In both basketball and business, the word “leadership” gets thrown around a lot. It’s a term overused to the point of meaninglessness, applied to any executive who might plausibly deliver a TED Talk or any athlete whose contributions aren’t captured by the box score. One simple way to think about it, however, is as an act of transmutation: the ability to take a group of people, with their own individual ambitions and desires and fears, and turn them into a single unit working toward a common goal.
Masai Ujiri has many qualities as an executive. There’s the dealmaking that makes other execs wary of trading with him (transforming middling guard Greivis Vásquez into two key players on a championship team remains a shocking robbery, even seven years later). There’s the brand-building that turned the “We the North” Raptors into Canada’s Team. There’s the eye for talent that saw future All Stars in unheralded prospects like Siakam and Fred VanVleet. But those who work with him say it’s Ujiri’s ability to connect with people and inspire them toward a collective purpose that is his singular genius.
“He’s incredibly charismatic,” says Webster. “He makes you feel like you’re a part of what he’s part of.” In 2013, Webster was a 28-year-old salary-cap wunderkind working at the NBA head office. He’d been offered other front office jobs, but Ujiri was the one who convinced him to make the move and join him with the Raptors. Teresa Resch, now a vice-president with the team, was also part of that original team. Ujiri had only met her a few times, but he’d made an impression on Resch. “He’s a great connector,” she says. “He’ll meet you and you’ll feel like you have a connection with him.”
She and Webster both insist that this is just who Ujiri is. “He’s always been like this,” says Webster. But the fact is, when Ujiri walks into a room today, his story precedes him, and that story has its own power. Before you meet him, you know the broad outlines. Ujiri was a skinny-legged kid from Zaria, a city in Nigeria, who found basketball as a teenager and managed to grind out a playing career in England, Denmark and Finland. He was a charming striver who parlayed a few contacts into an unpaid scouting job with the Orlando Magic, couch-surfing across Europe on his own dime. And he was the front-office savant who made the NBA equivalent of the mailroom-to-CEO ascension in record time—scout and then quickly assistant general manager. The first African-born GM of any major North American sports team. NBA Executive of the year. World champion.
Here’s a dumb-sounding observation about Ujiri: He only cares about winning. This is both a boring sports cliché and a colossal understatement—like saying a polar bear only cares about hunting, when the real story is that if a polar bear stops hunting, it literally stops being a polar bear. But his need to win is such a totalizing way of looking at the world, not just basketball, that it’s worth trying to understand.
“Maybe the best way to explain it is that failure is not an option,” Ujiri says in his office. But failure is an option. In a basketball season, only one team wins. Everyone else loses. So how do you handle that? “I don’t handle it,” he says. The miserable season the team spent playing in Tampa because of COVID-19 restrictions, for example? A season in which the Raptors, in fact, mostly lost? “That was a winning season,” says Ujiri emphatically. “Because we got Scottie.” And Scottie Barnes—the grinning, preternaturally gifted Rookie of the Year who Ujiri picked against conventional wisdom? Scottie is winning personified. “When we interviewed Scottie Barnes, he mentioned the word ‘winning’ I think it was 27 times,” says Ujiri. He looks at me meaningfully; 27 times is a lot of times to say the word winning. “In my head, I said, Oh my god. You know? Winner.”
NBA insider Shams Charania joins Tim and Friends to discuss some hot topics around the NBA including where the Toronto Raptors fit within the strong Eastern Conference, what they’ll do with Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, and much more.
The reality is Flynn will most likely start the season out of rotation, with the team focusing on “mismatch basketball” on the offensive end. He’ll need a strong camp to keep the token 2-3 cardio minutes that he would get midway through the game, barely touching the ball. That is if Banton doesn’t steal those minutes away from him.
However, the season is long, and Nurse will drive his core players to the ground, causing key players to miss time. Flynn would need to be ready when they call his number and make it hard for Nurse to keep him out of the rotation. To do that, he’ll need to change his game and mentality.
Flynn needs to reprogram his game so that he won’t need much ramp-up time to get into his rhythm. We’re not asking him to be a microwave scorer like Jordan Clarkson, who comes off the bench scorching hot, but to be a better version of how the Boston Celtics are using Payton Pritchard offensively. What he can’t be is the Flynn that we saw in limited minutes last season. That Flynn was a hesitant shooter, second-guessing his decisions, and was tight that he couldn’t get his handle clean against defenders at times. He’ll need to be aggressive in scoring, whether on catch-and-shoot or off the bounce.
Defensively, Flynn needs to show that he’s not a liability out there. He’s had a front-row seat on how the maestros did it, with Kyle Lowry and VanVleet not letting their physical and athletic limitations become a target on their backs defensively. He was decent against Tyrese Maxey in the playoffs, providing some nice point-of-attack defense, but he’ll need more of this consistently.
It’s disappointing to see the Raptors neglect the development of Flynn as a point guard, but at the same time, he hasn’t really made it hard for the coaching staff not to play him. With the Raptors’ direction, it’ll take a drastic change to see Flynn as part of their future past this season. Perhaps the management still believes in him, as they picked up his contract option for next year, but the management and the coaching staff might have different views on his fit with the team.
It’s likely that Flynn’s game just doesn’t fit the Raptors’ system. The “mismatch basketball” and putting the ball in the hands of non-point guards produce an imbalanced and clunky offense, as we’ve seen these past couple of years. Heck, even the Raptors 905 team moved away from the traditional offense, and relied more on the mother club’s MO last season, and we saw Flynn struggle offensively with the ball not touching his hands consistently. It’s a shame that Flynn only averaged around 1.5 pick-and-roll reps per game last season, with several games he’s filled in for VanVleet inflating his numbers.
Flynn has had a fantastic summer and a decent preseason. He’ll get his shot sooner or later. Will he be ready when his number gets called? We’ll see. It’s time to free Malachi this season, and I hope it happens sooner rather than later, regardless of whether it’s with the Raptors.
It might not be coincidental that Achiuwa’s big night — he’d never had more than 15 rebounds — came when he was once again paired off the bench with Chris Boucher. The lanky big men tend to infuse the game with energy when they enter together most nights late in the first quarter and they not only feed off each other, teammates take their cues from them.
“I’ve always been used to playing with another big body, or bigger body,” Achiuwa said. “With (Boucher) out there I can be more versatile defensively. I can switch, if I’m guarding a player that’s not a threat on defence. I can roam weak side, shoot the gap on the weak side, anchor the defence and that kind of stuff.”
It is just four games into the season and the sample size is small, but the thing to watch for from Achiuwa now is if he can develop the consistency very good players have. It’s not hard to pop a big game once out of every five, and it’s easy to get caught up in big scoring totals. But the Raptors will demand more of Achiuwa.
Not perfection, just more.
“The scoring is great and we also need that, but I always say: you can really play good sometimes and go two-for-10,” Nurse said. “That’s what I’m trying to get to, and I’m trying to get a little bit more consistency. I always say you can play good, like one out of three games, right? It’s got to get bumped up to two out of four, then three out of five.
“No one is going to play great every night, but we got to start making some progression where there’s some consistency there.”
Maybe not 22 rebounds once every four games. More like 12 or 13 boards three nights out of four. That’s when Achiuwa will have reached the level his team needs.
“I have defensive goals, in terms of being one of those guys who is being talked about defensively across the league,” Achiuwa said. “So that (rebounding) is a thing that plays into what I’m trying to accomplish this year.”
The Toronto Raptors are looking to get Justin Champagnie some extra playing time with the Raptors 905 these days.
The second-year forward has yet to make his regular season debut for Toronto this year and has now been assigned to the G League, the team announced Tuesday morning. He is the only Raptors player who will join the 905 for now.
Champagnie was a star in the G League last season, averaging 21.1 points while shooting 40.9% from behind the arc in 14 regular season games. He then took his game to another level in the playoffs, averaging 32.5 points in two postseason appearances for the 905.
This year, Toronto is looking for more of that from Champagnie who needs to continue improving his three-point shot while maintaining the defense and rebounding skills that earned him a roster spot with the big club.
Once the Raptors get to full strength this season, expect Christian Koloko and potentially Malachi Flynn or Dalano Banton to get some time in the G League. Koloko could still use some time developing at a lower level while Banton and Flynn have seen inconsistent minutes to start the year and would benefit from an extended look in the G League.
The 905 will be practicing for the next week before opening their season on Nov. 5 with a back-to-back against the Capital City Go-Go.
The Raptors are getting rookie Christian Koloko substantial minutes, partly by design, but also taking advantage of situations such as the ankle sprain to Scottie Barnes to get him a start.
Koloko has had moments to date, both good and maybe not so good, but the focus now is getting him game experience and they’ve done that.
Koloko is an element this team has been without since Marc Gasol left in terms of a long body that changes shots at the rim. The rookie’s big presence makes an offence think twice about taking the ball to the rim.
His teammates seem to appreciate what his size and his athleticism can mean for the rest of the lineup. He’s certainly no finished product at this point, but the minutes he’s getting now are invaluable down the road.
When the Raptors arrived in Miami they were still waiting on Chris Boucher’s debut and the return of the impactful Precious Achiuwa that the team came to expect through the final half of last season.
Boucher got his first start Monday night and despite some early foul trouble put his stamp on the game with his infectious energy and some much needed outside shooting early in the game.
“Oh, I enjoy playing with Chris,” Achiuwa said lighting up at the mere mention of his teammates’ name. “Next time you (media) guys see him, ask him how much I bugged him to speed up his recovery process.
“There’s nothing I haven’t said to him. I enjoy playing with him. Me and Chris have a really good understanding on the floor, I know where he’s at. He understands the way I play, and I understand the way he plays. We just have a really good connection. I really enjoy playing with him.
He brings a certain type of energy, not just to the team but to me.”
Achiuwa had his own breakout moment in Miami in the first game when he shook off an uneven start to the season in the first two games with an 18 and 10 performance.
He followed that up in Boucher’s return with a career and Raptors’ record for rebounds by a reserve when he pulled down 22 boards in the win in the second Miami game.
“I have defensive goals, in terms of being one of those guys who is being talked about defensively across the league, so that’s a thing that plays into what I’m trying to accomplish this year,” Achiuwa said of his big rebounding weekend.
“There’s a lot of elements (that go into playing elite defence). I think the most important one is stopping the player from scoring the ball and of course finishing off the possession with a rebound.”
15. Toronto Raptors
2022-23 record: 2-2
Preseason ranking: 15
No Eastern Conference team has had a more difficult start than Toronto, with a home game against Cleveland followed by road tilts versus Brooklyn and Miami (twice). What do the Raptors get as a reward for going 2-2 through that stretch? A baseball series at home against Philadelphia, followed by a visit from Trae Young and the Hawks on Halloween. It’s the perfect encapsulation of the difficulties that life in the conference is going to provide on a daily basis. — Bontemps