Professional athletes are by nature an optimistic, forward-looking bunch. And why not: if you have matriculated to the highest level in a hyper-competitive field, chances are you are used to betting on yourself and coming up aces. 

Why dwell on what’s wrong when in their own experience they’ve shown themselves that with a little tweak, a little luck, a little extra focus, they can reach whatever goal they set their mind to reach. 

Self-belief is not a problem for this crowd, typically. How tied to reality it might be is another question. Before the season began, for example, each of Precious Achiuwa, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes pronounced that they could each be candidates for defensive player of the year. With all that talent the Raptors were ranked 16th defensively before they traded Anunoby and Achiuwa on Dec. 30. 

Which is probably the fairest way to appreciate how or why a steady stream of Raptors players could take to the microphone to share their views on a just completed 25-57 season, the one that nose-dived to a 2-19 finish, and  overwhelmingly sound like they were a group sprinting towards a bright future, rather than escaping from the grim present. 

Rather than discouraged by a season in which they missed the play-in tournament by 11 games — this in an Eastern Conference where the 10th-place Atlanta Hawks were eight games under .500 — they seemed buoyed by what it portended, optimistic even. 

“I think for sure there’s a lot of things to be excited about,” said Raptors veteran centre Jakob Poeltl who could only watch as the team’s fortunes plummeted after he missed the last 21 games of the season with a dislocated finger. “You could see that at times when we had our guys out there on the court — we really had limited time playing together — but still it felt good, and it looked good, and the results were there. And I don’t think those were outliers; it was more that almost all of the losses were more of the outliers than when we were actually performing. 

“So that gives you a lot of confidence,” Poeltl continued. “That gives me a lot of hope looking forward to next season, to be able to show that more and to be able to show that from an overall talent perspective I don’t think we are where we’re supposed to be in the standings. To be able to show that will be cool.”

The same tone was struck by Immanuel Quickley who arrived from the New York Knicks along with RJ Barrett by way of a mid-season trade that was the beginning of massive roster turnover that saw only four players who were on the roster last season finish with the team this year. 

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The fourth-year guard averaged 18.6 points, 6.8 assists and shot 39.5 per cent from three in his 38 games with Toronto, evidence of why the Raptors view him as a long-term solution at point guard. Still, Toronto went just 12-26 with him in the lineup. 

Given that Quickley will be a restricted free agent this summer, you might imagine he’s looking at the whole situation warily, like, ‘what have I got myself into?’

Instead Quickley sounds like someone who — rather than want to get as far away as he can from a smoking crater of a 12th-place finish — can’t wait to get started. 

The Raptors — having traded away OG Anunoby, likely their most valuable trade asset to acquire the former Knicks guard — have every intention of signing him to a long-term deal which could touch $150 million over five years. 

And for his part, Quickley sounds like someone who can’t find a pen fast enough. 

“I’ve absolutely loved Toronto since the day I got here,” Quickley said. “They’ve done nothing but show me love. Love is an action word. It’s not just something you just throw around. They’ve done that from the day I got here to today. So obviously the team and my agent have to handle everything, but I love being here in Toronto absolutely.”

And Quickley too, is optimistic that better times are ahead. “I’d say I think our team is very well rounded as far as the fact that we have great talent, but we also have great people,” he said. “ When you come to work, you want to come to work in an environment where people are very talented at their craft, but they also are great people because that gives you a chance to do something special looking forward to the future. So it’ll be fun.”

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Down the line, no one wanted to dwell on a 25-win season, but the core belief is that there is a better team lurking within the shell of the group that finished the year. 

“We got a big summer ahead of us,” said Barnes, who was named an all-star for the first time this season. 

The optimism was, in some ways, inevitable. Even if various Raptors wanted to distance themselves from what was the fifth-worst record in franchise history, there’s nothing to gain by airing grievances publicly, so there’s that. 

But also the way the season finished gave everyone in the organization a collective mulligan. First there was the whirlwind of trades that saw seven players traded away in the space of six weeks, then there were what proved to be season-ending injuries to Barnes, Poeltl, and Chris Boucher and finally there were the deaths of Barrett’s younger brother and Quickley’s uncle that kept each of them out of the lineup for extended periods. 

“The dominos just fell,” said Raptors big man Kelly Olynyk, who joined the team from the Utah Jazz—- along with Ochai Agbaji — at the trade deadline. “Injury, injury, injury, obviously, personal stuff that you can’t discount, guys having to be away from the team, that was a tough stretch there.”

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What’s interesting is that the optimism for the future is based on almost nothing tangible other than good vibes and the belief that there’s no way they could actually be this bad.

The sample size for the brighter days argument is tiny. Toronto played just seven games with their idealized post-trade deadline lineup and went 3-4. More charitably, they had four games coming out of the all-star break when they actually had the benefit of a couple of practices together and went 3-1, their best win coming on the road against the Indiana Pacers. 

Any momentum they might have been building curtailed pretty quickly when first Barnes and then Poeltl suffered their respective season-ending injuries in consecutive games, triggering the Raptors 2-19 finish. 

“I think this season might take the cake for me in my career,” said Poeltl, when the eight-year veteran was asked if he could a recall a year with more upheaval. 

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And all of this is not to say that there is no reason for optimism. A list, in order of significance, would go something like this:

• Barnes took a big leap in year three and if the light was right you could see the outlines of the kind of superstar talent that can elevate a team on its own. “He does everything. It’s very rare that you have a player that can do everything on the basketball court and really does most things a very high level,” said Barrett.

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• Poeltl’s presence seems closely correlated with team success. Toronto finished last season 15-10 when he became a starter after the trade deadline, and more tellingly were 4-29 when he wasn’t in the lineup this season due to injury. He’s going into the off-season healthy and at 28 is in the midst of what should be his prime.

• Quickley seems bought-in and on paper is the perfect point guard match for Barnes in that his shooting ability allows him to play off the ball when Barnes has it, stretching defences that want to send help to Barnes.

• Barrett played the best basketball of his career as a Raptor, averaging 21.8 points and 4.1 assists on 55.3 per cent shooting in 32 games with his hometown team. He feels like he’s found a fit playing for Rajakovic. “I like to play free, just playing free and making reads and just the whole team sharing the ball and everybody,” Barrett said. “It’s just, that’s kind of my game.”

• Rookie Gradey Dick looked every inch a lottery pick in the second half of the season. “I thought it was really awesome, the way he took an opportunity with a lot of the guys out and him getting a chance to take on a bigger role and more responsibilities and really just ran with it,” said Poeltl.

The Raptors found kind words to say about Rajakovic, their head coach, and for each other. The wins weren’t there, but the atmosphere somehow remained positive and upbeat. They all sounded like they’re looking forward to summer workouts, individually and as a team. They believe that better days are ahead. 

“The growth this summer, just working out, working out together, figuring things out, that’s gonna be huge,” said Barrett. “I mean we’re all young right now. I think we have some really good years ahead of us.”

Now it’s up to them to make it so.



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