Raptors' Darko Rajakovic mending fences and creating harmony on a team that had little a year ago

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Call it what you want — a new lease on life, a fresh start, a do-over — but there is a lightness of step around the Raptors these days that wasn’t there at all last season and those descriptors are the reason for it.

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It’s no longer a secret, nor has it been for some time, that last year’s Raptors season was something most everyone associated with endured rather than enjoyed.

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There was discontent from the coach’s room with upper management and vice-versa. There was discontent between the veterans and the young guys and, yes, there was discontent from the guys at the back end of the rotation who were either ignored or left behind by a head coach that was convinced the only way to win was by running his starters into the ground.

Masai Ujiri didn’t necessarily wipe the slate clean this off-season, but a new head coach has done wonders in terms of morale and buy-in.

We’re not saying everything is fixed by any means. Some of those same veterans and young guys remain and, whether those relationships are fixed, can be fixed or not, remains known only to the individuals.

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Time will eventually spell it out for the rest of us. A fractured roster can’t hide forever.

But listening to the players themselves over these past few weeks suggests new head coach Darko Rajakovic has mended a lot of those fences already.

From the fresh start department, we provide Malachi Flynn as Exhibit 1.

A former first-round pick, Flynn’s minutes a year ago — he averaged 13 a game — were limited to garbage time or as an injury replacement. Beyond that, he was barely heard from all year.

His career was flat-lining until Rajakovic showed up and suddenly Flynn has some hope again.

He was asked earlier this week if he associated a new head coach with new opportunity for guys like himself.

Of course, I think it’s just like a reset, you know what I mean,” he said. “When he first got the job, I didn’t know nothing about him, but it’s just a reset for everybody. And then, once I got to know him, he’s really detail-oriented, very organized and somebody I can get on the same page with. So, I think it’s been good.” 

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As for looking back, Flynn said he would not do that. 

“It was what it was in the past year,” he said. “I don’t really want to dwell on that at all. It’s just a new year, new everything, so we feel like we’ve got a different spirit going. Not really thinking about those past years and looking forward to moving on.” 

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

As for Rajakovic, he’s not just talking about being open to letting guys prove themselves to him, he’s proving it with playing time.

First of all, it starts with me believing in players and working with those guys to get better and to understand and accept their role,” Rajakovic said. “Malachi is somebody who I have a very high confidence in. I think he’s a player that he’s not even close to maxing out. I think there is so much room for growth in his game on the ball and off the ball. I think he’s really good off ball coming as a secondary guy, coming off wide pindowns or second side pick and rolls. I think he’s somebody who can break down the defence pretty well and touch the paint. And we’re just going to continue working on those skills with him, like finishing, finding the open man.

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Flynn has averaged 19 minutes per game in the three exhibitions played and, while his shooting has let him down in two of the three games, he has consistently putting up good assist numbers to turnovers and has been a huge plus in the rebounding department. 

Flynn will still have to win over Rajakovic when the games count for real, but he’s getting an opportunity that frankly he never got a year ago. 

Gary Trent Jr. is likely headed for a lead role off the bench and, while that hasn’t been expressly laid out for him by Rajakovic, he sees the writing on the wall and says he’s fine with it. 

Through the first two games of the pre-season no one was seeing more playing time than Trent Jr., including any of the starters. Whatever role he’s going to be asked to fill, Trent Jr. is ready to buy in. 

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“Obviously, you work to start in the league and start for a team and help the team as much as you can,” Trent Jr. said. “But again, I have no control over that. So, again, whatever it’s going to be, it’s going to be. I can only control me coming in, working, being a great teammate and contribute to winning. That’s all I can help with. That’s all I can do. 

“There’s no time to complain, nag about what’s going on,” he said. “How my situation is not what I wanted. There’s none of that. I’m coming in to work. And I’m going to do what I need to do to help this team win.” 

No team gets through a season without negotiating some rocky times, but it’s already looking like this year’s squad is going to be far more in line and on the same page with one another than the club was a year ago. 

Will it translate into more wins? On that question, we’ll get back to you in a few weeks. 

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