Masai Ujiri is one of the more fascinating figures in the NBA.
The 46-year-old Toronto Raptors general manager sat down in studio for a wide-ranging interview with Tim & Sid Monday evening prior to his club ending its 11-game win streak with a loss to the Denver Nuggets.
Here are four takeaways from the Ujiri interview:
Ujiri thrilled with how DeRozan has progressed
DeMar DeRozan‘s value has become a popular talking point in Toronto with the Raptors shooting guard expected to opt out of his contract at the end of the season in order to become a free agent.
DeRozan has been a tricky player to evaluate throughout his time in Toronto, given that he is a shooting guard that struggles to hit three-point shots, but Ujiri offered insight into the 26-year-old All-Star and how he’s had an almost rare progression in his career.
“He’s one player that’s really unique because if you check all his numbers, however you dissect them, he’s gotten better every year,” Ujiri told Tim & Sid. “You can say that about a few players in the NBA and in sports. He’s gotten better. It’s a challenge to him. I like that about him and Kyle (Lowry). Everything is a challenge. Put in that chip and they go out and be the best they can. They use that and it motivates them. They’ve gotten better, which is what you want.
“I’m really happy with his performance. He’s done a great job.”
In terms of the negotiations, Ujiri says he talked to DeRozan’s representatives as recently as a couple days ago. And while not much has changed on that front, he said the Raptors have made it clear to DeRozan and his camp where the organization stands on him.
“He’s a professional,” Ujiri said. “He’s a loyal kid. In sports, anything can happen. It’s going to be the first time in that position (for free agency) but it’s left to us. If you make that player feel comfortable you have the upper hand I think because he’s played for us.”
Ujiri knew his roster needed work last year
The Raptors’ performance in last year’s post-season was considered to be a disappointment in some regard, but the underwhelming play against the Washington Wizards during a four-game sweep did not catch Ujiri by surprise.
“I think the roster was flawed a bit last year and I take the blame for that,” he said. “Defensively we were just not capable. We were not ready injury-wise. We had some bad momentum going into the playoffs honestly. That’s sports. You have to be ready.”
Ujiri sensed the decline in performance coming in the second of the half of the season and made sure to aggressively upgrade the team’s depth and defensive issues this past summer.
“The players we brought compliment what (coach Dwane Casey) tries to do,” he added. “We needed more two-way players and unfortunately DeMarre (Carroll) hasn’t played as much. Hopefully we can get him back this season but Cory Joseph has been a good two-way player and Biyombo has been a good two-way player. We tried to get better with that.
Deadline deals aren’t always the best move
Despite the team’s declining performance after the All-Star break in 2014-15, Ujiri says he had no regrets that he wasn’t more aggressive at last year’s trade deadline.
In fact, he openly admitted that he came close to pulling off a deal that might have improved the club in the short-term but the transaction would have put a huge dent in the club’s off-season moves that have worked out so well.
“It was actually good thing (we didn’t) it gave us a little more flexibility this summer. Actually it was a lot more flexibility in the summer. There’s only two players that have made an impact on winning a championship (over) the last 30 years — Clyde Drexler and Rasheed Wallace. It’s a difficult thing to do.”
All-Star Weekend in T.O. has Ujiri excited
It’s a busy time of year for Ujiri. The trade deadline is coming up within the month. The team is in second place in the Eastern Conference but the one event the Raptors GM can’t get out of his mind is the upcoming All-Star Weekend.
He says he can’t wait for the city to be showcased to the rest of the league.
“This is going to be too much fun,” he said. “I just like it in this city. The people, the country, everybody is going to experience this.
“We want to be a global team so going to play in London and hosting the All-Star Game has been a grand year for us. We want to be relevant and you start by building your culture and winning. The All-Star Game is a big plus for us and I think it’s going to be phenomenal for this city. People don’t know how great Toronto is and people are going to know now.”