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Raptors hoping Schroder can help fill void left by VanVleet

Toronto Raptors Dennis Schroder - The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER – Initially, the Raptors’ plan was for Dennis Schroder to take it slow and ease his way into training camp.

After all, the veteran point guard is coming off a busy summer, leading Germany to its first ever title at the FIBA World Cup. The idea was to manage his reps early on and have him ramp up throughout the preseason to ensure he’s fresh and ready to go by the end of the month.

At least that was the plan… until they told Schroder about it.

“They told me to take a step back, but for me it’s tough when I’m already in practice,” said the 30-year-old, who wasn’t just a full participant when his new team opened camp in Burnaby, B.C., on Tuesday, but he was also the last player in the gym getting shots up while everybody else was on the buses waiting to go back to their downtown Vancouver hotel.

“The next couple days [are crucial] to [build] team chemistry and get on the same page, get conditioning right. So it don’t matter, I’m going through full practices.”

Schroder had been on Toronto’s radar for a while. They tried to sign him during the summer of 2022 but he opted to return to the Lakers on a one-year deal, citing unfinished business. When Fred VanVleet left for Houston this past off-season, the Raptors quickly pivoted and circled back to Schroder.

This time they could offer him a little bit of familiarity (in addition to $26 million over the next two seasons). Schroder played for Darko Rajakovic, then an assistant, in Oklahoma City from 2018-2020. His relationship with Toronto’s newly hired head coach was the biggest factor in his decision to become a Raptor.

“It was an easy decision for me to come here because I know what he’s about,” Schroder said after finally finishing up his lengthy post-practice shooting session. “What I love about coach is that he keeps everybody in the locker room accountable. We had Russell Westbrook [in OKC], we had [Paul George] and he kept everybody accountable, and it’s not to take them down, it’s to lift them up.”

“He’s matured so much,” Rajakovic said of the 11-year vet. “He was great when I had him in OKC but he’s on a completely different level [now].”

The Raptors will be Schroder’s sixth team over the past seven seasons, so he’s been around and seen a lot of things in this league. He was the young kid on that 60-win Atlanta Hawks team in 2014-15. He was the sixth man for the Chris Paul-led Thunder club that exceeded expectations and made the playoffs in 2019-20. He’s played with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in two stints with Los Angeles, while also making brief stops in Boston and Houston. He’s started, come off the bench, played on the ball and played off of it.

Now, he finds himself on a team that could use some experience and veteran savvy at the point guard position. Schroder isn’t a one-for-one replacement for VanVleet. If you’re expecting him to step in and fill that void, on or off the court, you’re likely to be disappointed. But the Raptors believe he can help address those areas of need.

Admittedly, he’s not as vocal as VanVleet, few are, but he leads in other ways that should prove valuable for an organization looking to build a new identity and re-establish culture.

“Even today in practice, he did such a good job of talking to his teammates, talking to young guys, explaining, making sure they’re in the right spots,” Rajakovic said.

While Rajakovic wants positions one through four to be interchangeable on the court, it doesn’t hurt to have a floor general out there and Schroder is one of only two traditional point guards on the regular roster, along with Malachi Flynn. He won’t stretch the floor like VanVleet did – he’s a 34 per cent career three-point shooter – but he can manage a game, push the pace, make plays, attack the bucket and finish at the rim. Given Rajakovic’s emphasis on making quick decisions with the ball and getting into the paint, he should fit right into this new system.

It’s still unclear whether he’ll end up starting or coming off the bench, though Schroder insists that he’s comfortable with either role.

“For me, as long as we win… it don’t really matter,” he said. “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 or energy to spend on it.”

One day into camp, Rajakovic says it’s too early to worry about starters and rotation; that’ll come with time. Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, Jakob Poeltl and Scottie Barnes figure to be locks for the first unit, meaning the fifth spot will likely come down to Schroder or Gary Trent Jr.

Does Schroder’s history and familiarity with the coach give him a head start in earning the gig? Perhaps, though it’s worth noting that Schroder was one of the league’s best reserves during his time with Rajakovic in OKC – he finished second in Sixth Man of the Year voting in 2019-20. One way or another, it’s clear he’ll play a big role.

“We’re going to have very creative ways of using him,” Rajakovic said.

One thing Rajakovic has done is study Germany’s undefeated run at this summer’s World Cup, where Schroder was magnificent on his way to winning MVP. He’s picking the brain of Gordie Herbert, the Canadian-born head coach of the German national team, who is attending Raptors training camp in Burnaby this week, to try and identify certain plays, positions and actions that helped bring out the best in Schroder during the tournament. The hope is they can emulate some of that.

After scoring 28 points to defeat Rajakovic’s native Serbia and win gold on September 10, Schroder took some time away from the game. Including preparation for the tournament, the World Cup was nearly a two-month commitment, eating up most of his summer. So, while he continued to work out and stay in shape, it’s been three weeks since Schroder has picking up a basketball.

It’s going to take some time for him to get back up to speed and find his place on a new team, but Schroder is doing what he can to expedite that process.

“It was a great summer,” he said. “But it’s a new season and I just try to take that confidence and that play, what I did in Japan and the Philippines, and translate it into the NBA season.”