Schroder’s hot summer, new perspective provides Raptors with reasons for optimism

Eric Smith and Michael Grange discuss why new Raptors guard Dennis Schroder's role with the team isn't quite defined, but if his World Cup performance is any indication, then Raptors fans should be really excited for what he can bring.

BURNABY — Hey Toronto Raptors fans, how about a little optimism? 

Granted, this could take some work. 

To recap: yes, last season was a disappointment, as not only did the team underperform expectations, but the whole thing seemed like the soundtrack featured was an endless sad trombone solo. 

Everyone was getting traded. The coach was maybe, probably, hoping to get fired, and eventually got his wish. The prized rookie believed too much of his own hype. The team president didn’t speak often in public, but when he did he made a point of referring to the team he had put together as “selfish,” without ever being very specific about who, how or why. Nevertheless, it stuck, like a marketing campaign gone wrong. 

So it’s understandable that after an off-season in which one of the best players, Fred VanVleet, left for a massive payday in free agency, Pascal Siakam was widely known to be on the trade market and ended with the team striking out in a bid to acquire superstar guard Damian Lillard, getting too excited about the 2023-24 season might be a challenge. 

But we’re here to help.

For example, it’s worth remembering that the only rotation player not back from the team that finished 15-10 once Jakob Poeltl joined the starting lineup after the trade deadline is VanVleet. And while it’s hard to spin losing a former all-star and you’re only established point guard as a positive, choosing not to pay VanVleet meant Toronto could sign veteran guard Dennis Schroder and young wing defender Jalen McDaniels to add to their depth without going into the luxury tax.

The Raptors didn’t trade VanVleet at the trade deadline a year ago, but they did get something for him, in a manner of speaking. 

And now with a full season of Poeltl to look forward to — he was one of the most efficient big men in the league down the stretch — an improved Scottie Barnes and some stylistic tweaks imposed by incoming head coach Darko Rajakovic, maybe as last season fades and the new year takes shape, things won’t be so bad. 

And hey, did we mention that Otto Porter Jr., the veteran sharpshooter, and key free agent signing from the summer of 2022 who played just eight games before shutting down his season after injuring his baby toe is back in camp, healthy and ready to go. 

If that doesn’t convince you all is well in the Raptors world, I’m not sure what to tell you. 

The bar is low, mind you. Oddsmakers have the over-under on Raptors wins at 36.5, so sure, maybe take the over, is all I’m saying. Are the Raptors really that much worse than the team that won 41 games last year?  

And maybe let’s not undersell Schroder, even if his career averages of 14 points and 4.7 assists with an effective field goal percentage (which tracks both three-point and two-point shots) of 48.2 doesn’t scream “franchise changer.”

But as someone who has been in the post-season eight times in 10 years, it’s not nothing either. If you recall, Schroder is the veteran point guard who the Raptors turned to minutes after it was confirmed that VanVleet would be signing with the Houston Rockets for $83 million guaranteed over two years. 

At the time the signing was met with a shrug. The Raptors had a void to fill and for two seasons of the full midlevel — about $25.4 million in total — Schroder seemed like as good a choice as any to fill it. But there weren’t expectations that the 17th  overall pick by the Atlanta Hawks in 2013 who has since played for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers (twice) and Boston Celtics would somehow lift Toronto to new heights. 

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But then came the summer and the FIBA Basketball World Cup and there was Schroder, 29, playing the best basketball of his life as he led Germany to its first-ever gold medal. The German guard was named tournament MVP, and anyone who saw him eviscerate Team USA in the semifinals and Serbia in the gold medal game won’t soon forget it. 

Schroder hasn’t and won’t.

“It was a lot of fun. We’ve been working for it, it’s been for over 10 years now [I] have been playing with the national team,” he said. “Last year, got third place in EuroBasket and to come out on top in the World Cup is insane. I can’t still realize it.”

The good vibes from international play don’t automatically travel, of course. Winning in the summer for the national team with friends you grew up competing with is one thing; trying to get an NBA team to commit to playing with each other and for each other is another.

The Raptors didn’t do a great job of it last year. “Sometimes I did feel like [it was] every man for themselves,” was how Scottie Barnes addressed the selfishness that seemed to be such an issue last season — but there is hope they can fix it this year. 

For one Rajakovic has been empowered to demand a more team-first approach and for another Schroder – who says he shared many meals with Rajakovic in their years together with the Thunder – plans to bring it in word and deed.  

He’s already travelled the path from first-round pick who had to sit and wait for his opportunity on a deep Atlanta Hawks team, to being thrust into a role among other top players and expected to buy in during stops elsewhere. With Germany, he had the ball in his hands at all the critical moments it seemed, but that’s not the only way he can play and contribute. 

“I was five years in the league and went from Atlanta to OKC where I played with (superstars Russell Westbrook and Paul George) and then my seventh season I played with Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) and Chris (Paul). After that I played [in Los Angeles] with LeBron and (Anthony Davis), then (in Boston) with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, back to LeBron James, AD, (and DeAngelo Russell) and I (always) found a way,” Schroder said after his first workout with his new team as the Raptors opened training camp in Burnaby, B.C. 

“Everybody’s professional, everybody cares about winning, everybody puts their ego to the side, and we play team basketball.

“I think that’s what we did this summer with the national team, and I try to bring this to this locker room.”

He’ll likely need to lead by example. Rajakovic has made no promises about a starting role for Schroder and – based on the coach’s comments about wanting to have the ball in Barnes’ hands to initiate offence more than in the past – instead the Raptors’ new point guard could be coming off the bench. 

“Dennis as you know, he played as a starting point guard, he was backup point guard, he shared the court together with Chris Paul, he was on the ball, he was off the ball,” said Rajakovic. “That’s the beauty of Dennis Schroder. He does not command and demand the ball to have in his hands for him to be productive and to play the right way. So we’re gonna have very creative ways of using him.”

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For his part, Schroder seems fine with that. He’s got a gold medal in his pocket. He’s got a rookie head coach who actively recruited him to join his new team. And as he says, when it comes to playing time or roles, there are bigger things to worry about and be grateful for. 

“I try to impact the game, read the game, see what the team needs and that’s what I bring to the table, (my role) don’t really matter,” he said. “(I’m) grateful that I can play in the NBA. It’s my 11th season, got three healthy kids, nice wife, family who’s waiting for me in Germany, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here. All this coming off the bench, starting, and all that, I ain’t got no time, energy to spend on it.”

It all sounds refreshing, promising and unselfish. For the Raptors, coming off a year that left everyone disappointed, it sounds like the seeds of change.

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