Raptors Training Camp Questions: Can Siakam, VanVleet fill leadership void?

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) and forward Pascal Siakam (43). (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)

The 2021-22 Toronto Raptors campaign will begin in earnest this coming week with media day festivities on Monday and training camp tipping off Tuesday.

For the first time since 2011, when the season started late because of the lockout, the Raptors will hold the entirety of their training camp in Toronto.

The Raptors are entering camp with a full 20-man training camp roster that will need to be cut down to 15. Here’s a look at the roster, according to position:

Guards: Dalano Banton, Goran Dragic, Malachi Flynn, David Johnson, Gary Trent Jr., Fred VanVleet.

Wings: OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Isaac Bonga, Justin Champagnie, Sam Dekker, Svi Mykhailiuk, Ishmail Wainright, Yuta Watanabe.

Bigs: Precious Achiuwa, Khem Birch, Chris Boucher, Freddie Gillespie, Reggie Perry, Pascal Siakam.

The Raptors’ exhibition season will begin a week after training camp begins on Oct. 4. Here’s a quick look at the schedule:

• Oct. 4 vs. Philadelphia at 7 p.m. ET (on Sportsnet ONE)
• Oct. 7 at Philadelphia at 7 p.m. ET
• Oct. 9 at Boston at 7 p.m. ET
• Oct. 11 vs. Houston at 7 p.m. ET
• Oct. 12 at Washington at 7 p.m. ET (on Sportsnet 360)

Heading into training camp there are a number of big questions facing the team, and a couple of Sportsnet’s basketball writers, Michael Grange and Steven Loung, provided some answers.

This team looks like it'll be led by the trio of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. How ready do you think they are to make this Raptors team, their Raptors team. How might they show it this season?

Michael Grange, Senior Basketball Insider: That’s the $68.8 million question, isn’t it?

That’s the total money the Raptors will be paying what amounts to their core this season. It’s actually decent value, providing Siakam delivers a more consistent performance than he has since he signed his four-year, $136.9 million max, which has two years after this one on it.

Anunoby ($16.1 million) and VanVleet ($19.7 million) are surer bets to perform commensurate with compensation, but for Toronto to return to the post-season and show they can be something other than stuck in the mushy middle, vying for the play-in tournament, those two will have to perform better than their pay grade -- delivering performances at both ends that get attention from all-star and all-defence voters.

It will have to start in camp as all three will need to fill the leadership void left by the departure of Kyle Lowry.

Steven Loung, NBA Editor: I think a lot will hinge on how healthy Siakam ends up being coming off his surgery rehab when he inevitably returns in November or December, but this trio has spent years being groomed for this new leadership role they'll be asked to take.

VanVleet already feels like the locker room leader of the team, and all three have shown flashes of why they demand respect the respect of their peers. This season, though, they’ll likely need to increase their productivity, particularly on the offensive end, to even more firmly establish themselves as the Raptors’ new “Big Three.”

How do you think Pascal Siakam's comments about his desire to be "the man" will impact team dynamics heading into this season?

Grange: The phrasing seemed a bit awkward, didn’t it? To be “the man” you have to play like “the man,” end of story.

Now the Raptors are obligated to help that process along given they put Siakam front-and-centre when they gave him his deal, keeping in mind that Siakam hasn’t really played that role in his late-blooming basketball career.

But, and this presumes Siakam comes back from his off-season shoulder surgery ready to roll in late November or early December, the team dynamics will be just fine as long as Siakam drops a steady stream of 20-8-5 lines with league-average three-point shooting, while generating free-throw attempts and playing with a high-degree of effort and focus as a switchy, twitchy Swiss Army Knife on defence. Oh, and show that he can be a solid playmaker in late-game and late-clock situations.

Do all that with a good level of consistency and the team dynamics will be fine, would be my guess. Fail to deliver and problems will follow. That’s the job.

Loung: The forthrightness that Siakam spoke with did seem a little odd, but it could pay great dividends for the Raptors.

Yes, on one hand it did make it seem like he has a big head, but on the other hand, don’t you want that from your star player?

Having confidence and belief in your abilities to the point that you actively want to take on increased pressure and responsibility isn’t bad thing in my books, and it’s a sign, to me, that Siakam has a better understanding of what his role on the team is now.

As for the team dynamics, I think Siakam asserting himself as the on-court leader of the team is a good thing because it establishes a clear pecking order within the team, allowing others to better understand what their roles are.

Given how his arrival in Toronto started, how do you think Goran Dragic will fit with this group?

Grange: Over and over again since Dragic’s unfortunate (for him) comments about having “higher ambitions” than playing in Toronto, I’ve only heard how good a person and teammate he is.

At 35 and with 13 seasons in the league, he gives the Raptors a dose of veteran leadership, and presuming he can play at the level he has in the past 12-18 months – his per-36 averages of 19.5 points and 6.2 assists with a true-shooting percentage of 56.4 over his past 109 games is nothing to sneeze at – he’ll fit in perfectly, especially given his ability to both lead second units and close games.

That doesn’t mean he’s here for the long haul – he’ll be a valuable trade chip as long as he stays healthy – but I don’t see any culture clashes.

Loung: I think Dragic will fit in fine with no problems at all.

He’s a bona fide pro and will show up and do his job to the best of his ability for however long he’s with the team.

Besides, it’s in his best interest to play well if he still wants to be moved, and if the Raptors also want to make use of the $19.7-million contract he’s under for this season as a trade chip to, perhaps, go after a bigger fish in the trade market.

So both Dragic and the Raptors have a vested interest in Dragic performing well for at least the first half of the season, and there should be no reason – other than an injury – that it wouldn’t happen.

There are many new faces in camp, who are you most interested to see during pre-season?

Grange: Well, other than how Scottie Barnes looks playing with and against real NBA competition, I think I’m most intrigued by what Precious Achuiwa can show.

At times he looks like a perfect high-IQ, high-energy small-ball five whose skill isn’t too far behind his motor. At other times, though, he makes it looks like the ball is covered in olive oil and there’s an eight-second shot clock. It’s normal stuff for a young player, but if he can blend his bucket of talent in a positive manner it would be another win for the Raptors' front office.

Barring something weird happening, Lowry was gone this past summer, and to emerge with a legitimate long-term rotation piece as well as whatever value they can wring out of Dragic would end up as nice work.

Loung: This is the obvious answer, but Scottie Barnes. You don’t get taken No. 4 in the draft – ahead of Jalen Suggs, whom many wanted the Raptors to take – and not garner a ton of interest.

He looked fantastic during Summer League, but I’m curious to see how his game might pop against actual NBA competition, even in the pre-season. In particular, I’d like to see if his Summer League-destroying defence can translate to the NBA game right now, or if there’s still some work to be done there, and if he’s able to make those same kind of reads as a playmaker against actual NBA defences.

Obviously, Barnes is considered to be something of a work in progress – especially with his jumper – but he flashed some advanced NBA skills during the Summer League and it’ll be interesting to see if those abilities are actually NBA-ready right now or not.

Heading into camp, what do you believe is this team's greatest strength is? What do you think is its greatest weakness?

Grange: For strength, it has to be defence, doesn’t it? VanVleet and Anunoby are All-NBA level defenders and Siakam isn’t far off when he’s at his best. They drafted Barnes for his potential at that level also.

You can then go on down the list, and outside of Gary Trent Jr., Svi Mykhailiuk and Dragic, most of the players on the roster – right down to camp invitees – have a defensive bent to their game.

Scoring, on the other hand, will be another matter.

The closest thing they have to a true “bucket getter” is Siakam, and he’s still learning that role on the fly. Anunoby has some upside there but how much I’m not sure. VanVleet has a full bag – you don’t score 54 points in an NBA game by accident – but if opposing teams harass him with length and quickness on the perimeter and crowd him at the rim, he can struggle like almost anyone outside of the league’s elite.

The team will defend hard and play unselfishly, I’m sure, but scoring in the half court might be a challenge.

Loung: This team’s greatest strength certainly appears to be its potential on the defensive end. The squad’s filled to the brim, seemingly, with nothing but six-foot-eight or six-foot-nine long, athletic multi-positional players who can guard at least four positions and switch everything on the floor.

That will make it very tough to get anything going offensively against the Raptors, however, this comes at the expense of their offence.

Like the 2003-2004 Raptors team coached by Kevin O’Neill, this team is likely to be a powerhouse defensively, but could struggle mightily offensively with only Siakam, VanVleet and maybe Anunoby and Trent as reliable scoring options.

Of course, there’s no harm in being a defensively sound squad, but philosophically it’s a bit strange that the Raptors are trending so far away from how the league is gone as offences have never been more potent and they only appear to be getting better.

To put so many eggs in the defensive basket and leave the offence as barren as it appears to be right now seems strange.

Vaccination rates are an important topic being discussed everywhere, but it feels particularly important to the Raptors because of the border rules. Should we expect all players to be fully vaccinated in time for pre-season?

Grange: I would expect them to, not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because the entire organization – all of MLSE, frankly – have been leaders on this issue during the pandemic.

As well, the league isn’t forcing players to be vaccinated but they are certainly incentivizing players to be so. Also, the Raptors know first-hand the inconvenience – and worse – the pandemic can cause, from not being able to play in Toronto to having their season ruined by an outbreak last March. For all that, I’d be pretty amazed if they had any holdouts at this stage.

Loung: While it’s possible that some of the Raptors could have gotten a National Interest Exemption to cross the border without needing to be vaccinated, the headaches of constant testing plus being confined to the arena, practice facility or home and not be able to get out and enjoy the city has to be a huge deterrent for anyone on the team.

And this is to say nothing of the fact that, morally, getting vaccinated is just the right thing to do, something that the Raptors, as an organization, historically pride themselves on doing.

So, yes, I do expect the team to be fully vaccinated in time, at least, for the pre-season to start, and if that proves not to be the case I don’t think I’ll be the only person who ends up disappointed.


Editor's note: With overwhelming consistency, research has shown vaccinations against COVID-19 are safe and effective. Residents of Canada who are looking to learn more about vaccines, or the country's pandemic response, can find up-to-date information on Canada's public health website.


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