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Raptors launch new era with big bets on Barnes, Quickley

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TORONTO – Symbolically, Monday was a big day for the Toronto Raptors organization, and you knew it because that symbolism was impossible to miss.

High atop The Globe and Mail Centre in downtown Toronto and with the city’s sprawling skyline as an appropriate backdrop, the team announced expensive new contracts for its two most important players, 22-year-old Scottie Barnes and 25-year-old Immanuel Quickley.

Above them, as they shared the stage with club president and vice-chairman Masai Ujiri, was one of several banners situated around the venue. It read: “Future Starts Now.”

The branding wasn’t subtle, and neither was the message.

In the audience, other members of the young core looked on, including last year’s first-round draft pick Gradey Dick (22 years of age) and Ochai Agbaji (24), acquired from the Utah Jazz at last February’s trade deadline.

Meanwhile, veteran forward and former Raptors star Pascal Siakam was being re-introduced with the Indiana Pacers, having just signed a four-year, $189.5 million maximum contract and mistakenly thanked his old team instead of his new one.

It may still take some getting used to, but times have changed. Last season’s trades closed the book on Toronto’s championship past, while unofficially turning the page to a new era. Dishing out north of $400 million to the franchise’s next star duo has a way of making it feel very official.

“It was important, I think, to have these two guys [re-commit] as [we] go into the next phase of a rebuild, reset, [or whatever] we want to call it with all these young players,” Ujiri said following the Monday morning press conference. “We’ve done all our due diligence, seen them in our program and seen their talent.”

Barnes’ max rookie-scale extension will kick in for the 2025-26 campaign and run through 2029-30, paying him at least $224 million and up to $270 million, depending on individual incentives (most notably, whether he makes All-NBA next season). Quickley’s new deal is worth $175 million over the next five years.

Neither contract is outrageous, relative to market value. The price for Barnes has been locked in for months, if not longer than that. It’s the same deal that Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham and Orlando Magic forward Franz Wagner got, and Evan Mobley  of the Cleveland Cavaliers is likely to get. None of those players have Barnes' resume.

Quickley’s price came in a bit higher than league insiders had anticipated. $35 million annually may seem steep for a player with a limited track record in his current and projected role, but while the Raptors could have matched any offer he received in restricted free agency, their concern was that he may have fetched as much or more on the open market. There was real interest from Utah and the San Antonio Spurs, among other teams, according to league sources.

The structure of the deal helps. Per a source, and as Raptors GM Bobby Webster confirmed to TSN on Monday, it’s a flat $175 million over five years – no options or annual raises. It will be worth 25 per cent of the salary cap next season, but assuming the cap continues to rise as expected, Quickley’s cap hit will only be 17 per cent by Year 5, when he’s 29 and the team figures to be more competitive and in need of the additional roster flexibility. That’s fair value for even an average starting point guard, and Toronto is certainly hoping that he can grow into more than that.

Still, no matter how you slice it and even in the context of the NBA’s rich economy, that’s a lot of money and a significant investment in a couple players that still have a lot to prove.

In both cases, the Raptors are projecting ahead and paying for what they believe those guys can become, but that’s not uncommon in giving a player his second NBA contract. How many players are proven commodities in their early-mid 20s? There’s almost always some educated guesswork baked in.

Barnes took a big step forward, bouncing back from his shaky sophomore showing and becoming a first-time all-star in Year 3, but the results were mixed after Siakam was traded and he was thrust into a featured role. Quickley closed the season strong in Toronto but has spent the bulk of his career coming off the bench and playing off the ball with the New York Knicks. With Barnes undergoing season-ending hand surgery in March and Quickley taking a personal leave following the death of his uncle, they only played 25 games together.

They’ll both have to build off what they did last season and take their games to another level to justify their new paycheques, but the Raptors have seen enough to make that bet with confidence.

"I think these guys have the talent and I think they have the mindset, too,” Ujiri said. “It all starts with preparation and how you work and your mindset toward this game. I think they have the right mindset, and they have the right skill and they ask the right questions. I think they embrace their teammates. They embrace coaching. They embrace the culture that you need and what you need to win in this league. And they are young. It's going to take time. I'm not saying this is [going to happen] overnight. I'm saying that again – it is going to take time. But, we feel this commitment is the foundation of having these guys really start to set that tone and feel that responsibility, too.”

The two guards sat down shortly after Quickley was acquired last winter, and then again this past week, to talk about how they can bring out the best in each other’s games. That tandem hasn’t fared as well on the court as it does on paper – Toronto was 9-16 in the games they played together and Quickley appeared to have a more natural chemistry with centre Jakob Poeltl than he did with Barnes. However, the sample size is small and there’s no reason to think they can’t become a formidable duo in time. Quickley was the type of dynamic, floor-spacing guard that the Raptors had targeted to pair with the uniquely skilled Barnes.

By all accounts, they’ve both had excellent off-seasons. For Barnes, last season was a crash course in what it means to be a franchise player. For the first time in his young NBA career, opposing teams were designing game plans around him, while teammates looked to him for leadership, on and off the court. He calls his late-season injury a “blessing in disguise” – a chance sit on the bench, watch the final 22 contests and learn from a 15-year vet in Garrett Temple.

It’s also given him a new perspective, as he signs the richest deal in franchise history. Barnes is embracing the responsibility that comes with a life-changing amount of money, but he’s not being weighed down by it. In three years, he’s gone from being a somewhat surprising fourth-overall pick to the league’s Rookie of the Year to an all-star, and now a max player at the age of 22, and he’s not the least bit fazed by any of it. It’s among the reasons why the Raptors are comfortable handing him the keys.

“I don’t feel no pressure,” Barnes told TSN in an exclusive interview. “It’s a huge, great responsibility and I feel like I’m up for that, but there’s no pressure at all.”

“I feel like this contract is just the beginning of everything. I started off my career pretty great, but now is where it really starts, I feel like, for me.”

But where will it go? The Raptors must continue to put the right pieces around Barnes and Quickley, but being that those two could make roughly 50 per cent of the salary cap in 2025-26, much of this team’s fate rests in their hands.

Ultimately, the goal for the new era is to reach the championship-winning heights of the previous era, Ujiri made that clear on Monday, as he always does. What’s less clear is how they plan on getting there, and how long it will take.

This is a team in the early stages of a rebuild coming off a 25-win season. Based on Ujiri’s comments from Monday, it would appear the plan is to build on it next season, rather than taking a strategic step backwards, otherwise known as tanking. But barring significant internal growth – specifically from Barnes and Quickley – it’s hard to see a path to meaningful improvement in the near term.

Most of the team’s roster building work was done on draft night, when they acquired the rights to four rookies and swung a deal with the Sacramento Kings. They could make a few small tweaks here and there, but this is more or less the roster they’re likely to open training camp with in the fall.

As of this writing, unrestricted free agent Gary Trent Jr. – who started 154 games for Toronto over the past three years – remains unsigned. While the door hasn’t been closed completely – the team is expected to meet with Trent’s representatives again in Las Vegas this week – multiple league sources believe the Raptors are prepared to move on from the 25-year-old guard.

Per a source, the Raptors were willing to bring the sharpshooter back at an annual salary of around $15 million when the negotiation window opened last month, but Trent’s camp was looking for a raise on the $18.5 million he made last season. Something in the $25 million range was believed to be the ask, a misread of a market that hasn’t been kind to players of Trent’s ilk – a very good three-point shooter (38 per cent as a Raptor) who has shown flashes in other areas but hasn’t been able to sustain them, especially on defence.

Now, with the market drying up, one league insider suggested Trent would be “lucky” to get the mid-level exception, valued at $12.5 million. A few reports have linked him to the Lakers, where it’s possible he could only earn half of that.

Meanwhile, the Raptors’ offer is no longer on the table. Since they had initially discussed the framework of a deal, they used their first-round pick on Ja’Kobe Walter, a guard in Trent’s mould. They used most of their cap flexibility to absorb the contracts of Davion Mitchell and Sasha Vezenkov, and add a couple second-round picks, from Sacramento. They also picked up the option of Bruce Brown, who was in attendance for Monday’s press conference. While his expiring contract could make for an interesting trade chip, nothing is imminent, and there’s a real chance that the veteran guard opens the season on Toronto’s roster, and maybe even in head coach Darko Rajakovic’s rotation.

All of that is to say that the Raptors seem content to use the bulk of the minutes at that position to develop younger players, and that Trent’s return is – at best – increasingly unlikely.

As currently constructed, this is a very young roster that’s designed for development and growth. It will require time and patience and should result in more losses than wins – perhaps significantly more losses than wins – before we’re able to see tangible progress, let alone a team that’s ready to compete for championships.

The future starts now, but so does the wait.