Toronto Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri slipped in the reason of his team’s lack of playoff success. Just like last season, he opted for player development and evaluation.
“I feel good about (standing pat at the trade deadline), Ujiri said. “We made it based on just throwing these guys out there and really seeing, giving them that opportunity because the questions you guys would be asking me now if you got a veteran or some kind of player (would be) well – Jonas did not play so much or this person (Ross?) did not play so much and so we don’t know him. I didn’t want to be put in that situation because I want to know our players and I think this opportunity gave us – (including) the playoffs and not doing anything gave us the opportunity to know our players. To really really know and study them – what they can do, what we feel maybe what they may be able to do and stop guessing really because at the end of the day we have to make really good decisions on them like the questions that have been asked about extensions and stuff. You want to know what they can do rather than guess.”
Last year it was Head coach Dwane Casey explaining the importance of playing then second year players Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas during the seven game playoff series with the Nets. This year it was Ujiri’s call at the trade deadline to stand pat rather than bolster a roster that was badly in need of a kick in the butt, but Ujiri does have a point. The Raptors have to know – not guess – what to do when discussing extensions to the rookie deals of Ross and Valanciunas this summer. Sometimes player development and finances are going to trump winning.
“We knew we were going to get punched in the face,” Ujiri admitted. “And I say it again, it’s not all doomsday for us. We are really happy with the base.”
So just how happy is Ujiri with his two third year players? Apparently, pretty happy.
“We are extremely excited,” Ujiri said. “I think sometimes as we say, do we look at what (Ross and Valanciunas) do and what they do well. I think we sometimes tend to criticize what they don’t do and sometimes when you are internal and you look at those players, we have to concentrate on what they can do well and can we get any better.
“They know our system. They are growing with our system. They have been smacked in the face a little bit. They are young, so it’s something we are going to seriously take a look at. We love their upside.”
Not everyone is as excited about Ross as Ujiri is or as confident in Ross’ defense as the sales job Casey was dealing during the post season, but their comments do provide some insight into how the Raptors view their young wing.
“Everybody says when is Terrence going to get to the line?” Ujiri said. “Well, you know what, Terrence is a great shooter. He fell back on defense a little bit, but we felt that he started getting it back together.”
Ross can be a bit hard to get excited about. The kid has a lot of talent, but he doesn’t often show a lot of confidence and more was expected in his third season. Valanciunas, on the other hand, was showing improvement – enough improvement that just maybe Casey should have taken off the kid gloves and let his developing center face just a little more adversity.
“(Valanciunas) is a huge part of our team,” Ujiri said. “We can criticize Jonas all we want and it’s a big discussion we are going to have with Coach and the staff (about) how he was used. Those guys are hard to find. You can scout around the world and try to find a ‘Jonas’ and pick guys like that (but) it also takes time.
“We feel that he got better rim protecting. His feet got a little bit better. He got more confident in the post. He got better rebounding defensively. It’s gradual with big guys. It takes time and he is going to be a big part of our building.
“There’s upside. It takes a while. You guys know me, there’s no knee jerk reaction here. I am going to be patient. That is going to be our nature of building here.”
No knee jerk reaction has been a Ujiri mantra since his arrival in Toronto. The Raptors GM strongly believes in developing his own players and building a team over time. Last year’s success and this season’s high expectations were undoubtedly a year or two ahead of schedule.
It isn’t easy and it wasn’t comfortable watching the Raptors fail to get out of the first round of the playoffs two seasons in a row and getting swept by Washington was painful for even the ever patient Ujiri. However, even in hindsight the Raptors GM would have made the same decision at the trade deadline. He had to know – not guess – where his two third year players were in their development. There is just too much money at stake when negotiating extensions to their rookie contracts this summer and a bad decision could haunt the Raptors for the next five years.