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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – If absence makes the heart grow fonder, you can imagine how much the Raptors miss Toronto after more than a year and a half away.

It’s been nearly 19 full months since they played their last game at Scotiabank Arena. The COVID-19 pandemic took them from the Disney bubble in Orlando, where they finished out the 2019-20 season following a lengthy hiatus, to Tampa, where they were forced to relocate for the entire 2020-21 campaign.

Finally, they’re back in the city they call home, and you could see the joy on their faces, and hear it in their voices, as they reconvened on the eve of training camp.

“I think for me, personally, I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed living here until I came back,” said Fred VanVleet, speaking on the concourse of Scotiabank Arena at Raptors media day on Monday morning. “I knew I missed the city, but you don’t really know why until you come back because it’s just a beautiful place to be.”

“It’s really become my second home and me and my family are just really happy to be back. But also there’s this anticipation of what each game is going to be like to get these fans back in the arena and being back where we belong.”

“That's the first time I've walked into my office downstairs since, I don't know, February of 2020 or whatever,” said head coach Nick Nurse. “Everything was still there. I forgot all the stuff I had but it was all still there. I went to my locker, still was a blue suit in there, had a bunch of dust on it. Just feels good to be back.”

The Raptors will open camp at OVO Centre on Tuesday. In the past, they’ve travelled to different parts of Canada, including Vancouver, Calgary, Victoria, Montreal and Quebec City. This year, they’re holding the bulk of camp in Toronto for the first time since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.

For a few guys, it’ll be a homecoming of sorts, a chance to get reacquainted with the city. For many others, it’s an introduction.

Of the 20 players on the team’s training camp roster, only four have actually played a home game in Toronto – VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher.

Malachi Flynn, who they selected with the 29th-overall pick in the 2020 draft, played 47 games with the club before even visiting the city for the first time earlier this month. Veteran point guard Goran Dragic, acquired in the sign-and-trade that sent Kyle Lowry to Miami in August, has played 16 career games in Toronto but all of them as a visitor. Canadians Khem Birch and rookie Dalano Banton attended Raptors games as kids. Gary Trent Jr.’s father played for the club before he was even born. Fourth-overall pick Scottie Barnes has already embraced the city and become a quick fan favourite.

They’re among the players who will make their Toronto debuts when the Raptors kick off their pre-season schedule in front of an expected half capacity crowd (roughly 10,000) against Philadelphia next Monday, with the regular season opener (October 20 versus Washington) less than a month away.

They’re still getting settled. Many of the young guys and newcomers arrived a couple weeks, though several of them are still living out of their downtown hotel rooms and have yet to find a place to live. Barnes joked that he’s spent most of his time, and eaten most of his meals, at the practice facility. Flynn is looking for restaurant recommendations. They’re all looking forward to seeing more of the city over the coming weeks and months, but mostly, they’re excited to play in front of the fans and experience the atmosphere at even a half-full Scotiabank Arena.

“Our group has been able to retain a lot of players over the years due to the fact they love playing [in Toronto],” said general manager Bobby Webster. “So if you’re a few of the players who actually haven’t been here I think that’s really important to them. It’s important to the Freds and Pascals to connect back here because I think it’s a really strong relationship and bond that we have with the city and the country.”

But the team that’s returning to Toronto is very different than the one that fell to the Charlotte Hornets in that last game, back on February 28, 2020. Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Norman Powell have all relocated, and now, for the first time in a decade, the Raptors are getting set to open camp without Lowry, the greatest player in franchise history.

This group is younger and there’s no shortage of question marks entering camp.

The last time Siakam played in Toronto he was a player on the rise, one of the league’s brightest young stars enjoying what would be an all-NBA calibre season. After a turbulent 18 months on and off the court – as well as off-season shoulder surgery, which will sideline him to start this year – can he get back to or even exceed that level?

Can he and VanVleet fill the Lowry leadership void? Will Anunoby build off his career year and continue blossoming into a two-way star? How will Nurse round out his starting lineup and manage a roster loaded with long and versatile players with similar frames? Can they extract value from Dragic, either as a rotation piece and mentor or in a trade ahead of the deadline? How steep will the learning curve be for Barnes?

But, after missing the playoffs for the first time in eight years, the biggest question is how much of last year’s misfortune can be chalked up to being displaced in Tampa? What are the expectations for this team now that they’re back at home?

“I got up this morning and saw the new power rankings were out [and we’re] 19th in the league and maybe 11th in the East, and if you went to Vegas and you want to bet on the over-under it’s 36 [wins], I think,” said Nurse. “But I don’t know, I don’t really approach the season with thoughts other than trying to win and win big.”

“I’m excited,” VanVleet said. “I think it’s always a challenge every season, and every season that starts there’s gonna be players that are not there from the year before. This season it just so happens to be Kyle Lowry. So we’ll try to pick up the slack that he left behind – the greatest Raptor to do it. I read a quote the other day that said, ‘There are things that have never been done being done everyday.’ So I’m up for the challenge and the team is ready for the challenge. We have a young, hungry group that are looking to prove themselves. So I think we’re all pretty excited for the season to start.”

“Our expectations are always to win, to be competitive, to hold our guys accountable, to make sure they're learning to play the right way,” said Webster. “And so with a number of new faces, that'll be top of mind again, but I think there is a core that has won, there's a core that's been in the league a decent amount of time. It'll just be fitting the pieces around those players. So yeah, we expect to compete every night and I think we'll surprise a few people, too.” ​