The 2022-23 Toronto Raptors season ended on a whimper (or an ear-piercing scream from a 10-year-old, if you prefer). Shortly after, Nick Nurse was dismissed as Head Coach, with most of his staff leaving as well. Whispers of a divided locker room soon made the social media rounds. As free agency hit, the team was hit with the rather unexpected departure of floor general and vocal leader, Fred VanVleet, as he signed with the Houston Rockets. Re-signing Jakob Poeltl and nabbing Dennis Schroeder off the free agency pile were moves that, while necessary (for different but still important reasons), didn’t exactly take the sting out of losing two integral pieces from Toronto’s championship core.
The Summer, however, wasn’t a complete Debbie Downer. The lottery gods (a.k.a. Orlando Magic) sent the Raptors a lifeline when the draft’s best shooter, Gradey Dick, fell right into their lap at pick #13. Schroeder would go on to lead Germany to an unexpected, undefeated run to Gold at the FIBA World Cup, nabbing Tournament MVP honours in the process. O.G. Anunoby survived his 54th instance of trade rumours. Scottie Barnes released another set of tantalizing workout videos to excite Raptors fans. Oh, and who could forget the weeks-long search for a new Head Coach? Darko Rajakovic has long been a name in coaching circles as one of the “best coaches to not coach an NBA team, yet”. He has a tough task ahead of him in trying to improve the standing of a team that got worse, on paper, while trying to build a culture that seemingly disappeared with the previous regime.
There are a ton of questions about the direction, or lack thereof, this Raptors team is taking (or not taking). What will Masai say about what’s transpired since Diar DeRozan rewarded her dad for taking her out of school? What does Darko have in mind for Pascal? Will Scottie be ready to take on more point guard duties?
Here’s your Media Day schedule, Raps fans:— Jay Rosales (@Rosalesaurus) September 29, 2023
9:00 a.m. – Masai Ujiri
9:30 a.m. – Darko Rajaković
10:00 a.m. – Pascal Siakam
10:30 a.m. – Scottie Barnes
10:45 a.m. – Dennis Schröder
11:30 a.m. – Gary Trent Jr.
11:45 a.m. – OG Anunoby
12:25 p.m. – Jakob Poeltl
Stay tuned to this thread as we keep you posted on all the great quotes from Media Day!
The President of the Toronto Raptors arrived 30 minutes late but went right down to business by addressing the lawsuit from the New York Knicks. “There has been one time when a team has sued a team. One time. Go figure.”
When referencing last season and the lack of Fred VanVleet action at the trade deadline, Masai hinted that the right deal wasn’t available. “Could we have traded Fred? If that’s a failure, then we take responsibility.” He added that how VanVleet’s free agency played out was “good for Fred but also good for us.”
When discussing the Damian Lillard trade and off-season trade rumours, Ujiri stressed, “We’re always going to be a patient team...Sometimes these things are sensationalized in the public. There’s a reason why our name is always mentioned. It’s growing our players. Individually they play well. They have value. We believe in our city. We continue to attack when these opportunities come.”
Masai was asked about the contract extensions of Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, and Gary Trent Jr. “We always take care of our players. We want to play. We want to play a certain way.” While he has talked to Pascal, there have not been discussions about a contract extension.
When asked about extensions for O.G. Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr., Masai looked at the back of the room towards Bobby Webster and said, “I think the time to talk about them is now”— Jay Rosales (@Rosalesaurus) October 2, 2023
Considering the team’s poor shooting last season and how the team will address that in the upcoming season, Masai stressed the importance of internal growth, drafting Gradey Dick, and the return of Otto Porter. “There will be lots of cutting, moving, passing in his (Darko’s) system.”
Masai ended his presser with a question about dealing with internal and external pressure. “I don’t feel any pressure. We’ve only had one losing season. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be the same person.
What appears to be a growing theme, surprisingly, Darko’s first question was also about the New York Knicks lawsuit. He declined to comment since it’s an on-going lawsuit, but did confirm that Ike Azotam is still employed on the Raptors.
Darko continued with Masai’s messaging around internal growth. Regarding Scottie Barnes, he noted Scottie’s ability as a willing passer. In pick-and-roll situations, he sees Barnes taking advantage when defended by a smaller guard and/or utilizing screens from Precious Achiuwa or Jakob Poeltl to create mismatches against bigs. As for specific skills he’s working on, Darko noted Barnes was working on his left hand.
"Player development is the most important thing. Not just for young guys but for everyone."— Raptors HQ (@RaptorsHQ) October 2, 2023
Question from @vivekmjacob about the choice to hire coaches with player development experience
Rajakovic leaned heavily into the roster and its strengths. “Players 1 through 4 will be interchangeable.” He stressed that all four of them, sans Poeltl, will handle the ball.
Darko says he ideally would like 4-5 players in the bench rotation, that it's too long a season to not have that and that those players need an opportunity to develop as well.— Vivek Jacob (@vivekmjacob) October 2, 2023
When commenting on selfishness, Darko stated that the Raptors would employ a 0.5 offense where quicker decisions would occur. When everything is flowing and moving right, the team will execute more efficiently in the half-court - a giant flaw in the Raptors offense last season. He finished off this section by saying he does not like heavy isolation. The notion of ‘less is more’ means making quicker decisions on offense.
Very little was mentioned by Darko in the offseason about Pascal. While some of that may be related to his name floating around trade rumours, Darko was asked about how Pascal has taken to the new coach. “He’s asking a lot of questions....really trying to buy in. He has a great willingness.”
Rajakovic wrapped things up by stating trust is needed for this team to succeed. Trust by Darko in his players and the system. Trust by the players in the coach and each other.
It’s appeared we’ve stepped away from the New York Knick lawsuit questions portion of Media Day! Pascal first addressed the departure of Fred VanVleet, “I’m incredibly proud of him.” Siakam said it’s going to feel weird playing without him. “He’s going to be hard to replace.”
Pascal was asked about his contract extensions multiple times, in various forms, throughout his presser. “I’m focused on the present.” He deferred contract specifics over to his agent. Read between the lines as much as you want but Pascal didn’t exactly give a ringing endorsement with his current situation and future with the team. “I wanna be a part of something awesome.”
When speaking about his new Head Coach, Pascal mentioned it will take time to learn from each other. “As long as there’s respect...that’s all that matters.”
Contract talks aside, Siakam tried to keep things light. He stressed multiple times that he feels blessed to do what he loves. “I want to enjoy this. I’m living my dream. I’m super blessed.”
Gary Trent Jr.
As soft-spoken as Gary is, he gave the loudest endorsement to Darko Rajakovic (so far). “He’s super receptive. His communication has been great. Whether it’s talking about basketball, his kids, his journey.” GTJ went as far as admitting, “I’ve had more conversations with him than with anyone” (referencing his relationship with coaches). During the hiring process, Darko’s ability to connect on a personal level with everyone he interacts with was a huge selling point that was already paying dividends.
Gary would not comment on his contract extension talks (or lack thereof), “Control what you can control.”
On the topic of leadership and who takes over after Fred’s departure, Gary said it’s not something that gets appointed. It will come naturally. He just wants to contribute to anything that ultimately leads to winning. Gary then dropped a line I will surely use on my children, “Be an energy giver, not an energy taker.”
When asked about the style of play that Coach Rajakovic is trying to implement, he said it’s “not necessarily run-and-gun” but did state it would be up tempo with an emphasis on playing fast.
In true O.G. Anunoby fashion, answers were short but sweet.
When asked about how this off-season has differed from others, in terms of how he prepared, “this season isn’t any different.”
He spoke with Darko a lot during the offseason. “He loves talking about basketball....strategy...offense....defense.” (Sidenote: there weren’t any words spoken during those gaps. The periods represent the space that hung in the air as he carefully planned each word)
Oh right, O.G. became an owner this offseason.
"I love basketball. I love London. I'm excited for the team and to see them grow."— Raptors HQ (@RaptorsHQ) October 2, 2023
Anunoby on why he wanted to buy part of the London Lions men's basketball team (based out of London, England).
Unlike Gary and Pascal who deferred to their respective agents, O.G. at least offered some encouraging words, “I love Toronto. I wanna be here.”
Scottie’s got a huge season ahead of him. That’s probably the understatement of the year but it’s reassuring to hear that Darko’s already creating connections with the players, “he makes me feel good. I’m confident in my game.”
Barnes’ offseason regimen consisted of a lot of running. With Fred’s departure and Darko’s reassurance, Scottie will be handling the ball a lot more. In preparation for more usage, specifically in late-game scenarios, Scottie focused on his conditioning during the summer.
Barnes says he's put more muscle. About 9 pounds. Says he's 240lbs for the first time. Says he feels great— Eric Smith (@Eric__Smith) October 2, 2023
When discussing the system the Darko’s trying to implement, Scottie pointed out that the team needs to play more together. The main emphasis will be on getting more movement/action with less dribbling. While chemistry on the court is going to be paramount, the chemistry between Darko and his players is already evident. “He brings a lot of energy and joy. I love that about him.”
Along the same lines with culture and vibes, Scottie stressed the importance of positivity. “We need to get back to having fun and enjoying the game.” He pointed out that last year’s negativity was “energy-draining,” and again lauded his coach, stating how good a job Darko is doing in ensuring they’re all playing together more. Scottie spoke of a willingness to sacrifice (the ball) more, knowing the ball will come back to you. “I love passing the ball. I love getting guys more involved.”
With Dennis Schroder a last-minute scratch from availability (travel issues), Media Day wrapped up with Poeltl. He seemed quite excited to have another teammate who spoke German.
Jakob Poeltl on playing with another German speaker in Dennis Schröder:— Adam Laskaris (@adam_la2karis) October 2, 2023
“Maybe we’ll get some sneak plays on the court with a little secret communication.” pic.twitter.com/t46QE8aSlg
Darko spoke earlier about the ball-handling duties running 1 through 4. With Poeltl as the nominal ‘5’, he’ll have the difficult task of screening for different types of players with different preferences. “My experience will help with that.” Poeltl plans on leaning into his experience screening for various types of players with the Raptors and Spurs. He emphasized that it might take a couple of games or a few weeks to get used to each other's tendencies.
When asked about comparing last season to this, Jakob said there’s a big difference in core principles. While there have been elements of a high-post offense, he was quick to point out that it’ll take some getting used to for the entire team.
The team’s culture was viewed as a large reason why the team underperformed last season. Poeltl said it’ll be important to maintain enjoying playing for each other through ups and downs. He felt that the team struggled last season when faced with adversity, often turning to iso ball and losing track of what was working for the team. This season’s success will be about finding an identity when shots aren’t falling.
Despite all the conversations about a rejuvenated half-court offense, Jakob still believes the team’s biggest strength is its ability to turn teams over and get out in transition.
The transition now, as Media Day comes to an end, is from Toronto to Vancouver where the Raptors will kick off training camp! Thank you for following along. Make sure to stay plugged into Raptors HQ as we get you prepared for the season with player previews!