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Masai Ujiri Has Built His Raptors His Way From The Start

By mid-August virtually all of the desirable free agents were long gone and Raptors president Masai Ujiri had committed to 13 players, signed three more to bring to training camp on partially or non-guaranteed deals plus two more on the NBA’s new two-way contract destined for the Raptors 905. This current roster isn’t anything like the 15-man squad Ujiri inherited in June 2013 when he was introduced to the media in Toronto and it doesn’t look like the roster many people were hoping to see play in October, but it is built the way Ujiri said it would be four years ago.

“We have to develop young players, especially in the back of our roster,” Ujiri said on his introduction to Toronto in 2013. “Regardless of what direction you take, you have those young players that you are going to rely on in the future.”

There are only three players remaining on the Raptors from that initial summer. Veterans Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have developed into three-time All-Stars under head coach Dwane Casey and Ujiri’s direction. Jonas Valanciunas won’t be 25-years-old until October, but even he was apparently on the trade block at the draft, however, for now, he’s the third surviving player from the pre-Ujiri era.

Toronto didn’t have a draft pick in 2013, so the movement towards acquiring and developing young talent had to wait a year, but since then Ujiri’s aggressive acquisition of young players has been a surprise even in the light of his opening remarks.

Of Ujiri’s eight draft picks, only DeAndre Daniels (37th – 2014) and Xavier Thames (59th – 2014) are no longer part of the organization.

In 2014, he took Bruno Caboclo 20th and traded for the draft rights of Lucas Nogueira who was drafted 16th in 2013, traded twice and stashed in Europe until acquired by Ujiri and brought to Toronto.

In 2015, he took Delon Wright 20th and traded for the 46th pick to take Norman Powell.

In 2016, he took Jakob Poeltl 9th, Pascal Siakam 27th and then signed undrafted rookie Fred VanVleet.

In 2017, he took OG Anunoby 23rd and signed undrafted prospects Alfonzo McKinnie and Kennedy Meeks to non-guaranteed deals.

If Ujiri keeps all of his young players who are still on their rookie deals, he’ll have five veterans in Lowry, DeRozan, C.J. Miles, Serge Ibaka and Valanciunas plus 10 young developing players on the back of his roster. Just the way he drew it up in 2013.

“Scouting is my background,” Ujiri reminded everyone on his arrival. “Finding talent is what I know.”

That initial message has never wavered. Even as the fans and media that follow the team in the off season were speculating on which under the radar cheap veteran Ujiri would add to provide depth for the long NBA season, Ujiri was saying you got to let them play.

“You got to give (the young guys) a shot to play and that’s just the way our team is built,” Ujiri told Pro Bball Report after signing Lowry and Ibaka this summer. “I don’t have to build a team the way Cleveland is built (with veterans). We don’t have to do that. They have one player on that team that makes that a little easier for them, but not every team can be built that way.

“I don’t just think about Toronto Raptors for today. I think about the Toronto Raptors five years from now too.

“All we are trying to do is set up ourselves to try and become competitive, to put yourself in the position to maybe compete for a championship.”

In four years Ujiri’s Raptors have been to the postseason four times and made to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016. The chance to “maybe compete for a championship” has been there and it would be hard to argue with his ability to find more talent and have more success than any of his predecessors in Toronto.

“Finding talent” and letting that talent play doesn’t provide the fan base or the prognosticators at major media outlets like ESPN with anything to base future expectations on. It’s a lot easier to look at a team made up of veterans and make a prediction. However, finding talent is what Ujiri hangs his reputation on, so his way is the right way for him and back-to-back 50-win seasons should count for something.

Ujiri’s way will field a very strong five man group of veterans who, as long as injuries don’t take a toll, can keep the Raptors in the top four of the Eastern Conference. How far Ujiri’s way will go beyond that this year will depend on his 10 handpicked young guys on the back of his roster.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.