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Kyle Lowry is about to face the hardest test of his career

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The Raptors have never been more talented after trading for Kawhi Leonard, but they need Kyle Lowry to stay on track and quickly embrace change, which he hasn’t always done.

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

VANCOUVER — When former Villanova assistant Billy Lange — one of the few men Kyle Lowry has ever trusted — left for a better opportunity, Lowry didn’t speak to him for six years. In Houston, when Lowry’s former coach, Rick Adelman, was replaced by Kevin McHale, he had a hard time adjusting to the latter’s rigidity. Early last year, he struggled to find his way in the Raptors’ revamped, egalitarian offense before getting on board.

So last Friday, when he finally put to rest the notion he was unhappy with the Raptors trading his best friend DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard 10 weeks ago, Lowry adjusted quickly by his own standards.

“We’ve been in almost every group together,” Lowry told reporters. “He’s a heckuva a player and us being on the same page makes everything a lot easier.”

That wasn’t so hard, right? You’d think so, but Lowry has always seen basketball as more than just a business.

These comments came after Team USA’s mini-camp in July, when Lowry cagily told reporters he wasn’t sure if he had talked to his new teammate. He then spent media day last Monday avoiding answering specific questions about Leonard, and declined media requests two days in a row at training camp in Burnaby.

It’s one thing to dodge the media. It’s another to dodge calls from GM Masai Ujiri and coach Nick Nurse, as TSN’s Josh Lewenberg reported, and then go three days without addressing that report publicly. Lowry’s a smart guy. He knew his silence would speak volumes. The Raptors only have one year to show Leonard that Toronto is a place he can call home and win championships. If the team’s second-best player is acting iffy about his presence, that complicates matters.

In practice, teammates insist he’s the same old Lowry. On Thursday, he was out on the court early with mentee Fred VanVleet.

“Nothing’s changed,” C.J. Miles said. “He’s fiery, pitbull, tries to win every drill, will let you know about it. He’s playing hard. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do. He’s a professional.”

But in front of cameras, he chose to let people believe he was unhappy, and it’s worth thinking about why. Heading into the 13th year of a career in which he has been cast a distraction, a malcontent coach killer, and then a four-time All Star and the heartbeat of the best era of Raptors basketball, Lowry may be facing his biggest test yet.

Part of the reason Lowry’s personal growth skyrocketed in Toronto is because the Raptors offered what he had always lacked: responsibility, security, and trust. They wanted him to be a leader, The Guy, and it motivated him to shed his surly side (and 15 pounds of dead weight).

“I was not a bad teammate [in Houston],” Lowry told Jonathan Abrams in a spectacular 2014 Grantland feature. “I was just really in a world of my own. I was just like, All right, I’m going to go to work. That’s all I’m going to do. I’m not going to fraternize. I’m going to go to work, come home, that’s it. Because it wasn’t my team. I was a role player.”

2018 USA Basketball Men’s National Team Minicamp Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Raptors empowered him, which meant he didn’t need to worry as much about exerting power himself — unless it was against an opponent.

When the Raptors traded DeRozan, they effectively shattered the foundation upon which Lowry grew up. Lowry and DeRozan were more than best friends. They were 1A and 1B on the roster, a convenience that allowed them both to feel secure.

Of the two, DeRozan had a deeper connection to the city, which meant that if the Raptors traded him, they could easily trade Lowry too. Ujiri’s comments after the trade — suggesting he gave the old band enough chances and it was time to try something new pissed DeRozan off. It’s not hard to imagine Lowry reacting the same way. Ujiri’s words were an indirect repudiation of Lowry’s ability to lead a team to the promised land.

Leonard’s arrival has effectively entrenched Lowry as the the Raptors’ No. 2 guy, a position from which Lowry has historically been a lot more likely to act difficult for the sake of being difficult, asserting his authority merely to test how much he can get away with.

But that was then. In the last few years, Lowry not only learned to temper his emotions, but felt the cumulative benefit of trusting the people around him. The Raptors’ successes have been tied to his own self-improvement, and in some twist of fate, they’ve led him to this crossroads as the Raptors embark on the most important season in franchise history.

He does in fact have limits nowadays, pushing just hard enough to illicit concern, but stopping short of causing any real damage. Lowry is ruthless and competitive to his core, after all, as hungry for a ring as anyone else. The question now is whether he can leave his mark on a league where victory belongs only to those who conquer the most tenuous of demons.