Just because the news cycle has been quiet doesn’t mean the Toronto Raptors haven’t been working to find their new head coach.
Ettore Messina and Ime Udoka both interviewed for the job in Toronto this week, according to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Both Messina and Udoka are assistant coaches with the San Antonio Spurs.
The Raptors’ coaching search has been kept pretty tight to the chest so far, often a trademark of how team president Masai Ujiri operates. We know that Mike Budenholzer was in Toronto before ultimately accepting a job with the Milwaukee Bucks and that internal candidates Nick Nurse, Jerry Stackhouse, and Rex Kalamian all interviewed for the position last week. A chunk of the Raptors’ front office was also with a large NBA contingent in Chicago for the NBA Draft Combine last week, where more under-the-radar meetings could have taken place.
Messina and Udoka are the first external names to hit the rumor mill in some time, and they make sense. The Spurs are among the league’s most well-regarded franchises, and players and coaches from under the Gregg Popovich tree have been sought after regularly. Both Budenholzer and James Borrego were hired this offseason and are former Popovich assistants, and Becky Hammon is another member of the staff beginning to hit the interview circuit.
In Messina, who spent an entire day with the team Thursday, per the report, the Raptors have an incredibly experienced candidate whose resume commands respect on its own, even before considering his stern approach. Before joining the Spurs as an assistant in 2014, Messina was one of the most decorated coaches at the international level, winning four EuroLeague titles and winning two EuroLeague Coach of the Year awards. In 2008, he was named one of the 50 greatest contributors to the EuroLeague and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame in his native Italy. Now 58 years old, Messina has gotten his feet wet taking the head coaching reins in Popovich’s occasional absence. He was also said to make a strong case for head coaching vacancies in Charlotte and Milwaukee, which makes sense given his impressive track record.
Udoka interviewed in Charlotte, as well as in Orlando, and has spent even more time under Popovich. He transitioned quickly from a seven-year playing career – including three seasons in San Antonio – to Popovich’s staff in 2012, where he’s stayed since, winning an NBA championship in 2014. As a player, Udoka helped lead Nigeria – he was born in Portland but his father is Nigerian, and he has coached with Ujiri at earlier Giants of Africa camps – to a pair of AfroBasket bronze medals, and he earned the NBA’s sportsmanship award in 2006, earning the “player likely to become a coach one day” reputation pretty quickly. That he was a self-made success story who attended two colleges, played internationally, and thrived in the D-League before eventually getting a look in the NBA probably helps him relate to players on a couple of different levels and invites respect. He also brings a fair amount of experience for someone still just 40 years old. ESPN had a really nice profile on Udoka as a coaching candidate a few weeks back.
Ujiri interviewing more external candidates shouldn’t necessarily send a strong signal of how the search is going in either direction. It’s his first ever coaching hire and a decision that will help define the next era for the entire franchise. It shouldn’t be taken lightly, and even if a candidate – Nurse, Stackhouse, whoever (Wojnarowski says Nurse is the leading internal candidate) – has really impressed, it’s prudent to cast a wide net here, learn as much as possible about the available candidates, and grow as certain as possible in the decision. Yes, sooner would be better given the offseason ahead and the current uncertainty, but it’s better to be methodical here unless there’s a real concern you could lose a good candidate otherwise.
I went over a number of potential candidates for Toronto here and answered a bunch of coaching-related questions here for further context, though most of that mailbag is me outlining how little we can actually know about head coaching candidates until they get in the job. This is all very difficult to judge from outside, so things like track record, reputation, the organization they come from, and perceived upside are how we form these imperfect judgments of the options available (at least for coaches who haven’t coached NBA teams before). So, none of this is inherently good or bad, though both of these names would seem to lean toward “good” given the available information.