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‘No selfishness’: Toronto Raptors cultural reset begins at B.C. training camp

Head coach said things like taking poor shots or over-dribbling the ball won’t be allowed this season
Masai Ujiri, President of Toronto Raptors speaks to reporters during media day in Toronto on Monday October 2, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Team president Masai Ujiri called for sweeping changes to the Toronto Raptors’ culture after last season came to a disappointing end. The foundations of those philosophical renovations will be laid this week at training camp in Vancouver.

Raptors team president Masai Ujiri and new head coach Darko Rajakovic spoke to media Monday in Toronto before the team caught a flight to Canada’s west coast for a five-day training camp. Ujiri continued to preach about changing the team’s culture throughout his 30-minute news conference.

“There’ll be no selfishness this year,” said Ujiri, doubling down on his call for change after head coach Nick Nurse was fired April 21.

Ujiri and Rajakovic started rebuilding Toronto’s culture with a series of conversations with players in the off-season. Ujiri said the players were open to the constructive criticism, took accountability, and offered their own opinions.

“I think it’s important that we communicate that from all levels of this team,” said Ujiri. “And also with coach Darko, he believes in the system and the style of play and we’ll see when we start.”

Rajakovic defined the kind of selfishness that Ujiri described and then offered a cure for it on the court.

“It’s taking poor shots, it’s over-dribbling the ball; we’re going to try the complete opposite of that,” said Rajakovic. “We’re going to try to move the ball more.

“Me, generally, I never liked heavy iso style of basketball. I don’t think it can be winning on the highest level so I think my biggest thing is going to be to get guys to buy in that doing less is actually doing more.”

Three significant Raptors contracts could expire at the end of this season: all-star Pascal Siakam, shooting guard Gary Trent Jr., and defensive stalwart OG Anunoby.

Rajakovic said he wasn’t worried about those players trying to maximize their personal stats while negotiating new deals, adding that they are “true professionals.”

“Less does not mean less of the shots, less does not mean taking away from their game. Less means making quicker decisions and sharing the ball,” said Rajakovic. “At the end of the day, the ball always finds the best players. They’re going to be in those situations no matter what.”

Siakam led Toronto with 37.4 minutes and 24.2 points per game and ranked second on the team with 7.8 rebounds per game last season.

A veteran of the Raptors’ 2019 NBA championship team, Siakam said he understood what Ujiri and Rajakovic were saying about selfish attitudes in 2022-23.

“We just have to have better chemistry and understand each other, play well off each other,” he said. “When you see a lot of teams play, you understand what they do and you know how things happen and the way they follow through.

“Everyone plays their role … it has to be that way here.”

The Raptors went 41-41 to finish last in the Atlantic Division and lose to the Chicago Bulls in the play-in tournament last season.

Nurse was fired nine days later when Ujiri made his original comments about changing the culture in the ensuing news conference.

Centre Jakob Poeltl, who was traded to Toronto at last season’s deadline, also wants to see a change in the team’s dynamic.

“We’ve just got to figure out a way to enjoy playing together through the ups and downs,” said Poeltl. “I think that’s something we struggled with in the past where we had moments where it looked like we gelled, and everything was free-flowing, and we could beat the best teams in the league.

“But through our down periods, we really struggled and completely changed the way we played basketball.”

The Raptors open training camp in Vancouver on Tuesday.

Their first pre-season game is Sunday against the Sacramento Kings in Rogers Arena.

Toronto will host Cairns Taipans of Australia’s National Basketball League at Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 15 and visit Chicago on Oct. 17 before wrapping the pre-season at home Oct. 20 against the Washington Wizards.