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The real Mount Rushmore of the Toronto Raptors

These are the four Raptors that helped steer the ship during crucial moments in the team’s history and played the most pivotal role in shaping the future of the franchise as a whole.

Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry are on the Toronto Raptors' Mount Rushmore

Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry vs DeMar DeRozan

The pride of Canada, the kings of the north, the Toronto Raptors hold a special place in the hearts of every sports fan in and outside of the ‘905’. Despite being a relatively new franchise in the scheme of things, they still hold a very rich history and a devoted fanbase.

From drafting Damon Stoudamire with their inaugural pick in 1995 to watching ‘Air Canada’ take shape through the ‘Vinsanity’ era, and the entire ‘We The North’ uprising just a decade later, there are countless faces that can be associated with the evolution of the Toronto Raptors. However, only a few can be accredited with being on the official Mount Rushmore of Raptors basketball.

When analyzing a ‘Mount Rushmore’ of a sports franchise, you can’t simply look at the four most talented or the four most popular players to ever dawn that respective team’s threads. This is because when you compare it to the actual Mount Rushmore memorial, the four American presidents featured were not chosen due to likeability or individual achievement.

Instead, they were thought to be the four people that led the country during important times in history and made decisions that shaped the future of the nation. As such, the Mount Rushmore of the Toronto Raptors has to be viewed the same.

Taking this into account, these are the four Raptors that helped steer the ship during crucial moments in the team’s history and played the most pivotal role in shaping the future of the franchise as a whole.

#4 - Vince Carter (George Washington - Founder)

George Washington was the first president of the United States and is considered to be the “Father of the Nation” who laid the foundation of democracy in America.

So who else could it be if not Vince Carter?

Before the Toronto Raptors had Carter, they drafted “Mighty Mouse” during their inaugural season in 1995 and the do-it-all wing Doug Christie the following season. Then just a couple of years later, the Raptors acquired fan favorites Alvin Williams and Charles Oakley. But it wasn’t until VC arrived that ‘Air Canada’ took off, and Raptors basketball was born.

Dubbed “Half Man, Half Amazing,” Carter was the player who first put the Toronto Raptors and Canadian basketball on the map. From his ferocious and insanely-athletic highlight-reel dunks down to his superstar persona, Vince was the player that inspired a generation and took the game to new heights in a completely foreign country.

Throughout his nearly seven-year career with the Raptors, Vince won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year and was a four-time All-Star, a Second Team All-NBA recipient, and a Third Team All-NBA recipient. He also put on one of the best performances in the 2000 NBA Dunk Contest.

Then the following year, Vince helped lead Toronto to their first-ever playoff appearance where the team nearly knocked off an Iverson-led 76ers squad in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals -- Carter averaged 27.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game in the series.

Unfortunately, Vince Carter’s tenure as a Raptor came to a dramatic end during the 2004-05 NBA season when he was traded to the New Jersey Nets, stating issues with the front office and the direction of the franchise as a whole, which led to a fractured relationship between Vince and the fanbase for years. But this wound eventually healed with time.

Nevertheless, he remains fourth in franchise history in points (9,420), fourth in total win shares (47.7), third in field goals (3,541), and fifth in minutes played (15,114). In far fewer games than the majority of other Raptors legends as well.

However, perhaps his biggest impact can be felt off the court. Not only was he the player that’s been largely credited for helping to grow and develop the game of basketball in Canada, inspiring countless Canadian superstars both in and outside of the NBA, but there’s literally a documentary about the impact he had on Canadian basketball called “The Carter Affect." So his impact north of the border is no secret to most.

Carter was also the perfect player to build an NBA franchise around, and he was the superstar that Toronto needed to introduce their franchise to the next generation of fans. He laid the foundation for basketball in Canada and was the first big name that Raptors fans could get behind.

Even though Vince Carter’s departure from Toronto was less than desirable, he single-handedly inspired a nation of basketball players and is a big reason why there is so much Canadian talent around the league today. Much like how George Washington is regarded as “The Father of the Nation,” Carter too is “The Father of Canadian basketball.”

#3 - DeMar DeRozan (Thomas Jefferson - Expansion)

Similar to how Jefferson rapidly expanded the United States of America and stood for something greater than himself, DeMar DeRozan helped to create a whole new generation of Raptors fans and bring about change to an organization that had been stagnant for years.

Following Vince Carter’s storied departure in 2004, the Toronto Raptors went through over half a decade of ineptitude. Chris Bosh stepped in at first and was a sound leader for seven seasons with the franchise and an honorable mention to be on this list. But the Toronto Raptors never quite found that missing piece to the puzzle until DeMar DeRozan arrived in 2009.

Prior to DeRozan, no American-born superstar drafted or traded for by the Raptors had ever chosen to stay long term. Stoudamire was traded, Vince was traded, McGrady left for Orlando, Bosh left for Miami, and countless others were shipped out of town before the end of their rookie deal. Not only did DeMar DeRozan choose to stay in Toronto, but he also became the biggest ambassador for the franchise (and the city) over the course of his nine-year career with the Raptors.

When Bosh left for Miami, DeRozan was thrust into the role of a franchise player and handed the keys to an organization he was not prepared to drive. Yet, over the near-decade he had in Toronto, DeRozan accomplished things that no other Raptor could and played as pivotal a role as any in the whole “We The North” uprising.

On the court, he began as a shy kid from Compton, California, who eventually molded into a legitimate franchise player, expanding his game from a ‘raw’ athletic prospect to one of the greatest scorers in the NBA.

Even today, he stands as the franchise’s all-time leader in points (13,296), games (675), minutes played (22,986), field goals (4,716), and free throws (3,539).

The truth is that DeMar DeRozan’s impact on the court can be measured quite easily due to the countless all-time franchise records he holds to date. However, what can’t be measured is what DeMar DeRozan meant to the city of Toronto and what Toronto meant to DeMar DeRozan.

Some say DeRozan never quite had what it took to win a championship as a franchise player or that his skill set was too ‘one-dimensional’ and predictable. But his impact on the franchise has nothing to do with his ability to win games but rather what he represented as a Toronto Raptor and an NBA professional.

Despite never quite reaching the mountain top and winning a championship in Toronto, any Raptors fan will tell you exactly what DeRozan meant to the franchise. Not only was he the leader of an organization that was desperate for sustained success, but he genuinely wanted to be here, which was something Raptors fans had yet to experience.

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Above all else, DeMar DeRozan helped change the underlying tone of mega superstars wanting to leave Toronto and the stigma that players either didn’t want to come or stay in Canada, becoming the first bonafide NBA star that took pride in being a Toronto Raptor.

If Vince inspired a generation, then DeMar gave an entire country hope and reassurance that success was just around the corner, proving that you can not only have success as a Toronto Raptor but that you will be embraced by millions so long as you embrace them.

#2 - Kyle Lowry (Theodore Roosevelt - Development)

Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th president of the United States and is widely regarded as the first modern president of the country. He’s fabled for his development of the US economy at the beginning of the 20th century, as well as his fight against corporate monopoly and to make American life better for all.

Sounds a lot like the greatest Toronto Raptor of all time; Kyle Lowry.

It’s nearly impossible to summarize what Kyle Lowry meant to the Toronto Raptors over the course of his nine seasons with the franchise. While Vince inspired and DeMar gave hope, Lowry was the leader Toronto needed to become NBA champions.

The bulldog from North Philly, Kyle Lowry, came to Toronto as an ultra-competitive backup who was projected to start behind the then Raptors point guard, Jose Calderon, before stepping up alongside his best friend and backcourt mate, DeMar DeRozan, to become the emotional leader of the team and a perennial All-Star.

Now he’s the franchise’s all-time leader in three-pointers (1,518), assists (4,277), steals (873), triple-doubles (16), offensive win shares (50.5), defensive win shares (24.0), and total win shares (74.5). He’s also second in points (10,540), games (601), and minutes played (20,813) behind DeRozan.

What makes Lowry’s story so unique and special to Raptors fans is that it almost exactly mimics that of the franchise he was playing for. He started out as a disgruntled journeyman who was undersized, undervalued, and underappreciated, only to then become a perennial All-Star, NBA champion, and arguably, a future Hall of Famer. A true ‘rags to riches' story that perhaps represents the Toronto Raptors franchise better than anything. Especially since none of it was supposed to happen this way. 

Toronto was ‘supposed’ to sign Steve Nash in 2012 instead, who then opted to go to Los Angeles. The Raptors were ‘supposed’ to trade Lowry to the Knicks in 2014 before James Dolan pulled out at the last minute. Kyle was ‘supposed’ to leave the franchise and sign elsewhere in 2017, but he didn’t.

Simply put, the stars had to align perfectly for destiny to take over and make Kyle Lowry a Toronto Raptor for life. And there’s probably nobody that better represented what the organization stood for in the last decade than the ferocious point guard from Philadelphia.

The Raptors believed in Kyle and gave him an opportunity to lead a franchise when nobody else would. The result was that he became the heart and soul of the most successful era in Toronto Raptors history and the little engine that took them as far as they possibly could.

An NBA Championship.

One thing’s for sure; the day will come when the No. 7 will be hanging in the rafters at Scotiabank Arena, and for a good reason.

#1 - Kawhi Leonard (Abraham Lincoln - Preservation)

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States who led the country during the civil war era and ensured that America did not divide on the basis of slavery. Above all else, he’s renowned for his steadfast leadership that strengthened the country when it needed him most.

Despite only playing in Toronto for one season, Kawhi Leonard was the player the Raptors needed most in a pivotal moment in the organization’s history.

The day that Masai Ujiri traded away the one player that ever really took pride in being a Toronto Raptor, fans were both devastated and elated over the news. On the one hand, fans knew that they were losing one of the best things that ever happened to the franchise. On the other hand, they also knew that it might be a necessary evil if it meant that Kawhi Leonard could get them over the hump and compete for an NBA championship.

And boy, did it pay off.

Despite arriving in ‘The Six’ with tons of surrounding question marks, such as the status of his heath after only playing in nine games in 2017-18, or the whole ‘load management' thing, Kawhi went on to string together win-after-win all season, leading the Raptors in scoring with 26.6 per game, as well as in both offensive win shares (6.1) and total win shares (9.5), closing out nearly every major game singlehandedly, even if he did only play in 60 regular-season contests.

However, some of his best moments came in the 2019 NBA playoffs. Including when he scored 39 points in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals to even the series against the Philadelphia 76ers. He ended the series with one of the greatest shots in NBA history in Game 7 and followed it up with a dominant display against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Conference Finals and then the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.

In the finals alone, he averaged 28.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 2.0 steals per game on 43.3% from the field, 35.7% from deep, and 90.6% from the line. All that was good enough to earn him Finals MVP and put together one of the best playoff performances in NBA history.

From his Game 6 posterization of Giannis down to Kawhi’s impossible four-bounce game and series-clinching shot against the 76ers in the second round of the playoffs, Leonard left behind so many tremendous memories and moments that Raptors fans had never experienced before.

Unfortunately, much like how Abraham Lincoln’s term in office ended in a devastating fashion, Kawhi Leonard left the Toronto Raptors abruptly and in a crushing manner. It felt like one minute, he was meeting with the front office in downtown Toronto to negotiate a new deal, and the next morning he was on a flight back to Los Angeles to join the Clippers. It all happened that fast.

While some might argue that since Kawhi Leonard only spent one season with the Raptors (84 games to be exact, including the playoffs), he should not qualify for the Mount Rushmore title. But considering that one season culminated in a Larry O’Brien trophy and countless memories that will live on in Canadian basketball lore, it’s hard to deny him a seat at the table.

Especially since Kawhi still ranks third in all-time playoff scoring and is responsible for three of the five highest-scoring playoff performances in Toronto Raptors history. He’s also the only Raptor to make an All-Defensive team, all of which took place in less than 12 months with the team.

Also, much like Vince, the impact that Kawhi left on the Raptors franchise still has yet to be felt. He helped Toronto not only win its first-ever NBA championship but also helped to establish a winning culture and mindset for an organization that had never experienced that before. He also helped usher in a whole new wave of NBA fans in the generations to come.

Now, moving forward, the franchise is in a much better place, thanks to Kawhi Leonard.

There’s no denying that Kyle Lowry is the greatest Raptor of all time, and DeMar is perhaps the most significant, but Kawhi Leonard remains the best player the franchise has ever (and maybe will ever) see.

Honorable mentions; Damon Stoudamire, Chris Bosh, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam

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