Ujiri eyeing Canadian talent to supplement Raptors’ roster
TORONTO — As the Canadian Basketball Speakers Forum entered its final hour Monday evening, Wayne Parrish, Canada Basketball’s chief executive officer and president, issued a challenge to the night’s final speaker.
(Full disclosure: Parrish is also the chief operating officer of Postmedia Network Inc., which owns this newspaper.)
He said it for comic effect, to mockingly apply pressure on the man with the most name recognition in the arena, but he also said it because he believed it.
He wanted the Toronto Raptors to acquire a Canadian player. There are 11 Canadians currently playing in the NBA, 13 if you include the injured Steve Nash and recently-released Samuel Dalembert. It would be inspiring to the country’s young basketball fans and there are ample candidates for the gig. In their 20 seasons, the Raptors have employed precisely one Canadian player — centre Jamaal Magloire, during the final year of his career.
Masai Ujiri, the Raptors’ president and general manager, listened. A few minutes later, while being interviewed by ESPN’s John Saunders at Mattamy Athletic Centre (the former Maple Leaf Gardens), he responded.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, during my time, even if my time (with the Raptors) is short, there will be a Canadian player on the Toronto Raptors,” Ujiri said.
It was not especially surprising to hear Ujiri say that. In June, Ujiri and the Raptors wanted desperately to land Brampton, Ont.-bred point guard Tyler Ennis in the draft. Instead, Phoenix took Ennis two slots before the Raptors were poised to pick and then tried to capitalize on Toronto’s desire to land the player in trade negotiations.
Ujiri wisely held off, picking Bruno Caboclo with the 20th selection. Eight months later, the price on Ennis had come down enough that he was an afterthought in the three-team trade that sent Michael Carter-Williams to Milwaukee and Brandon Knight to Phoenix. From a perspective focusing strictly on assets, Ujiri was smart to show discretion in June.
Nonetheless, Ujiri appears to be doubling down on the importance of the Raptors finding a Canadian. When Saunders asked Ujiri which player, beyond LeBron James, he would most like to acquire, the general manager deftly avoided tampering charges.
“We all know who he is, but I won’t say his name,” Ujiri said. “He might be Canadian.”
Ujiri was, of course, making reference to Andrew Wiggins. Make no mistake: the Raptors would love to repatriate Wiggins and there are whispers that Wiggins would love to play for the Raptors. However, there is zero precedent of a player turning down a maximumvalue contract extension offer under the rules of the last few collective bargaining agreements to force his way to another team. The rules strongly favour the Timberwolves keeping Wiggins well into the next decade if that is what they want to do.
“It is on our minds to get a Canadian player or Canadian players,” Ujiri said after the forum. “We’re studying it. I even considered last year hiring somebody to concentrate on just Canadian players. I think I’m going to go through with it. The growth of the game here is so big. It’s the fit. We’re at a time where we feel we can maybe take our time and study it a little bit so it’s the right fit and not do it just to do it. It’s going to come. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
It is that last part that is a bit curious. As cool as it would be to see a Canadian player in his prime playing for the Raptors, it no longer feels as if it will take a concerted effort to make it so. A funny thing has happened as Canadians have come rushing into the NBA since 2011, with eight first-round picks in the last four drafts: it has become less and less notable when a Canadian has made his annual or twice-yearly appearance in Toronto. Last week, there was no sense of occasion when Tristan Thompson came to the Air Canada Centre because we now know it is going to keep happening and happening and happening.
However, the dream of Canadian basketball fans should not be Ujiri finding a Canadian, any Canadian, to play for his team.
It should be the impossibility of him building a contending team without one on the Raptors’ roster.