East-leading Raptors find themselves in national spotlight

* Tonight on ESPN: Sixers vs. Raptors, 8 ET

The Toronto Raptors underwent perhaps the most dramatic roster overhaul in the NBA in the offseason. Gone were coach Dwane Casey and franchise icon DeMar DeRozan, replaced by Nick Nurse and Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs, respectively. That change could have caused Toronto to fall from it’s lofty perch last season when it won a franchise-record 59 games and claimed the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Fast-forward to tonight, and Toronto is once again leading the East a showdown with the Philadelphia 76ers — the conference’s current No. 3 seed — looms. ESPN will broadcast the game and has taken notice of the rise of Canada’s NBA team, as it will feature the Raptors for an entire day leading up to the Sixers-Raptors game at 8 p.m.

As Josh Lewenberg of TSN points out, the whole experience has been both eye-opening and fun for the Raptors and their players. The network is calling this day-long coverage of the team “Toronto All-Access”. As part of it, multiple camera crews captured player arrivals to the Raptors’ gym and got shots of parts of practice. Star guard Kyle Lowry also spoke with Rachel Nichols for an interview that will air on today’s edition of “The Jump.”

Here’s more from Lewenberg on the Raptors’ special day of coverage:

“It’s weird, man,” said Raptors forward Pascal Siakam. “It’s weird. I’m not used to it. It’s a little different. Yeah, it’s a little different, that’s all I’ll say. I’m always used to coming to practice and there are a few cameras there, but that’s about it. So it’s a little different.”

The Raptors have surely come a long way from the team that went four straight seasons without playing a single game on U.S. national television earlier this decade. In fact, following Chris Bosh’s departure in 2004, Toronto was only scheduled for four national TV games in a 10-year span.

Even during this recent run – easily the best in franchise history, with five straight playoff appearances, a Conference Finals berth, and a team record 59-win season last year – they could only make moderate gains in that regard.

As the Raptors prepare for their long awaited close-up, it’s not hard to see the progress they’ve made, or why they’re making it. That’s what the best record in the NBA and the presence of a true superstar will do. Wednesday’s game is one of 15 that Toronto will play on U.S. national TV this season – the most the team has been scheduled for since the Vince Carter era (2001-02). Call it the Kawhi Leonard effect.

“For me, we have to build a brand that is worth talking about,” said team president Masai Ujiri.

Ujiri has made it his mission to elevate the profile of the franchise since taking over as GM in 2013. He has been driven to get respect on a national scale for Canada’s NBA team and told Lewenberg what is driving him in this cause.

“We can’t just complain and complain,” he said. “I think these guys are worth it. They’re playing, they’re showing. We don’t want to make noise with no substance. I think if we look at the last few years, I feel that we should [have gotten] on national TV [more]. We have more this year, and our hope is we continue. But it starts with the team and how well we do.”

These few days are big for Ujiri and the Raptors all around. Giants of Africa, Ujiri’s not-for-profit organization, will host its annual gala to celebrate and honour the life of Nelson Mandela on Tuesday evening. The Raptors will continue to pay homage to the late South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner during Wednesday’s game, which will be played on a Mandela 100 themed court.

So far, the Raptors have fared well in the spotlight this season. They’re 2-1 in U.S. nationally televised games, with a pair of big wins – a decisive victory over the Celtics in October and last week’s overtime thriller against the Warriors – and an overtime loss in Boston last month.

If nothing else, there are simply more eyes on them. That means each player will almost certainly have family and friends watching that don’t normally get to see them play. It also means that, even though it’s just one game, the result can drastically alter the perception of a team.