Q&A: Jeff Weltman on ‘post-ego’ stage of Raptors development

DeMar DeRozan led the Raptors with 21 points and Kyle Lowry put up a double-double to get the Raptors past the Magic 117-104.

Jeff Weltman has over two decades of NBA front-office experience and spent the last four years with the Toronto Raptors, rising to the ranks of general manager last season.

He played a big role in installing the Raptors’ current developmental system, with the dividends paying off night after night as a cast of homegrown talent including Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright helps propel the team to first place in the Eastern Conference standings.

Last summer he embarked on an entirely new challenge when he was named the Orlando Magic‘s president of basketball operations. Weltman arrived in Orlando with a roster he inherited and a blank slate for the future.

Currently in last place in the East, it’s a far cry from the situation he left. But with a young, hard-working roster and limitless opportunities for growth, he has both patience and experience on his side going forward.

I caught up with Weltman to discuss the lessons he learned in his time in Toronto and the team-building philosophies he plans to implement with his new club.

SN: What are the lessons and strategies that you brought over to Orlando from Toronto?

We went through a lot of different phases in Toronto. We started out not knowing which direction we were going to take the team and arrived in a place where we were comfortable just building on the roster and figuring out ways to implement winning habits and continuity.

Here in Orlando we’re searching for the best path for our team right now, to define who we are and establish that identity and winning habits like we did in Toronto.

It must be a fun challenge, in a way, to step into a situation where you have a blank canvas to build a team and choose that direction.

It is an exciting challenge to embark on something like this. You have to be excited by it because it will take a lot of time and energy to see it through. You have to be passionate about the opportunity, and I certainly am.

I feel that the reason there are tools to be successful here are the same as there were in Toronto. It starts with good owners — once you have an ownership group that supports you and understands what you’re trying to implement, then the rest of it is on you to follow through. Anybody who’s been in this business embraces those challenges and wants to measure himself.

It’s an exciting time for the organization. We look at is as having limitless opportunities ahead of us.

A big part of what you have to do, and have begun to, is to instil a true developmental system that may not have been in place. Is that fair?

Yeah, we’ve added significant personnel to the player-development program. It’s something we’ll embed into our personality as a team as we go forward. Some of it is numbers, some of it is talent-driven. We have to understand that we’re all doing this without any turf because there’s a lot of overlap.

It takes time for people to become comfortable with one another, and it takes the right personalities. It’s important that we establish with our players from the moment they step foot in our facilities that “this is who we are.” We work collaboratively, we work as a group, and my job is to make the guy next to me better. This is our DNA.

I think the effectiveness of the Raptors 905 over the past two years is a great example of that kind of synergy throughout the organization. Do you view that as a model that you’d want to re-create in Orlando in terms of internal player development and producing like-minded talent?

It’s important to establish that kind of identity. But you can’t just say “We’re only going to grow this internally” because in our business you have to be opportunistic and open to anything that comes along.

Obviously internal growth is a huge part of what makes today’s NBA teams successful, because it’s just hard to acquire high-talent players outside of those channels. But we have to be open to all of it.

There’s no right path; there’s no blueprint. It’s important that, no matter what, we put our guys in a position to succeed and show them how to win. And then add those like-minded talented players whenever we can — and that can come in different forms.

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After walking into a situation where you’ve inherited somebody elses roster, you’ve called this “a season of evaluation.” Is it difficult having to be very patient in re-building the Magic?

No, I don’t think it’s difficult. The reason why some of these jobs are, in my opinion, better than others is because when you have ownership that understands that there are no shortcuts and quick fixes, that growth needs to be process-driven, then it allows you the luxury of having patience.

In this business not every team has that luxury.

For me to be presented with an opportunity to have that, it’s a gift. Then it’s on us to let things unfold at the right pace… and really make calculated, long-term decisions. That’s the right way to do it. And hopefully it will lead us to success.

Seeing the Raptors from a different vantage point this season, what’s been your impression of the team? Is this the best-case scenario for everything you were helping to put in place?

The season is still unfolding and it’s a work in progress. There’s no real way to judge at this point.

The Raptors have gone through a lot. Masai [Ujiri] and his staff have put together a group that has grown together at the right tempo. I really look at the Raptors today as having entered a post-ego phase of their development — which is a goal that many teams have.

What I mean by that is you have to go through the growing pains of young players who want to make all-star games, and who have contract extensions coming up, and all of those things that are obstacles to bringing a team together.

Once you bring that group together with the same voices then everybody there begins to understand that they will now be judged on winning. It’s the only thing. It’s not a matter of “Whose toes am I stepping on?” or “Whose turf am I invading?” It’s about winning as a group. The players have matured and everybody understands why they’re there.

There’s no credit except for team credit. That’s a great place to be.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned since entering the industry? What do you know that you didn’t know then?

Wow, that’s deep [laughs]. The one word that comes to mind is: perspective.

There are so many things that we all have to go through just to come out of the other side and understand it. And the hardest thing is — you know you asked earlier whether it’s hard to have patience. The more you’re around, the more you understand that a talk or an explanation to a young guy who hasn’t been through it isn’t going to get the message across. The person has to go through it themselves.

Hopefully you can provide some guidelines to help them, but at the end of the day we need to let our young guys experience their own journey and forge their own path. And we have to be there to support them and navigate that.

But a conversation or instruction won’t replace experience. It’s a truism in any business or human relationship. And this business is just about relationships and the way people fit together on and off the court.

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