Raptors look to create enivironment for growth

Masai Ujiri knows his Raptors have the chance to move up at the draft, but for now his efforts are focused on the 20th-overall pick where they currently sit.

The most important piece in the Toronto Raptors draft night strategy is pending free agent Kyle Lowry.

After that it’s a pair of restricted free agents-to-be Grievis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson.

Which isn’t to overlook the work that Jonas Valancuinas and DeMar DeRozan are doing with Hakeem Olajuwon as they work on their respective post games over the summer.

Newly entrenched head coach Dwane Casey is a key element as well.

It’s not about what any newly drafted player can do for the Raptors, it’s what the Raptors can do for any newly drafted player.

“You have to have a program,” Ujiri was saying before presiding over the Raptors 12th pre-draft workout where they’ve auditioned nearly 60 players. “If you have a program you can bring in guys and get their best. You can mold them.”

But you need a program, which is why after the Raptors were eliminated from the playoffs Ujiri was preaching stability and internal growth rather than bold moves to grab the brass ring now. It’s why returning the key building blocks from the team that won 48 games last season is so important.

All of which is to say it’s very unlikely that the Raptors are going to draft a team-changing player from the 20th position of the first round or the 37th and 59th spots in the second.

But if the Raptors are going to continue the long hard climb from the cusp of respectability to becoming a true contender, the real goal is making sure the environment new players come into is robust enough to change the players — or at least properly cultivate and leverage the gifts they have.

Not every team can be the San Antonio Spurs, but only a foolish organization wouldn’t try to study why the Spurs have been able to find outstanding players that other teams overlooked.

In other words: Did the San Antonio Spurs win the NBA championship by cleverly adding Danny Green and Patty Mills – drafted 46th and 55th in 2009? Or was the situation crafted by Spurs general manager RC Buford – one of Ujiri’s NBA mentors – such that over time his otherwise overlooked talents could thrive?

I’ll bet on the latter, and so is Ujiri.

“Their system helps bring out the best in players and they keep upgrading – they turned a No. 26 pick (George Hill) into Kawhi Leonard, a No. 15 pick and now if you were doing the (2011) draft again he might go first, second or third. They are always thinking ahead.”

Ujiri has no choice but to do the same. One of the downsides of the Raptors soaring after Ujiri shed ballast in the form of Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay is that they are missing out on the meat of what is supposed to be a very talented draft class this year.

It was a small price to pay for an unexpected playoff run that electrified a fan base, but an aggressive move into the lottery would have had the Raptors in a much more certain place—combing through a short list of six to 10 prospects that any semi-serious fan has been able to rhyme off from memory for a year now.

But now comes the hard part. The Raptors are still a team perilously in the middle where it is ever so easy to get stranded. Becoming a team that can churn out 50-win seasons without the benefit of high-lottery pick players is no easy feat. Franchises that pull it off – Indiana and Memphis are current examples – need to turn some late draft picks into assets.

“It’s a huge bonus if you can get one,” says Ujiri. “The programs that have done well in the NBA have thrived with picks like that. It takes constant study and really knowing players but I believe you have to create that system, that program where when you get those players you grind them in, you coach them, you develop them and mold them into being players.”

The Raptors have done their homework. Monday was their 12th pre-draft workout, each with four-to-six players in them. I can’t recall the team ever bringing in more players.

And they’re bringing in players who have got the message: There is a job here for the right kind of person, not simply the right kind of basketball player. As Ujiri said, whoever is coming in will have their work cut out for them in order to earn playing time on a roster that is young but well established.

Taking notes was Dwight Powell, the Toronto-born power forward who graduated from Stanford a week ago Sunday and is projected as a mid-to-late second round pick. His NBA battle is just beginning.

“It takes perseverance and someone who is mentally tough to fight through a situation where not much is expected from you but you have an opportunity to impress and over-achieve,” said Powell. “You have to understand if you can find a role in a system, then you are valuable.”

Ujiri says they have their list of perhaps 20 players narrowed down to 10 for the 20th pick and says they’ll be down to five for the spot by draft night. He joked that at 37 there might be 600 players in consideration and who knows how many more at 59.

The needs they would like filled are some shot-blocking and some defensive presence on the wing, but they’ll draft talent over position every time.

Regardless, heading into Thursday’s draft the Toronto Raptors need a gem. A find. A player no one saw coming but them.

But for that to happen they need to retain Lowry and allow the rest of their core to improve and jell so that whoever they draft now and in the future has a fighting chance to be made by the program in place.

It’s always a long shot, but a far more likely outcome than it happening in reverse.

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