NEW YORK — Nobody wants a scaredy cat as a general manager. Not if you want a franchise that wins and wins big.
In a league where most teams have the same amount of money to spend on players and the strengths and weakness of those are readily apparent, making moves that can change the trajectory of a team is exceedingly difficult.
Sometimes you have to be bold, knowing that being bold might make you wrong and embarrassingly so.
The good news for the Toronto Raptors is that Masai Ujiri is not afraid to take that risk. His first draft pick as the Raptors general manger proves it.
He’s certainly not worried about what Twitter thinks or what the talking heads on ESPN think – both forums weren’t impressed with Ujiri’s out-of-nowhere selection of Brazilian teenager Bruno Caboclo with the 20th pick in the NBA draft.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of gross errors in judgment, and for the first time in his 13 months as GM he’s left himself open to the possibility as the basketball intelligentsia greeted his choice with a collective spit take.
It’s impossible to describe exactly how little is known about Caboclo. It’s believed the Raptors were the only NBA team to work him out. In an era when every high school player who can dunk and hit a three has a YouTube channel and highlight tapes set to music, this is very difficult to do.
But running a basketball team isn’t about finding a cool new band before your friends do.
It’s about gathering talent in a competitive, transparent marketplace and with a draft class of considerable depth and featuring three Canadian first-round talents, Ujiri found himself on the outside looking in.
As Andrew Wiggins of Thornhill, Ont., went first overall as had been expected and Mississauga’s Nik Stauskas went earlier than was thought at No.8 to Sacramento, the Raptors were still holding out hope that they could land Brampton point guard Tyler Ennis with the 20th pick.
That was dashed when the Phoenix Suns snapped up Ennis with the No. 18 selection. Efforts were made to move up to take him first and work out a deal with the Suns after, but they came to nothing.
It was time to switch to Plan B, as in Plan Bruno. It was kept in a manila file folder stamped Top Secret, apparently.
According to league sources the Raptors were the earliest on the case, with director of global scouting Patrick Engelbrecht making regular trips to San Paulo to keep tabs on the six-foot-eight, 18-year-old with a wingspan that reportedly stretches seven-foot-seven.
The Raptors apparently promised Caboclo they would take him with their second-round pick, or 37th overall. Sources close to the Brazilian basketball scene say they sealed the deal by promising to pay a $600,000 buyout fee to Pinheiros, his club team.
With that wink-wink deal done Caboclo didn’t get on the workout circuit and stayed largely off the radar of most clubs. Ujiri made three trips to Brazil to see him in person and last week brought Dwane Casey to Houston to seem him also.
“A stealth move,” Casey called it.
“Bruno is an athletic phenomenon,” Casey said. “At No. 20 you’re not going to get a perfect player, but this young man has a chance to hit it big. He’s raw. But he’s going to be a guy that is going to develop in our program, grow and do a lot of things for us. Defensively, he’s long. He covers a lot of ground down in a stance. He blocks shots with his length.”
One of Caboclo’s teammates with Pinheiros was Rafael Araujo — the beefy Brazilian the Raptors took eighth overall in 2004 and which will forever go down as the worst draft pick in franchise history.
And while Raptors fans may never forget, the Brazilian bust wasn’t Ujiri’s mistake.
A better insight into his thinking is to know that last season Ujiri believed he had a deal in place to draft another relatively unknown and unheralded player with an unconventional backstory.
When he was still with the Denver Nuggets Ujiri was going to take Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 27th pick. But word got out about the potential of the Nigerian teenager who grew up an illegal immigrant hawking trinkets on the streets of Greece. He ended up being taken 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks and had a promising rookie season that have some convinced the lanky, six-foot-nine unknown could soon be an impact player in the NBA.
When Ujiri got the job with the Raptors last May he tried desperately to make a trade to get into the first round (Toronto didn’t have a pick) so he could take the player who has come to be known as the “Greek Freak” but couldn’t pull it off.
With that experience a recent memory it was clear Ujiri wasn’t going to miss his chance again.
“Once Ennis was gone, who else was he going to take?” said one source close to the Raptors executive.
You don’t win without being bold and in Ujiri’s eyes there weren’t any game changing or franchise changing players remaining.
That doesn’t mean that Caboclo will be one.
But there’s a chance that he is, and for Ujiri, apparently that’s all the reason he needed.