Takeaways From Media Day 2021

by Vivek Jacob

You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Pascal Siakam described riding the TTC for the first time, Fred VanVleet said he didn’t realize how much he enjoyed living in Toronto until he was away in Tampa, and Nick Nurse was already excited by the prospect of the electricity in the building for the first preseason game.

It was a bit surreal seeing live faces of members of the Toronto Raptors again. Whether it was executive, coach, or player, to think the last time they were within the friendly confines of Scotiabank Arena was 18 months ago -- a time when they were still the NBA’s defending champions -- was to realize just how much has changed.

There was no Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, or Norman Powell walking up to the podium. The keys to the franchise firmly in the hands of the next iteration of this franchise: the likes of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby ready to remind that Tampa was an anomaly, that this team is going to be very competitive and especially tough to beat in their own building -- power rankings and win total over/unders be damned.

GM Bobby Webster confirmed that the team is currently one-second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine away from being fully vaccinated, and fully expect to be there by opening night on Oct. 20 against the Washington Wizards. He also confirmed that unvaccinated players from opposing teams will be granted an exemption to travel to Toronto and play, though they will face stricter health and safety protocols.

There was much to take away beyond that, here are the biggest:

Pascal Siakam is happy as can be

It’s been a challenging 18 months for Siakam, we all can admit. When the 2019-20 season paused in March, Siakam was leading a Raptors team that increasingly looked like it could defend its title. He was averaging over 23 points a game, 7.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 35.9 percent beyond the arc and was a no-doubt All-NBAer. He struggled in the bubble, went through some growing pains as ‘The Guy’ in Tampa while also suffering from COVID-19 and later a shoulder injury.

When Siakam sat down at the Media Day podium, the only discomfort was in adjusting his chair. When answering questions, he was enthusiastic, confident, and care-free. As far as his interactions with the media, specifically, this was an eye-catching return to form.

“We’re gonna do it together,” Siakam said. “I think for me, again, I don’t like the word ‘the guy.’ I don’t like using it. I want to be the guy who wins. I want to win. That’s all I care about. If it’s playing more defence, if it’s scoring more points, if it’s being more of a vocal leader or someone who leads by example, that’s what I want to do. I just want to figure out what my role is. Whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what I’m gonna do.”

While still limited to one-on-none work in the gym, a happy Siakam whenever he returns to the court will go a long way towards the Raptors’ playoff hopes.

Scottie Barnes has made an early impression on EVERYONE

While Siakam made a bubbly appearance, Barnes’ personality was effervescent despite its physical absence. From Webster to Nurse to Siakam to Goran Dragic, everyone raved about the energy and approach that Barnes brings to the table. Siakam described an incident at OVO Athletic Centre where he just finished his physical and was walking over and Barnes tried to chest bump him like he just hit a game-winner.

“I think he's just an exciting kid, like he's exciting to be around and, and he just has a great presence and it’s really, really fun to see,” Siakam said. “I mean, I feel like he might beat me in terms of energy just because he's always happy, always excited. It's great to see.”

As far as his role is concerned, Nurse said he anticipated Barnes having a huge role this season and wants to give him as many minutes and reps as he can handle and possibly may even feature in some closing lineups depending on how quickly he progresses.

“I think his impact of defending, rebounding, running, spirit, enthusiasm, size -- all that stuff gets him in the mix, early and often,” Nurse said.

Fred VanVleet is the voice of the Raptors

The Raptors are two seasons removed from being NBA champions and VanVleet is aware. According to him, every year you don’t win should increase the chip on your shoulder. He’s not lowering his standards for anyone and paying no mind to what prognosticators may think. It’s that mindset and leadership that will leave you believing the locker room is in good hands.

There may not be a greater bonding experience than winning a championship together, but VanVleet found the past season in Tampa enlightening in terms of seeing who really is willing to stand with the team through thick and thin.

“When we had a season like we had last year, you can really look around the room and it’s, alright, I can count on one hand who is with us, who is not,” VanVleet said. “You can see for better or for worse, fan engagement, fan interaction. I think that’s another way to bond, as well, when things are not good because that’s a better test of who people are when things are not going well.”

Nick Nurse has his utility belt strapped and ready to go

There may not be a seven-footer on the roster but Nurse has plenty of strength, length, and flexibility to work with. He was extremely excited about the possibilities that could mean on the court, especially defensively.

At their best, the Raptors are constantly applying pressure on the ball while racing all over the floor to cut off passing angles or limit breathing space. Nurse anticipates a whole lot more of that this season.

“We want to try to be disruptive,” Nurse said about the team’s defensive plan. “As usual, I think that will be, you know, I think all the kind of same sized guys a lot of the times gives you a lot more switching to do and again that goes along with switching to disrupt, right, not just switching to slide along, but switching to get in there and jar the ball loose and change patterns and cut offences off and things like that. And I also think that all the length should enable us to play a lot more zone.”

Offensively, with the unique advantage of players in the 6-foot-7 to 6-foot-10 height range who can also handle the ball from Siakam to Anunoby to Barnes to Watanabe, Nurse believes the Raptors will be able to get out into the open court in more ways than before. While he doesn’t want them to be a run-and-gun team for the sake of it, he sees the opportunity for his potentially stifling defence to create better transition opportunities through its variety.

“I think that we should be moving pieces around a lot, just depending on what lineup is on the floor,” Nurse said. “So, I think that it should look different. Who's the first guy down the floor? Who's filling the corners? Who's pushing the ball should all be changing constantly if we get this the way we think we're going to, you know, get there eventually with this.”

Goran Dragic is here to help

Dragic is entering his 14th NBA season. He has a boatload of international experience and has enjoyed both individual and team success. He is going to help the Raptors in immeasurable ways off the court while still being an effective offensive talent on the court.

Sure, there were comments he made while in Slovenia with regards to playing for a team closer to championship contention, but they were blown out of proportion and he’s since apologized twice. Did we mention how much he loves Scottie, too?

As the most experienced member of the roster, Dragic is hoping to share his experiences and good habits that have helped him be successful at this level for so long. He remembers being a young campaigner with the Phoenix Suns and learning from none other than two-time MVP Steve Nash.

“How to be professional on the court, off the court,” Dragic said of what he learned from Nash and hopes to pass on. “At that time, I still didn't understand how to take care of yourself, your body and eat healthy and those things. And, of course, on the floor to be vocal and to talk to the guys. Even if it’s a bad play or something, to encourage the guys when it’s the hardest moment of the season or the game to step forward and to be vocal and to show them that it's just basketball and that everybody can do everything. But yeah, the most important thing is just to be an example for those young guys and to be a leader.”

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