Mitchell on the hot seat

Sam Mitchell is entering his third season as head coach of the Toronto Raptors. (Toronto Sun...

Sam Mitchell is entering his third season as head coach of the Toronto Raptors. (Toronto Sun File/Greg Henkenhaf)

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:40 AM ET

The annual Oktoberfest celebrations begin in Waterloo this week and Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell will be in town hoping to experience a light-headed sense of euphoria ... that comes from watching his new-look team develop into a winning unit, not from drinking countless steins of ale and beer.

Mitchell is banking on real improvement from this year's version of the Raptors, as the players arrive for training camp tomorrow at the Manulife Sports Centre.

Banking is an appropriate word, because if the Raptors don't improve, the third-year head coach will be out of a job. Mitchell is in the final season of a three-year contract and he will not be awarded with an extension unless the fortunes of the Raptors turn around.

Long-suffering fans don't have to be reminded that the franchise has failed to make the NBA playoffs since 2002-- and finished a disappointing 27-55 last season.

But after four years of frustration, a sense of optimism has returned to the organization, beginning with the hiring last winter of general manager Bryan Colangelo, a former NBA executive of the year, who already has made wholesale changes to the roster.

There will be 11 new players at camp, along with "old" favourites such as Chris Bosh and Morris Peterson.

And while none of the 11 are bona fide stars, a few do have solid reputations as classy NBA players, including young point guard T.J. Ford, who was acquired from Milwaukee on June 30 for star rookie Charlie Villanueva, and former San Antonio Spurs centre Rasho Nesterovic, who gives the Raptors a legitimate big man for the first time in years.

As well, call it the luck of the Italiano, Colangelo won the NBA draft lottery and selected Italian forward Andrea Bargnani with the first overall pick.

Nobody knows if Bargnani will turn out to be another Dirk Nowitzki (Colangelo hates those comparisons) or Darko Milicic. But the fact that this team had a first overall pick certainly adds to the optimism.

"On paper, we've improved our team. The real proof is once we start playing," Mitchell said. "Most of our guys have been here early, working out together, getting to know each other, and I can't wait (for training camp)."

The Raptors certainly have upgraded their talent, if anything by addition though subtraction, with first-round bust Rafael Araujo and sulking veteran forward Eric Williams gone. If they win more games, it likely will happen as a result of depth coming off the bench.

"In the past, Mo (Peterson) had to pace himself a little bit. Chris had to as well," Mitchell said. "They knew they had to save something for the fourth quarter. Now, when you're out there, go play. Play as long as you can, as hard as you can, because, when you get tired, we do have guys who are capable of playing."

The starting lineup is almost a done-deal. Bosh, of course, will be the main man at the No.4 spot (power forward) and, barring an injury, Ford will take over from Mike James as the starting point guard, with Nesterovic getting most of the minutes at the No.5 spot (centre). After that, it's a bit of a turkey shoot, although Peterson is a good-bet to start at small forward.

Raptors broadcaster Paul Jones believes either veteran Fred Jones, who was signed as a free agent from Indiana, or Anthony Parker, who has been a standout for Maccabi Tel Aviv the past few seasons, will round out the stating lineup at the shooting guard spot. Jones is leaning toward his name sake starting more often because, the way he looks it, that gives the Raptors an intriguing, Euro-centric look with their second unit, which could cause the opposition all kinds of problems.

"It's a huge gamble," said Jones, adding that Colangelo obviously believes that the six players on the roster from Europe, or in Parker's case, played most of his career there, will make their mark in the NBA. "It could really pay off, or it could blow up in your face. But, at the same time, what else worked the last few years?"

Nothing, of course, is etched in stone, and Mitchell is certainly not prepared to hand out minutes at this point. A lot of how the assignments and minutes are dispensed will depend on how the European core of this team adjusts to the NBA. The Raptors have high-hopes that Euro League veterans Jorge Garbajosa and Parker, as well as the rookie Bargnani, will develop into solid NBA players, but there's usually a progression period and it's always different.

"That's going to be the challenge, how quickly we can get those guys (adjusted)," Mitchell said. "Simple things like how set the picks, screens, illegal defences ... how quickly we can get those guys to adapt to that stuff."

Mitchell was impressed the most of the players have been in Toronto since mid-summer working out informally, even those who played at the world championships in Japan (Calderon and Garbajosa helped guide Spain to the gold).

"It's nice to get them in, especially for us as we've got eight, nine new guys," the coach said. "They need to get know each other, learn each other's nuances, get on each other's nerves a little bit ... so they know how to deal with each other.

"I'm excited, I think we have a great group of guys as far as people, I think our basketball team has improved and now it's going to be how quickly they can learn to play together."

Mitchell acknowledged that he's under the gun to, if not make the playoffs, at least turn the team around, in terms of the won-loss record. But he vigorously waved aside suggestions that he will be under extra pressure this season from the organization to play first overall pick Bargnani at lot, because the team will be under the gun to justify selecting him up with the first overall pick (the Raptors are still reeling from picking Araujo with the eighth overall pick in 2004).

"We're not going to worry about that," the coach said. "We're not going to rush him, but if he's ready to play, we're going to play him.

"He has every right, like every other player on the roster, to earn minutes or to earn a starting job. Obviously we're not expecting that, or make him feel any pressure to do that right away, but if he shows that he's ready, he's going to play. That's the fair thing to do.

"We're not going to hold him back because he's a rookie and we're afraid he can't handle the pressure."

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WEARING THE RED AND WHITE

PROJECTED STARTERS

Player HT Pos. Key stats

Chris Bosh 6-10 F 22.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 51%

Morris Peterson 6-7 F 16.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 44%

Rasho Nesterovic 7-0 C 4.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 52% (SA)

Fred Jones 6-2 G 9.6 ppg, 2.2 apg, 42% (Ind.)

T.J. Ford 6-0 G 12.2 ppg, 6.6 apg, 42% (Milw.)

TOP RESERVES

Player HT Pos. Key stats

Andrea Bargnani 7-0 F 10.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg (Treviso)

Jorge Garbajosa 6-9 F 14.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg (Unicaja)

Anthony Parker 6-6 G-F 14.7 ppg, 3.9 apg (Maccabi)

Jose Calderon 6-3 G 5.5 ppg, 4.5 apg

OTHER RESERVES

Player HT Pos. Key stats

LaVell Blanchard 6-7 F 12.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg (Oldenburg)

Joey Graham 6-7 F 6.7 ppg, 3.10 rpg

Kris Humphries 6-9 F 3.0 ppg, 2.50 rpg (Utah)

Darrick Martin 5-11 G 2.6 ppg, 1.4 apg

Uros Slokar 6-10 F Rookie (Slovenia)

Pape Sow 6-10 F 3.5 ppg, 3.50 rpg

Cezary Trybanski 7-2 C 3.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg (Tulsa - NBDL)

P.J. Tucker 6-5 G-F Rookie (U of Texas)


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