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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter


TORONTO – There’s a fun guessing game that we used to play at this time of year: which version of Kyle Lowry would show up at Raptors training camp?
In 2012, his first season with the club, Lowry reported to camp out of shape. In 2016, he shed a bunch of weight and the phenomenon known as “Skinny Kyle” was born.
In 2018, he brooded around, even more than usual, refusing to talk to members of the front office and dodging the media after his best friend was traded away. The following year, he staged a mini holdout and sat out of practices until he got his contract extension. Last year, he was uncommonly chipper – Florida sunshine and regular tee times will do that.
With Lowry, you could count on a couple of things. One, he would always keep things interesting, and two, he would always be there, at least in some form or another.
On Tuesday, the Raptors opened training camp and for the first time in a decade they did so without the franchise icon, who went to Miami in a sign-and-trade deal over the off-season.
It had to be strange. How could it not be? The organization just enjoyed an unprecedented run of success and through it all Lowry was one of the lone constants, its undeniable heart and soul. His voice wasn’t always the loudest in the room but it was the most powerful. It garnered the most respect. Without it, there’s a void in Toronto’s locker room as the team transitions to a new era.
“We all know and witnessed the great leadership that Kyle provided in a lot of ways, and that will be a void that we’re gonna have to try to fill, for sure,” said head coach Nick Nurse.
“But I think it's gonna probably be up to a collective group of other guys to provide some of that. Those people are pretty obvious. It's the people that have been immersed in this culture and been here for a few years. Our veterans aren't veterans by age but they're veterans by number of years that they've been here now.”
Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam aren’t just the longest-tenured Raptors. They have more years of service (10 total) than the other 10 roster players combined (nine).
VanVleet is Lowry’s natural successor, both positionally and spiritually. He possesses many of the same qualities as his mentor, including the ability to lead and command the respect of his peers. And because he’s been grooming under Lowry for the past five years, the transition shouldn’t be drastic.
“I think he took on more of a leadership role last year and was starting to understand that at some point I wouldn't be there to be 'the leader' or 'the guy’,” Lowry said after signing with the Heat over the summer. “I think he’s ready… He’s put in a lot of work to be in that spot and to be able to carry a large load on his shoulders.”
“Off the court, I’m pretty comfortable there,” VanVleet said on Monday. “I was allowed to have a voice pretty much from my first year, second year and it’s just been steadily growing. And everybody else’s perception or expectations of me have changed, maybe, but for me, I’ve been vocal in the locker room for the majority of my time here. That’s not really gonna change. I think now I’m seeing that my actions have reactions and consequences. It’s a different feel from the other side of the room when people are looking at you versus just leading with my heart. I’m probably gonna have to be a little more calculated and patient.”
Lowry’s absence also opens up an opportunity for Siakam to take the next step in his development and solidify himself as a co-leader of this team in a way he obviously felt he couldn’t when the veteran point guard was around. That’s what he was alluding to in an interview with The New York Times earlier this month, when he spoke about how he didn’t feel like he was “the guy”, despite his max contract extension – comments that were misinterpreted by some.
“I think my interpretation of what he was saying was that, listen, ‘I got paid the max and when I got paid the max all the fans expected me to become this, this, this and this and with that came a lot of responsibility, but in my way was the greatest guy to ever do that for this franchise and it wasn’t a clear-cut distinction’,” said VanVleet, who stressed the importance of nuance in Siakam’s comments. “Kyle didn’t just bow out gracefully, he wouldn’t be Kyle Lowry if he did... He’s not gonna just back up and let somebody else do it.”
“For me coming in as a young kid, it was Kyle and DeMar. I looked up to these guys, those were the guys that we saw as our leaders and people that were gonna take us where we were supposed to go,” Siakam said. “Now obviously with Kyle gone, there’s no question. We had a conversation with Masai [Ujiri, team president/vice-chairman], and it was me, it was OG [Anunoby] and it was Fred… We’re gonna do it together. I don’t like the word ‘the guy.’ I don’t like using it. I want to be the guy who wins. I want to win. That’s all I care about.”
Both Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have compared this group to the early Lowry and DeRozan-led teams that kicked off this run seven or eight years ago. They’re at a similar spot on the development curve. This isn’t a rebuilding team but it’s also not one that’s going to be competing for championships in the near term. They want to be competitive while also building for the future, which is a difficult thing to balance but something they’ve done before.
Lowry and DeRozan were among the reasons they were able to do it so successfully. They were both in their mid-to-late 20s and entering their prime years, same as VanVleet and Siakam are now, and their leadership styles – while very different – complemented each other perfectly. Lowry was more vocal. DeRozan was quieter but led by example. Together, they mentored a group of young players, including Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, and helped build a culture that the organization continues to draw on.
Like Lowry and DeRozan before them, VanVleet and Siakam have developed a strong bond over the years. They also lead in different ways, with VanVleet in the Lowry mould and Siakam next to him in the DeRozan role.
An introvert by nature, DeRozan opened up more and more as the years went on. With experience and maturity, he came out of his shell, which also allowed him to grow in his role as a co-leader of those Raptors teams. Now, after a tough 18-month stretch both on and off the court, Siakam is trying to do the same.
“I think we have different personalities, like Fred is a little more talkative than I am, but I'm trying to do everything that I can in order to help my team,” Siakam said. “I'm trying to get out of my shell, even something as simple as texting the young guys during the summer like ‘hey, how you doing?’ Things that I knew how to do but I just didn't feel the need to do before. I think those things are happening naturally now and I'm trying to get better at them.”
With more then $220 million committed to Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby over the next three years, Ujiri and Webster have invested in another young core hoping that they can continue to grow together while grooming guys like Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., Malachi Flynn and Precious Achiuwa.
To build a sustainable foundation for success in this or any other league you need to be able to pass the torch from one generation of players to the next. Lowry is in Miami. DeRozan is in Chicago, already a couple of teams removed from his Raptors tenure. It’s a new era, and for it to be as prosperous as the last, the duo of VanVleet and Siakam will need to lead the way.​