It was last March. The Raptors had lost 13 of 14 games. VanVleet and several other key players on the team, as well as most of his coaching staff, were recovering from COVID. Their long and exhausting season in Tampa was drawing to a disappointing end, and the writing was on the wall. It was time to cut their losses and look to the future.
VanVleet understood, but that didn’t mean he was happy. For a player who has won wherever he has gone since picking up a basketball for the first time, it was the lowest.
“Outside of the real stuff in the real world, this was probably the lowest point I’ve ever had, mentally and physically,” the 27-year-old goalie said in a recent interview with TSN. “Missing the playoffs, having to stay home and watch the other teams play, consider whether or not to play at the end [of the season] and celebrate getting a draft pick. We like [fourth-overall pick] Scottie [Barnes] to death, but five months ago I was like, why are we celebrating by trying to get a top pick? This is not our point.
“So all of these things were just a great reminder of how much we should appreciate what we have on a daily basis, and never relive it again. This is what I said to myself. I don’t ever want to do this again. “
VanVleet and the Raptors are set to open a new season. They are back in Toronto, where they will host the Washington Wizards to kick off on Wednesday, exactly 600 days after their last meaningful basketball game in front of a full house at Scotiabank Arena.
Finally, they will have the opportunity to turn the page and put their 2020-21 campaign behind them. The best way to do this is to get back to where they were before it happened.
This team isn’t competing for a championship, not yet anyway, but they can hope to emulate the pesky group of outperformers who so admirably defended their title before the pandemic struck and the 2019-20 campaign was put on hold. .
The notable difference between this team and this team is around 20 years of NBA experience. It was a team made up of veterans, basketball scholars and champions. This team had Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol.
It’s a team made up of children. Barnes was four when Lowry entered the league. A native of Toronto, Dalano Banton grew up watching Andrea Bargnani’s Raptors, not Chris Bosh or Vince Carter – he was born three months before Carter’s iconic performance in the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk competition.
The average age of the 17 players in the Raptors’ opening roster is 24.5, making them the seventh youngest team in the NBA. If you subtract Goran Dragic, 35, and at some point this season they could do that, they would be the fourth youngest. Eight seasons of NBA experience separate Dragic, a 13-year-old veteran, from the next longest-serving players on the team, VanVleet and Pascal Siakam.
If the hope is to flush out what happened last season, this is the group to do it with. It is a blank canvas, a ball of clay ready to be molded. What form will they take? Much of that will go to the people doing the casting: Nick Nurse and his coaching staff, as well as the young club leaders.
With more experience on the list in previous years, the nurse often opted for rest over practice time. Full-team training was scarce as the season progressed. In the morning, the young people received their representatives with the assistant coaches. The vets would come for a short film session, some interview and maybe some one-on-one fieldwork.
But with a much younger, greener squad, and without Lowry’s influence on the team’s training schedule, Nurse plans to spend a lot more time in the gym this year.
“Without Kyle messing things up, Nick can really get things done,” VanVleet joked.
“I think for this group it’s important to take a step back and let Nick do his thing with these guys and teach them. Sometimes I have my head down and my eyes closed and I try to get out of it because obviously I did and some of the things are a bit mundane and boring. But we have a group that really needs that stuff, so the practice has been a little different than what Nick is used to, but I think it will be good for the group.
VanVleet is not the only one to have taken a step back in the past 20 months. He also noticed a difference in the nurse throughout training camp. The Raptors head coach is a little less zen than before. Instead of going with the flow, this version of Nurse has been more meticulous, more focused on the little details. VanVleet’s job is to be an intermediary, the bridge between coaches and other players, especially the younger ones.
“I’m translating it,” VanVleet said. “I’m just trying to make it relevant… It’s our job to just leave [the young players] know that we trust Nick, that me and Pascal trust Nick, this OG [Anunoby] trusts Nick and the coaching staff so these new guys have no choice. The coach is such [an] out of the frame [thinker] in terms of NBA fraternity, like he doesn’t really follow the lore or the guidelines of most coaches so I think some guys maybe just don’t know how to decipher it or how to take it. And I think that’s the only thing I tried to do is just be the [buffer] and let them know that we trust him and that he’s a little weird sometimes, but he’s won us a championship, so he knows what he’s doing.
While the other core pieces of the team, Siakam and Anunoby, are gentle by nature, this is a role that should come more naturally to VanVleet. He spent most of his adult life preparing for it. Of course, he was not always the leader he is today.
“I was a terrible leader [growing up] Said VanVleet. “As a young child, I was all emotion. “
VanVleet thanks his mom and stepfather, as well as high school coach Bryan Ott, for helping him become more balanced and understand other points of view.
Lowry’s mentorship has also been an important part of his development as a leader. From the moment VanVleet entered the league as an undrafted free agent, the veteran point guard embraced him and took him under his wing. He is the appropriate successor to Lowry. During his five seasons as a pro, he earned the respect of his peers, not only in the Toronto locker room, but in the league as well.
He knows his leadership style is not for everyone. “I’m a little stupid,” he admits. He can be frank. He says it as it is, which is a laudable quality in a leader, but not always well received by professional athletes in high stress situations.
Still, as long as the common goal is to win, he thinks he can find a way to connect with anyone. If winning isn’t a priority for you, you probably won’t find much in common with the Raptors point guard.
“We have a way of doing it here and if you’re all about yourself and don’t really fit into the mold that we have, you’re going to set yourself apart,” VanVleet said. “Unless you’re extremely good at your job to the point where we need to take care of it, then we will.” But this franchise does a good job of hiring the right people, the right players and the right staff. “
This crash course isn’t just about teaching Nurse’s complex defensive patterns. It’s not just about learning the X’s and O’s. They’re trying to show these guys how to be pros, to show them what it means to be a Raptor.
Last year notwithstanding, that meant competing every night, holding each other accountable, sacrificing yourself for the betterment of the team, and working to maximize potential, individually and collectively. It is a culture based on character and chemistry. It’s a winning culture, or at least it was. Through the adversity of last season, some of that identity has been lost. Now it’s up to those who are left to get it back.
VanVleet is not lacking in confidence, but he is also a realist at heart, and these qualities don’t always come together.
[I’m] a guy who feels like i can get anything i want anytime, [but] I don’t know how many games I will win if I shoot the ball 30 times per game, ”he said.
He wants to believe that anything is possible for this team, that he can bring them back to notoriety, to the top of the sport, but he also knows that it will take patience and a lot of work. Rebuilding what they had before is a process and it will take time. He knows there is probably a limit to what they can accomplish this season, but he doesn’t want them to know it. It’s part of being a leader, and he’s ready to lead.
“For me as a playmaker, [I’m] just focus on growing guys, which guys have to go where, and just trying to be a part of that process, ”VanVleet said. ” Yes [we’re not a championship team right now] so we still have to build it and I still have to keep myself and my teammates at a high level because it is the best way to grow. But at the same time, it’s just realizing that every mistake isn’t the end of the world. It’s a weird dynamic because when you’re chasing a championship the way you deal with things is totally different than when you’re not. So it will be a new experience, but for me the only way I know is to try and win every game you can and figure out what’s going on from there.