New Raptors GM and President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri has hit the ground running since his hire in early June. Really, he’s had no choice with changes to his front office and scouting staff in progress, a draft on the horizon followed by a free agency period that will set the course for his tenure in Toronto.
Amidst the flurry of activity on the 15th floor at ACC, Ujiri took a few minutes to sit down with me in his office to discuss his start with the Raptors.
Jay Satur: How would you characterize your first few weeks back in Toronto?
Masai Ujiri: For me it’s exciting. When you’re working, you can’t complain. It’s been hectic, but it’s been exciting. It’s changed — obviously teams vary in the NBA — but I’m here. I’ve gone back and forth (between Denver) a little bit during this transition period with the Nuggets. There’s been combines you have to go to and all that stuff you have to try and fit in while also coming here and establishing the office and taking care of a lot of stuff that needs to be done. So it’s been a whirlwind but it’s been fun.
JS: You’re starting to make some changes to your front office. Are you close to finalizing who you want to bring in to round out your staff?
MU: There are just some places we had to make changes. That’s what happens in sports. You come in to an organization and you’re going to bring the guys that you feel you’re going to go forward with. It’s unfortunate this stuff is going to happen. It’s hard for me because I worked here, I worked with a few of these people. But the truth of the matter is that going forward, some change is needed. We had to do this.
JS: As of right now, you have no picks in this year’s draft and you’re still assembling your front office staff. How difficult does that make it to prepare for next week?
MU: For me, it’s not difficult at all because you approach the draft like you are drafting. Even though we don’t have a draft pick, we have to be prepared with all our information, all our rankings and every little detail that you need on players in the draft. I think we have to be very prepared going in because you never know what’s going to happen on draft day. You could get a couple of calls that would shock you, so you have to be prepared for any circumstance.
JS: You’ve also made sweeping changes to your scouting staff. Coming from a scouting background yourself, what needs to change in terms of how this franchise evaluates and scouts at the professional, collegiate and international levels?
MU: One of the things I do is that I don’t restrict people to regional scouting and so it cuts my staff down. Some teams do it where they’d hire regional guys and guys in different areas and I’m a little bit different. I want whoever I have seeing everything. So when we go into a room and we have a discussion, everyone is very honest and has a strong opinion because you’ve seen the player or seen the prospect.
So the staff is going to shrink a little bit in those situations… It’s unfortunate that there has to be changes and fewer opportunities in terms of scouting positions, but a smaller staff is how I want to go.
JS: Any updates on the status of head coach Dwane Casey or potential changes to his staff? [NOTE: It has since been confirmed Casey will return in 2013-14]
MU: Things are on the move and we’re still going through the process. We’ll figure it out and I know that’s a wide-ranging answer. Things have gone well with Coach, we’ve had tons and tons of meetings, we have dinner tonight [Tuesday] with Rudy Gay, so we’re moving the right way. As those decisions [with assistants] need to be made, we will make them the best way we feel is heading in the right direction for the organization.
JS: You’ve mentioned your desire for the Raptors to establish an identity. What needs to change with the existing group here and what do you want to potentially bring into the mix to help create that identity?
MU: We want to play hard and give effort. I think it starts with a high-energy team. We do have some talent and we are going to continue to build off that, whichever way it is. Whether you’re bringing in pieces to add there or you’re getting more younger players, it doesn’t matter. Nobody is going to take away that heart, that passion, the hard work, the intensity with which we play the game. We want to be solid in every single area. There has to be tons of communication and that comes from the front office, to coaching, to players. It’s all of us building that togetherness going forward so when we go to war, we all have each others back.
JS: Finally, we’ve heard about the role Bryan Colangelo has played in your development, but I’ve heard the same about senior adviser Wayne Embry. How has he helped you?
MU: He’s been awesome. He keeps you grounded. He gives you honest advice. Some people want to just feed you what you want to hear, Wayne is not like that. He’ll tell you how it is.
Just the wealth of experience you get from him and when you bounce something off of him, the response you get and also that other perspective that you wouldn’t even think of is what he gives you. We’re very appreciative to have him with us.
Quite honestly, even when I was in Denver he was a really good sounding board for me. Even for some things outside of basketball and I’m appreciative of that.