President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri has been laying the ground work for next season. He added shooting with the trade of Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks for Steve Novak and draft picks. He added toughness with the signing of free agent Tyler Hansbrough of the Pacers. A young experienced backup point guard in DJ Augustin and a young inexperienced backup point guard in Dwight Buycks have rounded out the acquisitions to-date. The oft-injured Linas Kleiza has been amnestied and 39-year-old Marcus Camby, who was picked up in the Bargnani trade, has been waived. It seems like there may not be a lot left for Ujiri to do.
The Raptors success or failure next season will hang largely on Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay. Ujiri is confident that whatever happens, Toronto is in a win-win situation. If the team does well, both players will want to be a part of a promising future and if things do not turn out as hoped, Lowry’s contract is expiring and Gay has a player option to look for a better situation.
“I think we’re in a good spot,” Ujiri said. “It’s a good team and you know what, the pressure’s on us if they have great years and if they want to stay. For me it’s a win-win situation for us. It’s a win-win situation for them too. Great years, they stay. If it’s not, they think about it, we think about it, and we go from there. We have to do well on the court and grow as a team and I think that’s our goal here.”
Everything coming out of Toronto and from Summer League indicates Lowry and Gay are set to have big seasons. Lowry has shed weight and looks like a new man. Gay had eye surgery to correct vision issues and has added good weight and strength to offset the demands of being the go-to-guy. Gay might be worried that improvements to his shooting will be credited towards correcting his vision instead of a fiendish workout routine this summer, but the reality is correcting his vision wouldn’t improve his shot if he wasn’t putting the time in the gym.
Both of these players could be looking for new long term deals between now and next summer and it is not unusual for players in this situation to have career years.
After four years, DeMar DeRozan is still only 23-years-old and one of the youngest players on the Raptors and this summer he is working out with the USA Men’s National Basketball Team in Las Vegas – again. Head Coach Dwane Casey said DeRozan took a half step backwards defensively last season, but that was a very disruptive year with multiple player injuries and new teammates on the wing to adjust to. DeRozan fits in Ujiri’s model well as a young up and coming player to throw out there and keep developing.
The past 11 days at Las Vegas Summer League did answer some big questions about the team.
“Summer League, we grind through it and try and comb out as much (as possible),” Ujiri said. “We start making lists of players we are going to watch in the future and analyze the players that played for us and see how they did.”
Terrence Ross was a disappointment. Quincy Acy was a surprise, but confirmed that he is no small forward. Dwight Buycks earned himself a contract from the Raptors. All Jonas Valanciunas did was walk away owning the 2013 NBA Summer League MVP. Ujiri gave a brief assessment of each player.
“(Ross was) up and down a little bit, but (he is) very talented. We are excited about teaching him the game and seeing where it goes from there,” Ujiri said. “A little bit inconsistent, but I was satisfied and happy he got that (Summer League) experience.”
“(Acy) is another tough-nosed guy. I know we have a couple of those already in Amir Johnson and Tyler (Hansbrough) now. It is possible (Acy) will learn how to guard a couple of positions, the three and the four, maybe bigger threes, but we thought he did well. He is trying to stretch (the floor) a little bit, but that will take a while to shoot the ball from outside. He made good progress and his work ethic is unbelievable. That energy type player is always needed in the league.”
“You take a chance sometimes on a kid like Dwight (Buycks) to give him that experience after what he did in college and what he did overseas. Sometimes it takes time for them to find a true fit and find that opportunity. We feel this is a good opportunity for him. Dwight will pick up full court. He is aggressive, has very good speed, but he is yet to do it on an NBA court, so we had to find a little bit of experience (Augustin) to balance it out.”
“(Valanciunas) is an ever willing kid to learn, he plays hard and it is not very easy to find that in big guys. We are happy with his progress and think he will continue (to work) very hard over the summer. We are going to touch (base) a few more times this summer even while he is with his National Team.”
The biggest disappointment about Ross after 11 days in Las Vegas was he still looked like he did last summer as a rookie and Ujiri was describing Ross the way he would talk about a rookie. If Ujiri adds another wing player, Ross’ Summer League performance will have played a big part in that decision. Acy and Buycks flat outworked Ross during Summer League and looked better because of it.
Ujiri still has an open roster spot and Quentin Richardson, who arrived as additional salary cap ballast in the Bargnani trade with the Knicks, is unlikely to make it past training camp before he is waived, so there remains a couple of moves for the Raptors to make. Ujiri insists any more additions will be young players with 100 percent certainty.
“Maybe a wing,” Ujiri said. “We have been looking for another wing. We will see how it goes. It might be something we do this summer or wait until training camp and invite a couple of young guys and give them a shot and see what happens. We are still working on trying to figure out a couple more parts for the roster.”
What is next for the Raptors is not going to be earth-shattering if everything goes as expected. Today’s Raptors roster will likely be the one showing up in training camp with the possibility of another couple of young players to fill in the 14th and 15th spots. Ujiri is happy with his team and happy with his team’s situation. A relatively young roster with lots of potential that is easy to blow up if things aren’t working out.
However, by keeping the core of the Raptors together and adding the toughness and shooting Casey was asking for, expectations are high. If Jonas Valanciunas continues his meteoric rise while Lowry and Gay have contract-inspired years, the Raptors could go a lot further than expected next season no matter what the next move Ujiri makes.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report. You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors