the three young vets on the team and Goran Dragic as the guys who are set to lead the room going forward.
On Anunoby, Webster echoed essentially every Raptors fan’s feelings going into what should be a year of expansion for OG.
“We’re all looking forward to OG.”
Per Webster, the key for Anunoby will be maintaining his world class defense while exploring more of his offensive potential, and added that the time Siakam misses early in the year will be a great opportunity for him.
Nurse echoed some of Webster’s points about the passing of the torch from Lowry to the established crew of core guys who could never quite edge out from behind the greatest Raptor of all-time’s notable shadow.
“Those people are pretty obvious,” Nurse said of the team’s new trio of front-facing voices. “It’s the people who have been immersed in this culture and been here for a number of years.”
Otherwise, Nurse’s presser was more or less an exercise in watching Nurse think through how his funky roster is going to translate into actual games. He seems aware that the offensive talent on the roster doesn’t quite match up with the juice they’re set to bring to the less sexy end of the floor.
“If we’re gonna play all this defense, we better get some offense out of it,” he joked.
Asked about his biggest concern going into the season, Nurse said “I don’t know if I know yet, but if I had to sit here and wonder — is there enough scoring there?”
“I kind of believe in scoring by the system,” he continued. “OG’s coming as we know as a scorer — there’s a lot of concerns, but nothing that really worries me. I think there will be things to polish up and push forward... I’m just excited to get them out there to see. I think there’s a lot of depth, and a lot of athleticism and a lot of enthusiasm as well.”
On the topic of enthusiasm — it seems people universally love Scottie Barnes to bits. Most everyone who hit the podium Monday mentioned Barnes’ infectious energy. Nurse also alluded to how he might be deployed in his rookie season.
“His role’s gonna be huge,” Nurse said. “I’m sitting here from day one (hoping) to give him all the minutes and reps that he can handle.”
Like Webster, Nurse referred to the gap between the season’s start and Siakam’s return as a time for Barnes to get some chances to fill the void. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a long, defensively-minded dude who tries hard is in line to be a part of Nurse’s rotation from day one.
With Fred, the big takeaway here is that he is absolutely the perfect guy to be taking over from Lowry as the franchise’s vocal leader. His presser was a 20 minute look at a man entirely comfortable speaking on behalf of an entire team.
He began detailing how thrilled he is to be back in Toronto, and how eager he is to get a taste of the home crowd for the first time in a year and a half.
“Its a beautiful place to be. I have an extreme connection with this city for many reasons,” VanVleet said. “It’s really become my second home. Me and my family are happy to be back. But also there’s this anticipation of what these games will be like.”
On the heels of Webster and Nurse acknowledging how this season will be a bit of a push and pull between development and winning, VanVleet made his intention to win games very clear.
“I’m excited. I think that it’s always a challenge every season, every season that you start there’s gonna be guys who weren’t there before ,” said VanVleet on the new-look roster around him and the lower than usual expectations for the team. “I read a quote the other day that said “there’s things that have never been done done every day.” We have a young, hungry group that are looking to prove themselves.”
“I’m certainly not gonna lower my standards no matter who’s on the team.”
Among the series of well-considered answers VanVleet offered, the most thoughtful came in response to a question about Pascal Siakam, his recent comments to the New York Times about not feeling like “the guy” last year, and where people tend to miss the mark when talking about Siakam at large. Here’s the whole thing.
Anyways, I thought this was a hell of an answer by Fred VanVleet.— Esfandiar | Es (@JustEsBaraheni) September 27, 2021
Re: Pascal & his frustrations with not being “the guy” last season. pic.twitter.com/h3n3ASyXmz
Yeah, the post-Lowry era is gonna be just fine.
It’s been a trying past 18 months for Siakam, so it was absolutely wonderful to see him in the best spirits we’ve publicly seen him in since The Before Times.
He began by detailing how happy he is to be back in Toronto — even referencing the cool fall air as a feature and not a bug — before picking up the through line of the day about this season being about the guys who were groomed under Kyle Lowry finally taking hold of the keys to the franchise. He even mentioned a meeting between him, VanVleet, Anunoby and Masai Ujiri where that very conversation took place.
“Kyle is such a natural leader and his presence is definitely felt. Now I think that obviously with Kyle gone there’s no questions,” said Siakam.
Inevitably, he was asked about the aforementioned New York Times piece as well. His response to all the talk about him being “the guy” for the Raptors last season: “I don’t like the word “The Guy”... I wanna be the guy who wins.”
As far as his injury recovery goes, we didn’t get a firm timeline for his return on Monday — though Michael Grange of Sportsnet did report that American Thanksgiving is the date the Raptors are hoping for him to be back by internally. He is however doing solo workouts at the Raptors’ practice facility, and per Nick Nurse his conditioning is in a good place.
More than anything Siakam projected a feeling of ease on Monday — about his rehab, his role within the leadership structure, and the expectations that come with being the best player on an NBA team. Nothing he could have said on media day could have possibly been as encouraging as the smile he carried throughout his 15 minutes under the big lights.
And all the rest
- Gary Trent Jr. was among the guys who spoke Monday as well, though his appearance was pretty short. Last season’s vibes savior doesn’t quite match his on court vigor on the mic, which is more than okay. His presser was mostly just a series of differently packaged responses to questions about his experience in Toronto so far — during the most notable of which he made note of how insane Toronto’s bidding war-inciting real estate market is. Now that he’s been radicalized I’ll try to sneak him a question about his thoughts on removing cars from the downtown core.
- And the last the podium visitor of the day was Goran Dragic. I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision at all, but Dragic did some pretty excellent PR for himself after saying some things about Toronto not being his ideal landing spot that may or may not have been mistranslated (it didn’t help matters that Raptors fans were predisposed to dislike Dragic from day one). In a matter of about 10 minutes, he spoke about Kyle Lowry’s number being headed for the rafters as part of his decision to wear number 1 instead of number 7; he raved about all the mentorship Canadian legend Steve Nash provided him in Phoenix when talking about the wisdom he can lend to the Raptors’ young guys; and cheekily referenced OG Anunoby as a dude who has tormented him on defense for years. His talking points fell so cleanly under the umbrella of “shit Raptors fans like” that it almost makes you question whether they were fed to him, but you’ll very much take it. It’s worth noting that Dragic does not at all seem like a guy who will toxify the locker room simply because he may want to be somewhere else more.
That was it for the media day appearances on Monday, but you can look forward to OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes addressing the media from OVO Athletic Centre on Tuesday, where guys will definitely speak for the same amount of time.