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VanVleet, Siakam ready to lead Raptors into NBA battle

It is only the most special athletes who elevate themselves to the rarified level of being described as the “face of the franchise.” Often that is only fleeting before trades or retirement.
Pascal Siakam, left, and OG Anunoby take a break at the Toronto Raptors training camp at CARSA this week. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

It is only the most special athletes who elevate themselves to the rarified level of being described as the “face of the franchise.” Often that is only fleeting before trades or retirement. Not even Wayne Gretzky retained that title in the hockey with the Oilers.

The mantle with the Toronto Raptors of the NBA is currently co-held by guard Fred VanVleet and forward Pascal Siakam, who will lead the 20 players into Friday night’s intra-squad game at a sold-out Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.

The intra-squad game will be played on the same court on which VanVleet and Siakam won the 2019 NBA championship with the Raptors.

It is the Oracle Arena floor from Oakland, California, on which Toronto won Game 6 of the final. It was purchased by the Friends of Victoria Basketball last year for $270,000. Friends of Victoria Basketball is a not-for-profit organization that staged the Tokyo Olympic qualifying tournament last summer and FIBA 2023 World Cup qualifier last month between Canada and Argentina. The floor has been used for all basketball events at the Memorial Centre since last year.

The Raptors spent the week in training camp at CARSA Gym on the University of Victoria campus before shifting to the bigger facility Friday night.

“Attitude, demeanour energy,” said VanVleet, about what teams look for in training camp.

“The first couple of days can be ugly, but guys are playing hard and flying around. We feel we are a hungry team with still stuff to prove. And with new additions that can help us and who are having a good camp so far. We got better. In theory, we’re a better team. I’ll believe it when I see it. But all we care about is winning.”

VanVleet sacrifices his body to do so.

“You live and you learn. But it’s a life philosophy for me. I was willing to do whatever it takes to win,” he said.

“Last year, that meant playing through injuries through a crucial stretch of the year when we were out of the playoff picture and then got back in the playoff picture. I played hurt during that stretch. It’s not something I need credit for or a pat on the back for. It was a choice I made.

“In hindsight, it sucked the way it ended [missing deciding Game 6 of the first-round playoff exit against the 76ers with a hip issue], but I can’t say I wouldn’t do it again. But I’ve got to be smarter about it. Whatever the team needs from me, that’s what I’m willing to do.”

It’s the sort of sacrifice that faces of franchises make.

“It is a 12-month season now and year-around. I was able to nurse the injury and get back where I felt good,” said VanVleet.

“I changed everything I was doing and hopefully I can stay on this regimen. I’ve had a hell of run so far, so to be able to keep going, is going to be challenging. But I’m up for it. I’ve had a different approach to strength and conditioning. The most important thing is that I feel good and feel strong and am excited about the start of the season. I talked to a lot of different professionals and experts and put together what makes sense for me.”

About his co-face of the franchise, VanVleet had this to say about Siakam: “He continues to grow and get better every day. I watch him work out every day and have been watching him for six years. You can see the growth and development and the wherewithal to stand in there and deal with the ups and the downs and the highs and the lows. Now we’ve just got to get him to be one of the top five players in the league. That’s where he wants to be and we have to help him do that.”

Can Siakam reach that heady pantheon? “Absolutely, no doubt about it,” said VanVleet. “He’s got the tool box.”

Siakam leads by example.

“I’m a different type of leader,” he said.

“I’m not talkative. But I’m the first in the gym.”

The MVP talk is just that, he added. “Getting wins as a team is what I’m focused on,” said Siakam.” “I am finding different ways to be effective and am continuing to build.”

Coming up behind Siakam and VanVleet is Scottie Barnes, last season’s NBA rookie of the year.

“It’s early but it will happen,” VanVleet predicted about his rising understudy at point guard for the Raptors.

“We all see the star power and the potential. Whatever [Barnes] wants to be, he can be.”

The Raptors close out training camp Saturday at CARSA Gym. This is the 12th time the Raptors have held their training camp outside Toronto and the second time in Victoria, following 2017, and seventh time overall in B.C.

The Raptors, who have a national following as Canada’s lone NBA franchise, will play exhibition games Sunday against the Utah Jazz at Rogers Place in Edmonton and Oct. 14 against the Boston Celtics at the Bell Centre in Montreal as part of their five-game pre-season schedule.

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