If last season was about developing, Bryan Colangelo says this season is about winning.
The Toronto Raptors held its annual media day Monday to kick off training camp in what the team’s general manager called a “completely different atmosphere” from last season.
“You go into a season excited about what the prospects are,” Colangelo said. “I cannot say that I went into last season excited about what the prospects were.”
A young Raptors squad finished 23-43 in the lockout-shortened last season, but expectations weren’t nearly as high as they are this time around.
Jonas Valanciunas may be the biggest reason for the optimism. The 20-year-old from Lithuania was Toronto’s fifth pick in the 2011 draft, but the Raptors left him in Europe for another season to continue to develop.
“[Last season] knowing that Jonas wasn’t coming over, knowing that it was going to be a struggle to win games, knowing it was part of the long grind of letting the young players play and learn and develop. . .,” Colangelo said.
The GM said this year’s new-look roster reminds him of the team he assembled in his first full season in Toronto in 2006-07. Andrea Bargnani was a rookie on that squad that went on to win the Atlantic Division and play New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs.
“This team seems to have a lot of those same characteristics,” Colangelo said. “It just seems to me, with the newness of the group and the chemistry we’ve seen, the commitment of the players all coming together, spending a lot of time in Toronto. . . there’s that feeling there could be something special abut this group but time will tell.”
Most of the players have been in Toronto working out for a couple of weeks, but media day — where every player poses for pictures and conducts interviews in what’s always an atmosphere of unbridled optimism — was their first official job of the season. They then boarded a flight to Halifax for camp, which culminates Saturday with an open scrimmage.
Other key new faces at the Air Canada Centre included Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross — the team’s No. 8 pick in the NBA draft — and Landry Fields.
Valanciunas, who’s coming off an appearance with Lithuania at the London Olympics, has been set back by a strained left calf muscle he suffered just over a week ago, but that has barely dampered his excitement about getting his NBA career under way.
“Since I was a kid I liked to play hard,” Valanciunas said. “I like to compete, I like to win. I think that’s helping me.
“I like the taste of victory.”
The Raptors are gunning for their first post-season appearance since 2008, when they lost in the first round to the Orlando Magic.
Last season’s campaign unravelled after Bargnani suffered a calf injury in January. The big Italian was sidelined for 35 games, and the Raptors managed just 10 wins without him.
The team’s leading scorer is back healthy this season, and his performance on a squad suddenly loaded with big men promises to be a major storyline.
There’s also once again intrigue at the point guard position. The Raptors acquired Lowry in the off-season as the team’s point guard of the future, while Jose Calderon — who’s coming an off-season that included a silver-medal performance at the London Olympics and the birth of his second child — is the incumbent.
He’s also been in this spot before, having to share the job with T.J. Ford, Jarrett Jack and Jerryd Bayless in past seasons.
It’s the Raptors second campaign under head coach Dwane Casey, and while last season he preached defence, there will be more focus on the offensive end of the floor this year.
Under Casey, the Raptors worked their way up from among the worst defences in the league to finishing among the top half of teams last season. But they remained in the bottom third of the league in offensive stats.
“The numbers are staggering what happened last year, but with respect to the pace, the offence, offensive efficiency, offensive production, we talked a lot this off-season about how we’re going to improve that,” Colangelo said. “We’ve become a group that can shoot the ball much better from the three-point arc, we’ve gotten now a couple of guys that understand the importance of attacking the rim, getting to the free throw line.”
The Raptors play seven pre-season games, five more than they did last in the shortened camp. They’ll open against visiting Real Madrid on Oct. 8.
Toronto tips off the regular season on Oct. 31 versus the visiting Indiana Pacers.