Plenty of reasons to be optimistic with the Raptors this season

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Officially, the plan has not changed.

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The Raptors remain, according to no less an authority than Vice President and President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri himself, patiently pushing a team to championship contender status.

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Ujiri is the voice of reason, the adult in the room well aware that all that progress Scottie Barnes made a year ago, while surprisingly good and probably ahead of schedule for such a young player, does not mean not necessarily that the growing pains are over. .

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Asked about Barnes in particular, Ujiri pointed to the Boston Celtics and the few years Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown needed before they had the games and experience under their belts to take the Celtics to the NBA Finals in the year. last.

Tatum and Brown were both in their sixth year when they became the type of players capable of leading their team to a championship level.

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The last thing Ujiri, or the head of any organization, would want to do is put more pressure on a guy who should become the face of this franchise.

So there was a lot of talk about patience as the Raptors officially kicked off the 2022-23 campaign with their annual media day.

But then there’s the other side of the equation with young veterans like Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet looking around and seeing the talent around them, talent that’s had another solid off-season. improvement and a talent that returns almost intact from a year ago with only minor makeup changes.

Oh, and unlike a year ago, this talent is starting the year healthy.

No one comes out and says this is a team that can fight for a championship right now, but the players themselves aren’t exactly pumping the brakes when it comes to the quality of this team.

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Head coach Nick Nurse can tell you exactly how far ahead this team is already this year compared to a year ago.

« Sitting here a year ago today, we had no idea who we were on the scale of identity and how things were going to unfold and that’s how things unfolded, » did he declare. « In the first four to six weeks, I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to defend or understand the way we wanted to defend.

« And then all of a sudden – I think it was around December – we started to see the hard play and the schemes being executed, » Nurse continued. « For the most part, we played really good basketball after kind of integrating that mentality, so this year we know a little bit more about who we are. »

Again, Nurse isn’t suggesting the league start considering another NBA Finals outside of its borders just yet, but this step alone is huge in the space of a year.

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Now consider the varying levels of individual improvement you’ve heard about from those UCLA runs under the watchful eye of new Raptors assistant Rico Hines, to the even older boasts of Scottie Barnes, who has improved shooting and suddenly that 46 ½ total wins predict Vegas. starts to sound low.

The nurse doesn’t say it right away, but he senses a slightly higher level of expectation in his room.

« I just feel a bit of urgency, I feel a certain unity and I feel a real intensity this summer, and I think those are all three really good words for a training camp, » he said. declared.

Another reason the timeline might actually be a bit more accelerated than even Ujiri is willing to consider at this point is the status of current Raptor Pascal Siakam.

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The offense’s No. 1 option put together an NBA-worthy season a year ago after missing all of training camp and most of the offseason to recover from offseason surgery .

This time around, he’s fully healthy and coming off of one of his Pascal-like summers that were the norm before COVID hit the scene.

Siakam was front and center in all those videos and highlight packages released from UCLA this summer and is thrilled about it for himself but even more so for his team.

« I think we’ve got the pieces, » Siakam said when asked about the lack of moves made this offseason that basically extended to bringing in Otto Porter Jr. and Juancho Hernangomez and re- sign Chris Boucher and Thad Young.

“We have the talent. We added some good tracks like Otto and Juancho and we have different things. We wanted to add filming, we added that. We added (rookie) Christian Koloko (via draft) and obviously he has a lot to learn but we just continue to grow as a team.

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Beyond that, Siakam has seen the progress his teammates have made with his own eyes and he’s not afraid to brag about it.

“I think everyone has improved individually, from OG (Anunoby), to Scottie, to Dalano (Banton), everyone is working on their game and continuing to improve and we are improving as a team as well.

« Last year people didn’t expect much from us, but we fought and improved as a team, we got to experience the playoffs and that’s something a lot of our young players didn’t have, » Siakam said. « I think we have a bright future as a team and we just have to keep focusing on ourselves and keep working, being that team that plays every night to win. »

Again, it’s Ujiri’s job to temper expectations, but even he can’t help but be excited about what he’s seen. It kind of slipped when asked about his favorite part of the offseason.

« Watching these players over the summer and just seeing their eyes and how they like to compete and seeing everyone in the gym together, just watching the organization grow is important to me, » he said.

This growth could happen even a little faster than Ujiri is willing to admit at this point.

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