VanVleet mum on extension, Barnes embraces point guard challenge as Raptors open camp

Toronto Raptors' Scottie Barnes, left, tries to get past Philadelphia 76ers' James Harden during the first half of Game 5 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Monday, April 25, 2022, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)

TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors kicked off their 2022-23 campaign with their annual media day festivities Monday when team president Masai Ujiri, head coach Nick Nurse and a host of players including Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Scottie Barnes held court with assorted reporters at Hotel X at the Exhibition grounds in Toronto.

The team will be flying out for training camp in Victoria, B.C., Monday evening where they’ll remain until they head out for an Oct. 2 pre-season game against the Utah Jazz in Edmonton.

After that, the Raptors will play four more exhibition games, with one at Scotiabank Arena against the Chicago Bulls on Oct. 9 and another in Montreal versus the Boston Celtics on Oct. 14.

Before all that, however, it was all smiles during Monday’s media day session as the Raptors appeared rested and anxious to get their new season underway.

Here are a few highlights from the event:

VanVleet mum on extension talks

Among biggest talking points surrounding the Raptors heading into this season is Fred VanVleet’s future contractual status with the club.

The 28-year-old is entering this season, technically with still another year remaining on his deal but it’s a player option, meaning he could decide to become a free agent as soon as this summer. Given the fact he just became an all-star last season and outproduced the $85 million over four years he signed at in 2020, it would make sense for him opt out of this current deal and look for a more lucrative contract as a free agent.

Hence, the talk around extending VanVleet, who’s ingrained himself as an essential piece of what the Raptors want to accomplish both on and off the court.

For the time being, however, VanVleet said he didn’t want to discuss his contract publicly, but alluded to the fact he’d be open to remaining with the franchise that took a flyer on him as an undrafted free agent in 2016.

“I will just say that I love being a Raptor,” VanVleet said. “I have a great relationship with management, ownership, coaching staff. There’s nothing I could really ever complain about being on this team. But I’m not going to speak on contractual things, so you guys will know when it’s time to know.

“I’m happy with where I am and I think it’s a mutual love.”

If Ujiri’s assessment of VanVleet is any indication than the Raptors point guard’s assessment of what the organization thinks of him would be very accurate.

“There’s only one word: Fred VanVleet,” Ujiri said when asked what message he may have for guys who will be fighting for a roster spot during camp. “It’s simple. We have him here. Fred can play against anybody and proves you can do it. His rise: The championship, to all-star, to leader, to community leader off the court. He teaches us every single thing on how you want to learn and to take it to another level. And that’s what we tell these guys.”

So, it may take longer than many would like, but things appear to be trending towards VanVleet remaining in Toronto for many years still to come.

Siakam wants to be a top-five player

Pascal Siakam was all smiles as he took questions on Monday and the reason for it was clear: He was finally all the way back and healthy.

“It means everything. You appreciate it more once you go through a season where you don’t have it,” Siakam said. “In the past years, it was just normal coming into the pre-season every day and just being there.

“Now it’s special, I enjoyed this summer, being able to have all the time, I didn’t have the opportunity to have this time in a while so just having that time … last year, when pre-season was going and training camp, just watching it, such a different vibe, different feeling and now I’m just appreciative of the fact I’ll just be there.”

Siakam missed the first 10 games of last season recovering from shoulder surgery. He showed rust through the first nine or so games upon his return, but hit the gas during his last 59, when he averaged 23.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game on 49.7 per cent shooting from the field, earning an All-NBA Third Team nod, despite being an all-star snub.

With him beginning the season at full strength, there’s no reason to think he can’t just pick up where he left off, something that would be very good for the Raptors.

With that said, Siakam has set his sights on loftier goals than just being as good as he was a season ago. He doesn’t just want to be among the better players in the league, he wants to be in the conversation that only the game’s select elite reside in.

“I try every game to take a step up,” Siakam said. “I think, for me, after the year that I had, just accomplishing that level of play – I’ve been All-NBA, I’ve been an all-star – I wanna be a top-five player in the league.

“I wanna be one of the best, and I’ll do everything I can to make that happen.”

That’s easier said than done, of course, and Siakam realizes that. As such, he’s come up with a plan to reach this goal.

“There’s different things that I work on like, shot creation things I can do better,” he said. “And for me I just feel a little bit more comfortable. … Like, now I’m getting double-teamed. So, just seeing the game a different way. Now I understand where a double team is coming from. What I need to do, where I need to be. I have spots I want to get to. Those are the things that I never really had before, that now I have as part of my game.

“And just mentally having that, ‘Always wanting to kill’ mentality. Just having that feeling and knowing that I’m going into these games knowing what I have to do to win.”

Siakam has, generally, always come back every off-season with something new in his bag. More knowledge and a different attitude from years past looks like what he’s bringing to the table this season.

Scottie Barnes, point guard, incoming

As you may have noticed when the training camp roster was first released, reigning Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes, a six-foot-eight, 225-pound forward is also listed as a guard heading into camp.

This isn’t a mistake. The Raptors sounded like they’re preparing to use Barnes at the one this season.

“I would say that he'll get some opportunities there,” Nurse said. “He likes it. He's kind of an organizing, pass-first type of guy. And, like I said, he likes that position, point guard. He likes that behind his name. So, we'll see if we can develop that out a little bit.”

Added Ujiri: “Honestly, Scottie’s one of those guys like can you tell what that guy is going to be? Like, you can tell, he’s one of those players of the future. Like, I don’t know how to describe it. Somebody came up to me yesterday and they told me Twitter was going crazy because we listed Scottie as a guard and I don’t know what position that guy plays. Who knows what position he plays?

“He’s one of those guys that just plays basketball and is an incredible basketball player and wants to win.”

Barnes played point guard while at Florida State and played a little last season and is comfortable in the role. He said he’s looking forward to the opportunity to flash his potential at that position more consistently.

“I’ve always been a point guard, I always had those point guard things, but I feel like I can do it all, no matter what it is,” said Barnes. “I can play any position, so I don't really try to limit myself to one position, but I always been seeing myself as a point guard.”

Given Barnes’ deft passing touch, superb vision and the fact he studied Magic Johnson growing up it’s no surprise that Barnes would view himself as a lead guard first and foremost on the floor. How he grows into that role with the Raptors will be interesting to monitor this season.

What Rico Hines brings to the Raptors

New assistant coach Rico Hines was a major talking point at media day.

The 44-year-old is a famed player development coach who organizes summer runs in Los Angeles for a host of NBA players, including Pascal Siakam, of whom his meteoric rise during the early stages of his career could directly be traced to the work he put in with Hines.

Now, Hines is on the Raptors bench, and Siakam is ecstatic about it.

“I think it’s everything. I feel like he just embodies what we are as an organization for a while now,” said Siakam. “Obviously, I know him personally, he’s like family to me … but also his talent, he has that ability, his presence just being there.

“For young guys, just having that energy every day, he knows the game, been around the game for a long time and for players to be able to develop, he has that vibe that you need in a coach. You can just feel it and from the first day I met him, we had that connection and I’m sure he’s going to bring that to the team and help our young guys.”

Hines was busy with virtually the entire Raptors team as he hosted his L.A. runs this year with clips of the team down there getting work in all over social media in the summer.

Nurse likes what he’s seen from his team coming together like that and believes the cohesion the group began forming in that sweaty L.A. gym should pay off when the season gets underway.

“I just kind of sense a little urgency, I sense some togetherness and I sense some real intensity this summer, and I think those are all three really good words going into a training camp,” the Raptors coach said. “It’s good.

“I think the team’s shaping the identity that showed up a little bit late last year. They know who they are and are looking to expand it. It was a good summer. They did a lot of good work this summer and we should see the results here of the summer very soon.”

Mr. Anunoby likes sunset walks and now spells his name differently

O.G. Anunoby now spells his name with periods between the letters.

Why does he do that, you might wonder? Just because.

“Just a change. nothing serious,” he said. “It used to be listed as ‘O-dot-G-dot,’ so it’s going back to that. I just noticed it was ‘OG.’”

In other Anunoby news, he did take notice of the trade rumours and speculation that was surrounding him around the draft, but was slightly taken aback at the discussion of his role with the team as he said he’s never talked to Nurse about any such thing.

“Even when the report came out, I was kinda surprised by it,” Anunoby said. “I just woke up one day and I saw that, so I was kinda surprised by it. So, even the role stuff, I haven't really talk to Nick about role. I just try to get better every summer and I think everything will fall into place. I don’t really worry about that. You can't really worry about that.”

And for Anunoby’s patience, it sounds like he’ll be rewarded with more responsibility, according to Nurse.

“I expect a big jump from O.G,” said Nurse. “He played 48 games last season. I think O.G. put in some incredible work this summer. I know he had all those rumours last year, but I think O.G. is in a good place. …

“He's just such a dynamic player that plays a lot of positions, can shoot the ball. I think his role is coming. We saw the impact he had in the playoff opportunity we had, and I think it's going to be even bigger this year. O.G. has to realize that now too he is one of the leaders of this team, too. Unfortunately, he's not one of the young guys anymore, he's been here for five years now, and I think he's in that leadership group.”

So, expect big things on the horizon for Anunoby this season.

Most importantly in regard to Anunoby, however, is we learned that the way he enjoys his summer nights is mostly when the sun is setting.

“Going on nice walks, good views, watch the sunset, stuff like that,” Anunoby said when asked what the most enjoyable non-hoops thing he did during the summer was. “It was fun.”

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