Masai Ujiri was watching a pre-camp Raptors scrimmage the other day, and everyone was there except the likely five starters. So, everyone was young. There was Bruno Caboclo, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright and Norm Powell and Bebe, with his blessed giant-spider-sea-anemone hair. The best player in the brief time Ujiri watched was point guard Fred VanVleet, actually. Apparently, that’s been a trend. Huh.
As the Toronto Raptors open camp for the 2017-18 season on Monday, they almost resemble two eras mashed together. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, newcomer and veteran C.J. Miles, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas have appeared in almost 3,000 regular-season games; the next eight more likely roster players have combined for a little over 300. Coach Dwane Casey loves his vets, but this year he’ll have to play kids, too. No choice.
“One of the things we had to do is, we really have to know our young guys,” says Ujiri. “It’s not putting pressure on them, but we have to know who they are. We have to figure it out. If not, then at some point we’re going to have to rebuild or do something here. Because Kyle and DeMar and those guys, they won’t play forever. So is there a window? I’m not giving these guys a window with this team, but numbers-wise there is a window, you know what I mean? We know. The players know.”
Ujiri spent his customary summer trip in Africa, running basketball camps in six countries with his charity and true love, Giants of Africa. He toured the enormous Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, worked with the Red Cross, and was part of Basketball Without Borders in Israel and South Africa. He has bigger ideas for what he can do for the continent, but GOA reaches young people for now.
Now he’s swimming in the NBA again, where stars chart their destinies and superteams scheme, and the Raptors are . . . what? Ibaka is not getting better; neither is Miles; Valanciunas may not get a chance to improve, again. And as for their stars, DeRozan keeps improving, somehow, but while the 28-year-old shooting guard was angry over his NBA rankings at Sports Illustrated or ESPN (36th and 39th, respectively) they’re difficult to argue. And Lowry (19th and 21st, respectively) is still capable of brilliance, but is 31 with a history of getting worn down.
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They have done admirable things in Toronto, especially given their origin stories: Toronto got Lowry for a first-round pick, and were willing to trade him to New York in 2014; DeRozan spent four years spinning his wheels before getting traction.
But they are not LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, world-wreckers. They can aspire to be, which is admirable. But they know the game.
So the Raptors will need something from the youngsters: Powell, Poeltl, Wright, first-rounder OG Anunoby (who may be ready to play by November after knee surgery earlier this year), Pascal Siakam, Bebe, VanVleet, and maybe even the still half-mythical Bruno. (If he is actually two years away from being two years away, 2018 is the year!)
“We consistently are in that top three in the east,” says Ujiri. “You stay there and you give yourself that shot of luck that maybe one day could strike. And that’s how we’re going to get to know our team, by these young guys playing. And there’s times where it’s going to be ugly, it’s going to be tough. I’m going to warn people, it’s going to be tough sometimes.
“But this is not for only this year. This is knowing our team. This is for three to five years from now. Are these guys good enough? Is it something where maybe our rebuild will come sooner? Or can we continue to build off of our guys? That’s where we think we are.”
There are two tracks here, of course, as there always are. Whatever kids develop help this team now, and they become assets. The Raptors have found comfortable upper middle-class success, but the real big boys are in a different league.
And if you are not relying on the draft, a huge part of any team’s championship chase is figuring out two things. One, which are the next superstar-or-near-enough players to shake out and become available? Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, whoever Golden State has to shed for money reasons. And two, can you position yourself as an acceptable superstar destination? You often need an attractive city, a franchise stars can trust.
Ujiri, of course, treats those names in public like they were an electrified fence. The league just fined the Lakers for tampering, even though tampering is half of how the league works, and often how contenders get made. Ujiri believes the Raptors infrastructure — city, fans, organization — is strong. He’s not wrong.
But most of all, you need players. Enough assets to swing a trade, enough players to surround a star who deigns to come. On Saturday, Carmelo Anthony accepted a trade from New York to Oklahoma City. Players are what matters.
So this Raptors team will find out what it has, and whether this franchise can eventually swing for the biggest kind of stars. It’s the same song, echoing until it doesn’t.
“There will be a first one,” says Ujiri. “I don’t think the sentence should read, we need a first one. There will be a first one. It’s going to happen, for sure. Maybe not in my time, maybe 20 years from now, 10 years from now, five years from now. But I’m telling you, somebody’s going to figure it out. Because if you come here, you can attack the world in all different angles. If you have Vince Carter’s stardom, if you are that good, America will follow you regardless. The whole world will follow you.
“There is something about this city, about this place, this team, that a star player hasn’t figured out. We haven’t won big, but people can see that and say, how cool is that there? What if I come there? Maybe I can make it cooler. Maybe I can build it bigger.”
The Raptors are back. Where they go from here is at least partly up to them.