‘Feels like a new, fresh start’: Raptors, Rajakovic shift focus to young core

Toronto Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic sits down with Will Lou to discuss RJ Barrett's success since his trade to Toronto and what changes Rajakovic is making to unlock Barrett's potential.

This Toronto Raptors season has been a whirlwind for the team as they’ve had to manage their way though huge roster changes brought via trade, along with the typical trials and tribulations that accompany competing against the world’s best.  

Raptors head coach Darko Rajaković is navigating through it all as a rookie bench boss with a new young core. One of his central goals for the remainder of the season is helping the youthful trident dubbed ‘Raptors BBQ’ — for Scottie Barnes, RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley by the fanbase — grow as professionals.  

Rajaković sat down with Will Lou on Thursday’s episode of The Raptors Show to discuss how he’s handled the recent roster upheaval and how he plans to help Toronto’s young stars excel on the court.  

“We have a team that’s in the making,” said Rajaković. “We had a lot of changes on the roster, and it really feels like a new, fresh start of the season for us. It really feels like a training camp in a sense.” 

Barrett and Quickley arrived from the New York Knicks, where they played behind stars Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson. In Toronto, however, they have been placed alongside Scottie Barnes to form the core of the Raptors going forward. 

“I think [RJ’s] athletic ability is still to be developed,” said Rajaković regarding Barrett. “I think he did not reach his potential [in New York]. I want him to play above the rim [and] I want him to be aggressive.”  

“I want him to take spot-up shots and take the ball to the rim. But at the same time, I want him to be a playmaker and to make the right decisions. I don’t want him to feel that there is any kind of pressure that he has to score.” 

 

Since the trade from New York, Barrett’s stats have improved from 18.2 points per game to 20.9, 4.3 rebounds per game to 7.2, and 2.4 assists per game to 3.4. Early indications show that Rajaković’s tutelage is paying dividends.  

Alongside Barrett, Quickley has been a welcome addition due to his diverse set of skills and incredible motor. Much like Barrett, Quickley found himself playing off ball during crunch time moments in the Big Apple. In Toronto, he’ll be counted on to attack the basket when the game is on the line. 

“We’re going to try as a team to put him in situations to have more of those opportunities,” said Darko. “He’s also a guard that really depends on the quality of screens. The first couple of games, Jakob [Poeltl] was really freeing him up and he was getting more opportunities to shoot floaters and three-point shots,” Rajaković said. 

Poeltl’s extended absence due to injury had disrupted that chemistry, but the long-term plan remains in place.  

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Undoubtedly, the focal point of Masai Ujiri & Co.’s new blueprint going forward is Barnes. The third-year standout was recently named to USA Basketball’s 41-player pool for the Paris Olympics and is enjoying a stellar campaign after winning Rookie of the Year honours in 21-22. 

Rajaković raved about Barnes’ ability to lead by example.  

“He is putting a lot of work in,” said Darko. “He’s early coming to the gym [and] he is also going really hard in every single practice and shootaround. That sets the tone for everybody else to go in and work really hard.” 

The Raptors look to get back to winning ways on Friday night at home against the Los Angeles Clippers at 7:30 p.m. ET at Scotiabank Arena.  

Catch The Raptors Show every weekday from 2 p.m. ET to 4 p.m. ET on Sportsnet+, Sportsnet 360 and the Sportsnet Radio Network. 

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