Raptors coach Dwane Casey was answering a question about Kyle Lowry on Monday when the star point guard walked past, about to give an interview.

With Casey still mid-sentence, more than half the crowd of reporters around him suddenly bolted to the opposite side of the room to listen to Lowry instead.

That's how important Lowry has become in Toronto. Casey, the fourth-year Raptors coach, knows it better than anyone.

"I don't mind pointing him out," Casey said of Lowry. "He's huge. He's our hub, he's the engine for our team. He's the guy who stirs the mix. He's the guy we want with the ball in his hands at the end of the game. Defensively, he's the head of the snake. There's a lot of different things where he's the beginning of it. That's good."

Guard DeMar DeRozan is the only All-Star on Toronto's roster, but general manager Masai Ujiri understands that it's Lowry who's the team's heart and soul.

"He's the bull," Ujiri. "I think it's clear."

Lowry averaged career highs of 17.9 points and 7.4 assists last season as the Raptors won a franchise-record 48 games and ended a five-year playoff drought. Toronto took Brooklyn to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs, but came up one point short when Lowry's last-second shot was blocked by Paul Pierce.

Still stewing over the early exit, Lowry and teammate Chuck Hayes traded frustrated text messages as they watched the Nets fall in five games against Miami in the second round.

DeRozan, meanwhile, was too angry to even keep his television turned on.

"I couldn't wait for them to lose, honestly, just so I could feel better about myself," DeRozan said of the Nets. "I felt like we could have given Miami a better run for their money."

Ujiri went all out this summer to keep Lowry in Toronto, signing the free agent to a four-year, $48 million contract.

"It's a lot of pressure on me, which I want," Lowry said. "Every day I have to be mentally prepared and physically prepared to be the best player I can be."

Lowry certainly seems physically ready for a new season. Ujiri raved Monday that the 28-year-old guard had arrived for training camp in "unbelievable shape."

DeRozan was heading out on holiday this summer when he got word that Lowry, his good friend and locker room neighbor, had decided to remain a Raptor.

"I was on a plane going to the Philippines and I spent $45 talking to him on the phone," DeRozan said, delighted that Lowry had passed up potential jobs elsewhere.

Toronto also resigned free agent guard Greivis Vasquez and forward Patrick Patterson, traded for guard Lou Williams and signed forward James Johnson and center Greg Stiemsma.

"We brought back pretty much the same team and we want to keep growing gradually," Ujiri said. "I know the expectations are high but that's what comes with winning."

Casey said Toronto's "number one goal" this year is to defend its Atlantic Division title. Realistically, however, the Raptors will also hope to win a playoff series for just the second time in their 20-year history, and maybe compete for the Eastern Conference championship.

For his part, Lowry would prefer to play down talk of a conference title push.

"I don't know if we're favored," he said, "but I think we have expectations to be a better team."

Lowry may not want to talk about it, but there's no denying the hype around the Raptors, something that hasn't been there all too often in Toronto.

"We're going to hold ourselves to a higher standard this year," Patterson said. "We see the goals, we know what we can achieve. We feel like if we work hard, play hard and come together, anything is possible."

Such talk is certainly a welcome change for DeRozan, who waited five years before playing on a winning NBA team.

"I remember days when people used to come in here and feel like it was a cakewalk," he said.

Not anymore. With their core intact and hungry for more, DeRozan and Raptors head into camp with a rare but welcome sense of "energy and positivity."

"It definitely feels different," DeRozan said.