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Raptors Banking On Total Team Effort As Season Begins

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Mike Ulmer - raptors.com
October 26, 2010

Few will remember that in the end the Toronto Raptors missed a playoff spot by a single game last season.

Fewer still will believe the club finished 40-42, one win away from .500.

That’s because beyond the numbers, the season was a disappointment. Constant questions and speculation about the future of big man Chris Bosh taxed the team and the disappointing performance of Hedo Turkoglu resulted in the forward heading to Phoenix in exchange for Leandro Barbosa.

This year’s edition of the Raptors will be profoundly different, in large part because of the departure of Bosh and Turkoglu, but also because of swelling expectations for young players such as DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Sonny Weems.

“They have a lot of joy and love for the game,” said coach Jay Triano. “That stuff I think becomes infectious.”

The Raptors have eschewed the concept of one star for a cast of complimentary talents.

“We are going to make sure we ride the hot hands, get everyone a lot of touches and recognize some nights it’s going to be one guy and another night it’s going to be a whole host of players,” Triano said.

First among them is Andrea Bargnani, a fourth-year-pro who will become the focus of the offence now that Bosh is gone. That means replacing 24 points and 10.8 rebounds. Even if Bargnani, as expected, flourishes with extra attention, he will be hard pressed to push his scoring to that level. Bargnani has been focusing his low post game and says it is better than ever. “I worked on it a lot this summer,” said Bargnani. “Of course I will continue to work on it. You always want to improve.”

A seven-footer who is adept at putting the ball on the floor and getting to the basket should be able to push his rebounds way past last year’s 6.2 boards a game.

Of course, the Raptors don’t have to replace every point and rebound provided by Bosh. What they do need to do is tighten up the rebounding on both sides of the court. The Raptors finished 24th in offensive rebounding last season and 23rd when rebounding under their own basket.

Part of the solution to that shortfall is power forward Reggie Evans. Hobbled by injuries last season, Evans has a very limited offensive game but he sets picks that rattle fillings and he is a conscientious rebounder. The Raps are also big on forward Johnson, another player who operates best within reach of the basket and Weems, an athletic, energetic small forward should contribute more rebounds.

Six-foot-11 Australian David Andersen and seven-foot-one Solomon Alibi should be on hand to provide a few more boards when Bargnani sits.

If the Raptors are to prosper, they will need accelerated improvement from shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. Just 21, DeRozan started 65 games and knocked down 8.6 points a night with just under three boards a game.

“I want to be more aggressive and help my team out a lot more,” DeRozan said. “I want to bring some experience from my first year to my second year.”

Triano said starting DeRozan last season will pay dividends this year.

“I think he’s got a lot more experience being on the floor in crucial times. I think that’s going to be something that benefits him not only this year but throughout his career. He’s been thrown into a position and adapted. We think he’s grown because of that.”

Barbosa has been impressive in preseason and his exceptional foot speed has been deployed by Triano as much for his defence as for his offence. The 30-year-old Barbosa needs to boost last season's average of 13.4 points a game but a lingering wrist injury may determine how he performs in the early going. If he needs someone to break down a defence with dribble penetration, Triano will turn to Jarrett Jack or Barbosa.

Another newcomer, Linas Kleiza, averaged 10 points in 23 minutes of court time in his last two years in Denver where he played behind star Carmelo Anthony. Last year, he averaged 14 points and five rebounds in Europe.

“In Denver I was a spot-up shooter,” Kleiza said. “Going back to Europe I had a very good team and I kind of expanded my game and showed everybody I could do way more than just shoot.”

Meanwhile, the familiar conversation continues on who should start at point guard. Jack and Jose Calderon are completely different players. Jack makes plays off the dribble and he is a better defender. Calderon is more conservative but has a much more dependable outside shot.

The identity of the point guards, the ability to gain scoring from as many sources as possible and the transformation of the team into a club that wants to rebound the basketball will determine what people say next year about the 2010-2011 Raptors.

So will the club’s stable of young, hungry players.

“We can rebound, block shots, take shots,” said Weems. “We have some good people. It’s just a matter of us putting it together.”

They will do so without the looming departure of their best player. This year, Raptors basketball will be about basketball.

“We know who we are,” Triano said. “There are no clouds. The season is in front of us and we are going to do our best to be the best we can be.”

“I think it’s going to crazy,” DeRozan said of Wednesday’s return to the court. “I think the city is going to be very excited for us.”