From President and General Manger, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri to Head Coach Dwane Casey, the underlying message about this season has been seeing what the team has and developing their young players. The recent winning ways of the Raptors in the post Rudy Gay era notwithstanding, as far as Casey is concerned, those wins are gravy.
It’s been all about Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan from day 1.
“Up until the last 2 or 3 games, our young players were growing,” Casey said after the win over Dallas. “Terrence was growing. Jonas was growing. I think they kind of hit a sophomore blue wall a little bit which is expected. We expected that – they weren’t going to (continue to) play at a high level because they are still young players. The positive is the growth of DeMar DeRozan, and I still say Terrence and Jonas have grown and developed. We are growing, we are not a finished product, 2 or 3 starters who or not finished products, they are still growing – really a year and a half in the league, not even a half a year yet until Friday. So, we are ahead of schedule. We are winning some games in our building and we are happy with that.”
Casey insists that his message to the media prior to the successful Western Conference road trip in December of, “It is about Terrence Ross, growing him, getting him better. DeMar DeRozan is still a work-in-progress. Jonas Valanciunas is still a work-in-progress. We are still building – still in the improvement process of getting these guys better until further notice” has not changed. This team is still developing players first and foremost.
“It hasn’t changed and I haven’t changed,” Casey said. “We won and moved up to whatever it is, but it hasn’t changed. Winning is gravy right now. We are ahead of schedule with that, but we are still not a finished product and we have a lot to do. Those 2 still have a lot of growing to do and I am excited about their future. I think they have a lot to work with. You saw (Valanciunas) with his length and size and his ability to make free throws at the end of games and you can’t teach that, but there are a lot of things he has to learn – a lot of things Terrence has to learn in this league.”
The key words about the Raptors are ‘ahead of schedule’ and ‘winning is gravy.’ Based on where this team was before the Rudy Gay trade, there has been a lot of gravy on Toronto’s plate lately and Casey was left wondering where all the recent negativity about a couple of losses is coming from? Slide what slide?
“In this league and for where we are – a slide – what’s a slide?” Casey said. “We lose 2 games and everybody gets all up in it. We are not going to go 42-0 and I have said it all along, we are still growing. We are building and for everybody to expect we are going to run this table the rest of the way, they are kidding themselves. I have said that, I mean that, we are still growing.
“We have got to continue to grow and learn. The way we played the first quarter was not growing and learning and we have to learn from that. Young players have to learn. You know young guys are struggling right now. So we have to keep them going, so I don’t see as a slide. We kicked a couple of games. I didn’t like the way we played the Charlotte game. The Lakers game, we didn’t get defense in the game. So, I don’t call it a slide.”
The Raptors are not about to let a couple of losses stand in the way of their real objectives. Just like in the game against Dallas where the veteran Chuck Hayes had to come in and settle things down for the struggling Valanciunas, Casey went back to his sophomore to close out the game. The experience Valanciunas would be able to gain from playing those crunch-time minutes was more valuable to the Raptors than possibly getting a win by playing a veteran.
The good news for Toronto is Casey’s sophomores are helping the team to win games, but this sudden rapid development has not been happening in a vacuum, credit Ujiri for going out and adding a pair of badly needed veteran players in the Gay trade. Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez look like players who could develop into long term mainstays in Toronto, but Hayes and John Salmons have added a respected voice of experience that shouldn’t be underestimated – on the court and in the locker room.
“Chuck (Hayes) is one of our leaders, one of our quiet leaders in the locker room,” Casey said. “When he speaks, everybody listens – like E.F. Hutton (the TV commercial). He had a speech after the game the other night and said it all after the Charlotte game. The guys respect him. He has been around the block, he and John (Salmons) both. John made a statement during the game (vs. Dallas) after the first quarter, it was embarrassing, we weren’t making them feel us physically and those 2 old heads, they have been around the block. They know what it takes to win in this league and that’s where Terrence and Jonas – which I understand – need to learn and will learn, but it takes time.”
The Raptors are at the halfway point in the season with a 21-20 record and after their poor start, that is something of an accomplishment. It is an even bigger accomplishment when one takes into account Casey’s directive to evaluate and develop players as his first priority.
Toronto has been through the toughest part of their schedule already having faced the HEAT and the Pacers 3 times each, so if Casey could lead a team trying to develop 3 players in its starting lineup to a plus-.500 under these conditions, there is room for optimism going forward. The Raptors finally might be good enough to develop players and be a playoff team this season.