Ultimately, the key for the Raptors this year could be Dennis Schroder.
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 OG Anunoby is in the conversation for the best overall defenseman in the entire league, hear me out.
First of all, Schroder won’t be leading this team in points. He also won’t lead this team in dunks or shots or even produce highlight reel appearances.
As demonstrated at the FIBA World Cup last summer, Dennis Schroder is an exceptional talent in his own right, but his greatest skill may be putting all the pieces together.
It also doesn’t hurt that he’s playing for a head coach who believes in his abilities far more than any previous head coach Schroder has had in the NBA.
We are omitting the head coach of the German national team, Gordie Herbert, from this list, as to date he is the only one who gave Schröder the key to the entire shooting game and was rewarded with a championship for it.
We’re bringing up Herbert because Darko Rajakovic sounds like he’s ready to give Schroder a lot of responsibility for the team.
I asked Rajakovic on Thursday whether he felt Schröder had been underutilized in his career so far. His answer was short but also meaningful.
“Depending on the situation, depending on the team,” Rajakovic initially said very generally. “I always thought that he did a really, really good job in the German national team, where he played a central role, especially in recent years. (In the NBA) he was in situations where he started, didn’t start, all that. I think there’s more to his game than he’s shown in the NBA so far.”
Both men claim there was an instant connection when Schroder came to 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 had.
For Schroder, it was simply a matter of finding a man who treated him and his family with respect and shared much of the directness that Schroder applies to his own life.
“When I came to OKC, he was the first guy that reached out and wanted to have dinner with me, my wife and my family,” Schroder said. “That means a lot to me. Anyone who does that (Austin Reaves) in LA and says hi to my kids after every game, that means a lot to me. I think that’s probably where the connection came from. He’s just a guy that keeping it serious, holding people accountable and making sure everyone is on the same page. And I’m the same way, always direct. That’s why I think we get along so well.”
And while few around the league give the Raptors much of a chance at anything beyond a play-in game appearance in the playoffs, both Rajakovic and, even louder, Schroder are optimistic about their chances.
“I want to win every single game we play and then we will live with the results,” said Schröder. “Basketball, you can’t win every single game, but we’re going to take people’s heads off. We want to play every single game and that was my path.”
Schroder is showing that investment in his new team by taking on a leadership role with the Raptors that may not have been as expected. Malachi Flynn mentioned it the other day after practice, and Schroder apparently informed rookie Grady Dick about his pace early in his NBA career.
“He’s much too fast in games,” stated Schröder. “But I mean, when I came here when I was 18, 19, I only had one speed. So, I mean, that’s the process. You have to go through it and he will get it.
“But I think he’s a good guy,” Schröder said. “Professional. He’s still trying to find his way. But I think we have a good group of people guiding him and trying to teach him and hopefully he’ll take on that role and get better every day.”
Schroder believes this team is well represented with senior leadership. He doesn’t shy away from his own role and doesn’t claim to be the only voice in the room.
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“I’m just trying to be the best person I can be,” Schröder said. “Every day I try to help my teammates. We have a lot of guys – Pascal Siakam and (Chris Boucher) and OG (Anunoby) – they’ve already won championships. I had a great summer, won the World Cup, and I think with all our guys in the locker room we have a lot of experience to help each other and push each other forward. They made it easy for me to be the point guard and lead the team, but at the end of the day it’s a team effort.”
At 30 years old, with a World Series MVP performance and a coach he has a strong connection with, Schroder is in the perfect spot in his career to be the fulcrum that brings out the best in the Toronto Raptors.