When all is said and done, the key for the Raptors this year may wind up being Dennis Schroder.
Hear me out before you all point out that Scottie Barnes is the face of the’ franchise, Pascal Siakam is the only All-NBA talent on the roster and O.G. Anunoby is in the conversation for best overall defender in the entire league.
For starters, Schroder is not going to lead this team in scoring. He’s also not going to lead this team in dunks or shots for that matter or even highlight reel appearances.
As evidenced this past summer at the FIBA World Cup, Dennis Schroder is an exceptional talent in his own right, but his greatest skill may be in bringing all the pieces together.
It also doesn’t hurt that he’s playing for a head coach that has a belief in his abilities far beyond that of any previous head coach Schroder has had in the NBA.
We’ll omit German National head coach Gordie Herbert from that list because to date he’s the only one who has given Schroder the keys to the whole shooting match and was rewarded with a championship.
We bring up Herbert because Darko Rajakovic sounds very much like he’s ready to put a lot of responsibility for the team on Schroder’s plate.
I asked Rajakovic on Thursday if he felt Schroder’s been under-utilized in his career to this point. His answer was brief but it was also telling.
“Depending on situation, depending on teams,” Rajakovic said beginning very broadly. “I always thought that playing with the German national team where he was a focal point, especially the last couple of years, I thought he did a really, really good job. (In the NBA) he was in situations where he was starting, not starting, all of that. I think there is more to his game than he’s showed so far in the NBA.”
Both men claim there was an instant connection when Schroder arrived in Oklahoma City after the team that drafted him 17th overall, the Atlanta Hawks, sent him away in a three-team trade after five seasons in the organization.
For Schroder it was simply finding a guy who treated him and his family with respect and shared a lot of the same directness Schroder employs in his own life.
“When I came to OKC he was the first guy to reach out and wanted to grab dinner with me and my wife and my family,” Schroder said. “That means a lot to me. Everybody who does that, (Austin Reaves) in L.A., saying hi after every game to my kids, that means a lot to me. I think that’s probably where the connection started. He’s just a guy who keeps it real, keeping people accountable, making sure everybody gets on the same page. And I’m the same way, always direct. That’s the reason I think we get along so well.”
And while few around the league are giving the Raptors much of a chance of anything beyond an appearance in the play-in game come playoff time, both Rajakovic and, even a little more vocally, Schroder are bullish on their chances.
“Every single game we play I want to win, and then we’re going to live with the results,” Schroder said. “Basketball, you can’t win every single game but we’re going in to take peoples’ head(s) off. Every single game we want to play and that’s been my way.”
Schroder is showing this investment in his new team by taking on a leadership role with the Raptors that may not have been so expected. Malachi Flynn mentioned it the other day following practice and Schroder has clearly already been in rookie Grady Dick’s ear about his tempo early on his NBA career.
“In the games he goes way too fast,” Schroder observed. “But I mean, when I was at 18, 19 and came here I was only one speed too. So, I mean, that’s the process. You’ve got to go through it and he’s going to get it.
“But I think he’s a good guy,” Schroder said. “Professional. Still trying to find his way. But I think we got a good group of guys who, you know, guiding and try to teach him and hopefully he’s going to embrace that role and get better every single day.”
Schroder believes this team is well represented with leaders. He’s not shying away from his own role in that, nor is he claiming to be the one voice in the room.
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“I just try to be the best human being I can be,” Schroder said. “Every single day I try to help my teammates. We’ve got a lot of people — Pascal Siakam and (Chris Boucher) and O.G. (Anunoby) — they won championships already. I had a great summer, winning the World Cup, and I think with all our guys in the locker room we’ve got a lot of experience to help each other and lift each other up. They made it easy for me to come in and be the point guard and lead the team but at the end of the day it’s a team effort.”
At 30 years of age and coming off his World Cup MVP performance and with a coach he shares a strong bond, Schroder is at the perfect place in his career to be the lynch pin that brings out the best in the Toronto Raptors.