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VanVleet Void: Pre-season will help Raptors establish new leadership


Whether it was on the court, in the locker room, or in front of cameras and microphones, Fred VanVleet was the voice of the Toronto Raptors for the past two NBA seasons.

But after VanVleet signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the Houston Rockets in the off-season it's not immediately apparent who will be the Raptors new leader, or if it will be a group of players who step forward to guide the team.

Several players and team president Masai Ujiri all have their own ideas as to how Toronto's leadership situation will shake out this season.

"I wouldn't say I see an obvious choice," said shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. ahead of the Raptors' training camp. "It's like a natural thing. It's not like somebody you can appoint to do that.

"For me, it's just the person's actions and how you respond to certain stuff shows your leadership and how everybody will follow."

Trent said every player brings something different to a team, and it will become apparent whose personal experiences benefit the locker room as the Raptors' season develops.

"It's really just about open communication and being truthful to one another, holding one another accountable, said Trent.

"Making sure if somebody wants to be doing something, they hear it and they know that and they should be receptive to that and be able to take constructive criticism and be able to grow from it, almost like brothers."

On the court, at least, there is an obvious candidate in Dennis Schroder.

He signed a two-year, US$26 million deal with the Raptors on July 12 to become the team's presumptive starting point guard. That deal took up Toronto's entire mid-level exception.

After signing with the Raptors, Schroder led Germany to its first championship at the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Schroder was named the World Cup MVP after Germany beat Serbia 83-77 in the final on Sept. 10. He averaged 17.9 points and 6.7 assists per game in the tournament.

"He had a great World Cup and shows great leadership," said Ujiri. "He’s very competitive and that’s what we saw in this player. His first step, how he attacks the rim, plays with other players, and he’s a defensive pest. That’s the kind of player we want on our team.

"(New Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic) knows Dennis better than all of us and I know that he’ll have ways that he wants Dennis to show leadership and how to play on this team so I leave that with coaching but he had an exceptional summer."

Forward Scottie Barnes, who may have an opportunity to develop into more of a playmaker on the court, said he would like to assume some of Toronto's leadership responsibilities.

"I feel like that’s something I'm really trying to step into," said Barnes, who will be playing his third NBA season. "I don’t think it’s going to be that hard to be a leader. I feel I can lead.

"It's just about me using my voice and being able to play hard and just being more focused on my job on the floor."

Barnes also acknowledged that Toronto has a core of reliable and experienced veterans like leading scorer Pascal Siakam and defensive stalwart OG Anunoby — both of whom were on the Raptors 2019 championship team — as well as centre Jakob Poeltl and 10-year NBA veteran Otto Porter Jr.

"I think the vets we've got right now, you know, they just come and bring a lot of energy," said Barnes. "They're bringing more energy, they're bringing more positivity to the situation.

"I feel like that's really just the difference between this year last year."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2023.