Mackenzie: Ujiri off to strong start with Raptors

Masai Ujiri is starting to put his stamp on the Toronto Raptors.

Despite coming from a veteran team in New York, Steve Novak is looking forward to a new challenge.

“I’m very excited to be in Toronto,” he said in his introductory press conference Wednesday. “It’s the only team that has an entire country behind it. It’s exciting. I’ve been in big places before, like New York, but this is a great opportunity for me and I think with the change in leadership and the other small changes that have been made it’s a great place to be right now.”

A 6-foot-10 forward with a 43 per cent career shooting percentage from beyond the arc, Novak is the player visiting coaches used to say Andrea Bargnani was while ignoring his stats and shooting percentages.

With the ability to stretch the floor, Novak can play the role that Bargnani was meant to play.

That Ujiri was able to get picks thrown into the deal for Bargnani was an added and unnecessary bonus.

While Ujiri has continued to keep his cards close to his chest, what we do know is that he’s adding to the roster as is, with the goal of being able to compete come opening night.

The move to bring in Tyler Hansbrough (not yet official) was meant to address concerns over the team’s makeup. One thing that Ujiri did make clear — any team of his will not be questioned when it comes to defence and toughness.

“I’m tired of all this, people come here and everybody calls the team soft or calls the team pushovers or all these stupid names they mention,” he said. “You come to Canada and you come to play. That’s the identity we are trying to build here. This is our team, in Canada this is our team and we’re going to be tough out there.”

Raptors fans know Hansbrough well, although it hasn’t been the best relationship thus far.

During a game against the Indiana Pacers last season, Jonas Valanciunas got up close and personal with him when Hansbrough tossed him to the ground in a heap It was an unnecessary play but the North Carolina product is the sort of player you loathe playing against but loves to have your team.

Signing Hansbrough fills out the bench, gives the team another six fouls to use when needed and ups the “aggravator” quotient on the roster.

The other move that the team has made this off-season has been adding point guard Julyan Stone to the mix.

Stone, a third-year player who spent his first two seasons with Ujiri in Denver, is a big point guard who can play solid defence. With the ability to guard ones, twos and threes with his size, he gives the Raptors a perimeter defender they have sorely been lacking in recent years.

As he preaches patience, Ujiri will survey his options before acting.

If the roster remains intact for the season opener, he has at least addressed the biggest holes the team had at the end of the season while also tackling Bargnani’s contract.

In addition to the moves made this summer, picking up those three picks from New York puts the team in a better position moving forward.

Looking at what Ujiri has done with the draft during his time with the Nuggets, it’s clear he considers the ability acquire young and cheap players to be an important part of piecing together a team.

While in Denver he drafted very well, finding gems like Kenneth Faried (22nd overall) and Evan Fournier (20th overall), while stacking young prospects in Quincy Miller (38th overall) and Jordan Hamiton (acquired via a draft-night trade in 2011).

Down the road, these picks will give Ujiri more flexibility to make moves and to shape this team at whatever pace he chooses.

For now, though? The Raptors have replaced one big man shooter with another, added a backup point guard and earned themselves some attitude with Hansbrough.
Not a bad start for the new general manager.

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