“I don’t have anything written. I’m going to speak straight from my heart.
With those words, Masai Ujiri became the first repatriated Raptors executive.
There have been returning players: Antonio Davis, Maceo Baston, Tracy Murray, Rasho Nesterovic and Oliver Miller came back for a return engagement, but none of those returned in their prime.
Ujiri is the reigning NBA Executive of the Year thanks to a 57-25 season with the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets were one of the youngest teams in the NBA and, at 42, Ujiri, like his former club, hasn’t begun to reach his prime years.
Widely known for his global contacts and basketball IQ, Ujiri has rocketed through the NBA, beginning as a scout for hire with the Orlando Magic a decade ago.
Ujiri, who worked from 2007-2010 for the Raptors as Director of Global Scouting and then Assistant General Manager is the club’s fifth GM and the first African leader of any North American franchise.
He was the only candidate pursued by new MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke.
“When we set our sights we set our sights high,” Leiweke said.
“Many people we talked to said we’ll never get him. He’s the NBA Executive of the Year. There’s no way someone like that is going to leave an organization that good and come to Toronto. That’s a myth. “
“It was a tough decision to leave Denver,” Ujiri said. “It was an easy decision to come here.”
The Raptors dismissed their scouting staff as well as Vice-President of Basketball Operations Ed Stefanski to clear the way for Ujiri. Former GM Bryan Colangelo has agreed to stay on as President but will have no authority on basketball decisions.
Ujiri was short on specifics on his plans. He has yet to recruit his basketball staff, and while he has spoken with Coach Dwane Casey, Ujiri said it was far too soon to declare whether he planned on bringing Casey back for the third and final year of his contract.
“I need two or three weeks where Coach and I are going to figure out whether this thing is going to go forward for the next year. Right now, I don’t see any reason why not.”
Ujiri inherits a formidable challenge. The Raptors haven’t made the playoffs in five seasons.
Rudy Gay is a proven NBA scorer. DeMar DeRozan posted steady improvement and seven-foot rookie centre Jonas Valanciunas made the NBA’s all-rookie second team.
That said, the Raptors do not have a pick in this June’s NBA draft and sacrificed cap flexibility to acquire Gay. Former first-overall draft choice Andrea Bargnani is coming off two injury-riddled seasons and is widely rumored to be a candidate for a buyout. Point guard Kyle Lowry endured an inconsistent campaign.
The Raptors finished 34-48 but that record was boosted by an end of season surge where the club won seven of eight.
Ujiri said every GM would love to come into a situation where the team was stacked with talent, had high draft choices and ample salary cap room.
Executives change teams because franchises are looking for someone to transform their fortunes.
“These jobs are available because things are the way they are,” he said.
The Raptors most pressing need, Ujiri said, is personnel who will give the team a distinct character.
“We have to create an identity with the team where you say, what do you do well? What is it that when teams come here they know that they are going to be punished for? What is it that makes your team great?”
Ujiri emphatically quashed any speculation that there would be problems in his relationship with Colangelo who recruited him to Toronto and promoted him to Assistant General Manager.
“There’s no issue with Bryan Colangelo. None whatsoever. I don’t know how to help you guys if there’s something you want to create. There is zero, zero issue. OK? Nothing. “