Fred VanVleet arrived for the first day of his rookie training camp early, keen to prove he was ready to work.
He arrived at 9 a.m. for an 11 a.m. practice only to find Kyle Lowry stretching after a weight workout. He’d been there since 6.
Six years later, and with Lowry gone, VanVleet is ready to lead by example as a veteran on a very young Raptors team that plays host to Washington in its season-opener on Wednesday. It’s important, the 27-year-old point guard said, for young players to learn to fit into the team’s culture quickly.
“You’ve got to learn how to be a pro,” VanVleet said after practice at OVO Athletic Centre on Tuesday. “We’ve got a lot of 20-, 21-year-olds who have no idea. I was pretty mature at 20, but I don’t know if I was ready for this.
“So, learning what it takes to be a pro, like passing up the drink, taking the sleep, eating something that you might [not want] … you eat right, you sleep, you stay the extra hour for treatment, you come the extra hour early to get the work in. There’s a lot that goes into it, there’s not a lot of wiggle room, and I think that young players have to learn that really fast.”
VanVleet, who scored a career-high 19.6 points a night last season, said he can already see the example rubbing off on the younger players, including 20-year-old rookie Scottie Barnes.
“If [Lowry] was here three hours before practice I better be beating him here, and that allowed me to develop my own routine,” VanVleet said. “Scottie [Barnes, a rookie] is seeing me and Pascal [Siakam] in the gym three or four hours before training camp, now he’s trying to race to beat us here everyday, that’s just how it works.”
The Raptors play their first regular-season game at Scotiabank Arena in 600 days, finally back after a season spent calling Tampa home. T-shirts, signs and social-media hashtags have heralded their return with two simple words: “We back.”
Goran Dragic will be making his home debut as a Raptor, and the 13-year veteran who was acquired in the deal that sent Lowry to Miami, said every opening night is special. Even more so since Toronto hasn’t played host to a season opener in two years.
“Definitely at the beginning of the game, a little bit nervous, some butterflies, but soon as the ref throws the ball up, you are ready to go. But it’s always exciting. It doesn’t matter how many years you are in the league. It’s always fun,” he said. “Probably the arena is going to be sold out and you guys didn’t play here last year so it’s going to be a good opening night. Hopefully we get a W.”
Toronto has been called this season’s mystery team because of so many new young faces. Asked how good he believes they can be, Dragic said he was pleasantly surprised during the preseason.
“We looked really long,” he said, holding his arms out wide. He mentioned in particular 6-foot-9 point guard Dalano Banton.
“It’s a young team with a lot of versatility so I think that will make a lot of problems for the opponents,” he said. “It’s going to be tough to beat us, especially at home.”
VanVleet said the rebuilt Raptors are well prepared for the season, having done more work in training camp, he said, than in any other season he’d played.
The 6-foot-1 guard was asked what it’s like to be on the floor with four 6-foot-8 players. Does he feel he has to play bigger, particularly on defence? He pointed out he led the league last season in deflections. He said he wasn’t going to list off all stats, then said, with a laugh, that he also had 0.7 blocks a game.
“I already play big so that’s not really an issue for me,” he said. “I’m telling you, I don’t notice [the height difference]. I’m so crazy in my head, everybody is the same height. It hurts me sometimes, but for the most part I don’t notice it.
“The only time I ever notice it – this is a true story – is when I go home to Rockford [Ill.] for the summer and I come back to the team and it’s always Pascal, like every time I look at him I say ‘goddamn he is tall, he is really tall, man.’ But when I’m here I don’t notice it because I’m just in the fight.”
The Raptors expected a sellout for Wednesday’s opener. They’re in Boston for their first road game on Friday.
The Raptors exercised the third-year team option on the contracts of forward Precious Achiuwa and guard Malachi Flynn. Both players are now signed through the 2022-23 season. The 6-foot-8 Achiuwa, acquired from the Heat along with Dragic, averaged 5 points and 3.4 rebounds last season. The 6-foot-1 Flynn was the Raptors’ 29th pick in the 2020 draft and averaged 7.5 points, 2.9 assists and 2.5 rebounds in his rookie season.