DeMar DeRozan will be one of the keys to the Raptors success this season. (Getty Images)It seems with every new season comes a new sense of optimism, and with the Toronto Raptors getting set to open their 2012-2013 campaign at home Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers, there does seem to be a renewed feeling of hope surrounding the franchise.
Playoffs, though far from a guarantee, aren't out of the question, which in itself can be looked at as a big step forward for a team that finished 12 games behind the 8th seeded Philadelphia 76ers last year.
Just compare opening night starting lineups. Out are Jose Calderon, Amir Johnson and Rasual Butler -- yes believe it or not he started in Toronto's first game of the 2011-2012 campaign -- and in are Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and Landry Fields, all of whom are considered upgrades at their positions.
That said, if the Raptors are going to climb the ladder in the Eastern Conference and be the potential "sleeper" team that some are describing them as, certain things need to fall into place and a few questions need to be answered.
Can Jonas Valanciunas live up to the hype?
Well, by announcing the 20-year-old will be in the starting lineup Wednesday, rather than coming off the bench, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is giving his highly touted rookie the chance to make a serious impact right out of the gate.
He told the National Post Tuesday:
"He's a guy who is talented. Does he make mistakes? Yes, as most rookies do. His upside is huge. It's also time to give him a taste of how the game is played, how guys like Hibbert, guys like [Brooklyn's Brook] Lopez [play]. He's our future. He's our foundation in the middle. So, why not now?"
Valanciunas has been dubbed the saviour of the Raptors franchise, however Raptors fans should be careful in how they assess success when it comes to the seven-foot rookie. Though Casey understands that Valanciunas is a large part of the Raptors future he isn't expecting big numbers to come right away for his new center.
As Ryan Wolstat points out in his story for the QMI Agency, the move to start Valanciunas is a bold call by Casey, but the right one for the franchise as it seems that not only is the rookie meshing well with new point guard Lowry, but also complements Andrea Bargnani on both ends of the floor.
We'll see how Toronto's new big man fairs against Indiana's 7-foot-2, 280-pound centre Roy Hibbert Wednesday.
Is DeMar DeRozan worth four years $40 million?
It appears the Raptors and DeMar DeRozan have agreed to a new four-year $40 million contract extension.
The 23-year old shooting guard was set to become a restricted free agent as of midnight, but as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports wrote, the talks of a new contract gathered momentum in the last 24 hours.
It always appeared as though DeRozan wanted to remain a Toronto Raptor, but it was just a matter of whether he'd go into the 2012-2013 season with a new contract or not. He told the media Monday that "at the end of the day this is where I got drafted. This is definitely where I want to be."
After three seasons with the Raps, DeRozan has failed to show star potential and in fact, his points per game and field-goal percentage numbers were lower in his third year in the league compared to his sophomore season. The former ninth overall selection has often been criticized for his inability to knock down jump shots, but Eric Koreen pointed out in his story in the National Post earlier in the month that DeRozan has shown an increased willingness to attack the rim, settling for the long jumper less often.
The new contract now gives him plenty of time to prove himself as the Raptors starting shooting guard and as Koreen notes -- whether Raptors fans like it or not -- he now appears to be tied to the franchise's future.
Can Kyle Lowry and Jose Calderon co-exist?
Whether or not Colangelo is still thinking about trading Calderon, for as long as the Spaniard remains a Raptor, it's expected that he'll play second fiddle to Lowry who the Raptors acquired in a deal with the Houston Rockets back in June.
Calderon has spent much of his seven seasons in Toronto as a starter, but with Lowry looking like the Raptors No. 1 point guard, the 31-year-old Calderon with be relegated to a backup role.
Calderon has been in battles for a starting job before, most notably with now retired TJ Ford. Ultimately Calderon won that battle for the job when Ford was traded to Indiana as a part of a package that brought Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto in the summer of 2008. The difference between fighting for the position with Ford and the spot he's in now with Lowry is that this doesn't appear to be a battle he can win. Lowry is younger and simply provides more upside to the future of the franchise. Now it will be up to Calderon to earn his minutes and find his role behind the Toronto's new point guard.