New faces, different mood at this season's Raptors training camp

By The Canadian Press
September 26, 2018 - 6:15pm

BURNABY, B.C. — Fred VanVleet stepped into the middle of a semicircle of reporters on Wednesday, his hands resting on a gaudy faux gold WWE championship belt cinched around his waist.

Two days into Toronto Raptors training camp, the plastic belt was one of the small details that signalled a new era with the team.

"I'm just the champ for the day," VanVleet said with a grin. "I don't really know what I won it for . . . I think they said deflections, I had a couple of wins, five-on-five. I had a pretty good day today."

Players come and go, but this year's camp has a significantly different feel than previous years. For the first time in eight seasons, there's a different man in charge. Nick Nurse begins his rookie season as head coach, promoted after the firing of Dwane Casey.

"It's just different from anything, I don't want to sit here and compare this year to last year all year, but keeping things fresh, it's a new approach," VanVleet said. "Any time you're transitioning head coaches or things like that, it's going to bring something new to the table.

"This is one little thing that they've got, and it keeps things light. You want to have good energy when you're trying to get this work in. It's a long gruelling season, and there are certain things throughout you can do to keep the mood light."

Kawhi Leonard, who was acquired in the blockbuster trade that sent DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio, also sported a WWE belt after practice.

Montreal's Chris Boucher and Kay Felder won the two belts on Day 1 Tuesday, prompting some camp trash talking from VanVleet.

"You know, you're only as good as your last day," he said with a chuckle. "So, those guys are forgotten about already. It's a new champ."

The wrestling belt idea actually came from Nate Bjorkgren, the former Phoenix Suns assistant — and Nurse's longtime friend and fellow Iowan — who was hired by Toronto this past off-season.

"You can get 'em at Toys R Us for $6.95, or less maybe," Nurse said. "It's good we have some contests and stuff and recognize some guys."

Danny Green is two days into his 10th NBA camp, with his third team, so he's seen virtually seen most things training camp can throw at him. The 31-year-old said there are a few small details that have for a loose environment at Fortius Sport & Health.

"Listening and playing to the music, during some of the practices and some of the drills," he said, as one example. "It makes it a little more fun. Playing a little more one-on-one, two-on-twos, have some competitions where we win different things.

"Not many things but little things help make the environment a little more loose, a little more fun."

Do the players pick the music?

"Some guys have given some suggestions. They have a pretty good play list," he said.

The Raptors are fortunate to have a roster that's still relatively young but mature in experience. Leonard and Green — who have 187 playoff games and an NBA title (2014) between them — are virtual professors in the minutiae of a long NBA season, and Nurse relishes the experience they bring.

"It helps in a lot of ways. First, from a standpoint of they teach them what it takes, the workday, the professional workday in this league and what it takes. They pick up on that," Nurse said. "There's something to understanding what playoff prep is like, playoff pressure is like, going on the road to certain arenas is like, and when you have guys that have been through it, they can ease the nerves a little bit.

"(It's) the rhythm of the playoffs, how to handle the media, social media, whatever. They’ve been through it and can give a lot in a lot of areas."

Veteran point guard Kyle Lowry plays a similar role with the younger Raptors, Nurse said.

"Kyle and Fred were in here this morning before practice for a good 80, 90 minutes . . . doing some serious work," the coach said. "Kyle showing (VanVleet) the ropes on some things, and that's kind of always going on all over the roster with the experienced guys we have."

VanVleet added Serge Ibaka and Greg Monroe to the list of veterans the younger players such as himself can learn from. 

"(We can) just absorb their knowledge," he said. "If they tell you a certain thing that worked for them, or didn't work for them . . . there are certain things that you can just learn from being next to those guys, maybe it's just a workout or routine, or a sleep pattern, or scouting, or what to eat, little things like that, that can be marginal, that can make a big difference."

The Raptors practice through Friday in Burnaby, B.C. They host Portland on Saturday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver to open the pre-season.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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