Sometimes over the past month of training camp and pre-season, Raptors guard Fred VanVleet has had to remind himself to keep focused.
Like the smart kid in class, sometimes the lessons aren’t for him. But his example matters.
In this case what’s happening on the practice floor -- running through sets and coverages repeatedly; lessons being imparted in real-time; details being picked over in film sessions -- is for the benefit of a large swath of Raptors players either new to the team or new to the league.
As a high IQ player in his sixth NBA training camp and third with Nick Nurse as head coach, VanVleet doesn’t’ need the review class. A straight-A student, he has experience putting those teachings to work in the crucible of the playoffs and the NBA Finals.
But as the Toronto Raptors move into the finals stages of preparation for a season unlike any other in recent history, VanVleet gets it.
It’s about getting a young, largely new-look roster up to speed, allowing the time for lessons to become habits that can be relied on when things really matter -- this season or in years to come.
“Sometimes, I got my head down and my eyes closed and I'm trying to get through it because obviously I've done it and some of the things are a little mundane and boring and like you know you get bored with the details,” he said recently. "But we got a group that really needs that stuff so practices have been a little different than Nick is used to but I think it will be good for the group.”
It’s also about helping his new teammates acclimatize to Nurse, his staff and an approach that’s almost certainly different than what they’ve experienced before.
“(Nurse is) a little weird at times, but he won us a championship, so he knows what he’s doing,” VanVleet was saying recently as the Raptors were putting in their final workouts before their season opener against the Washington Wizards at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday.
“(But) he doesn't really follow any of the traditions or guidelines that most coaches do (and) I think that some guys maybe just don't know how to decipher it or how to take it, and I think that that's the one thing I've been trying to do is just be (the bridge) and let them know like we trust him.”
In fairness, they were warned about what was coming. With their lost season in Tampa behind them and with Kyle Lowry having departed to Miami in free agency, VanVleet and Pascal Siakam became the Raptors' veterans, the longest-serving players. At a dinner with Siakam in Los Angeles, Nurse laid it out: He and his coaching staff would be taking a roster with an average age of 25 and with just three years NBA experience -- and that includes 34-year-old Goran Dragic and his 14 years in the league -- and trying to coach them up fast.
“A lot of people haven’t done it at this level (and) one of the things he said (when) we had dinner and he was like, we’re probably going to practice a lot more this year. We’re going to have to teach these guys a lot of things and it’s going to take a lot of practice,” said Siakam, who can only do individual work as he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery but has been in the gym every day through training camp.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be in every practice (veterans playing heaving minutes don’t always practice at full speed) but we’re going to practice a lot. I think that’s the kind of approach (for this year),” said Siakam. “We have to learn and we have to teach and I think that’s the approach he’s going to be taking.”
It’s a new direction for Nurse too, or at least new since he’s been with the Raptors. Even in his years as an assistant coach with Dwane Casey, one of Toronto’s trademarks was their continuity and the presence of Lowry, as close to a coach-on-the-floor -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- as there is in the league.
Nurse can’t lean on either anymore. Instead, every minute available is devoted to getting as many new and young players on the same page.
His staff is running a ‘shooting academy’ in the evenings at OVO Centre for the slew of athletic young wings on the roster on the Raptors 905 roster who are just an improved jumper away from being NBA contributors or more.
In the meantime, his staff is grinding on a young group to get them comfortable with the kind of high-tempo defence-to-offence approach they believe they’ll need to play to be competitive this season.
“We certainly put a lot of responsibility on our coaching staff to be able to organize it in a relatable fashion quickly. It’s got to make some sense when they see the whole thing of it,” Nurse said on Friday. “And it obviously takes some daily work, drill work organized so things kind of build, when this happens, you do this; when that happens the other way, you do this.
“Obviously it takes time (for) new guys, young guys in this league. The defence is different in the NBA for sure and they’ve got to learn how fast things happen and where those rotations are and that just takes time of daily practice, the games, the film and back to practice over and over.
“Then, of course, our guys that know it will always be out there coaching 'em, telling (them) this is how we do it and this is what we do and this is how it goes.”
The young vets are taking to the role.
“It’s Fred, it’s me, it’s OG, it’s Nick. We are the voices,” said Siakam. “And (we) pick our spots and make sure the message is clear, whatever the message is we have from Nick or the organization on how we want to play as a team, just continue to convey it to the team.”
It might be counterintuitive, but in this way it probably helps that Lowry -- well known for making his views heard when it comes to tactics and strategy -- has moved on. It was a great attribute to have around a veteran team, but with a younger group maybe not as much.
“We can actually get through a practice now,” said VanVleet, only half-joking. “We can get through practices, meetings, shootarounds without (Lowry) messing everything up. Nick can actually get stuff done…”
Now it’s the responsibility of VanVleet and Siakam and Anunoby to help get Nurse’s message across.
“I’m translating it right? You know what I mean?” says VanVleet. “I'm just trying to relate it and make it relatable and when you go in a locker room or we're in a huddle and guys are not sure… I think it's our job to just let them know that we trust Nick, that Pascal trusts Nick, OG trusts Nick and the coaching staff.”