Toronto Raptors

Masai Ujiri: Raptors' Vice Chairman discusses playing and winning in Toronto, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes and more

Masai Ujiri has been in Toronto since May 2013 when he joined as the General Manager. That and the subsequent moves made by Ujiri sparked the greatest seven-year run in Raptors franchise history including their first NBA Championship in 2019.

Earlier this month, the 51-year-old executive and the organisation agreed to a multi-year deal that would make him the Raptors' President and Vice Chairman.

Nearly a fortnight since the announcement of that deal, Ujiri addressed the media for the first time on Wednesday and discussed a host of topics. Here are some of the key takeaways.

The new role

"Vice Chairman is just sexy," Ujiri said when asked about the job description for his new role.

Prior to that pretty cool statement, the former Executive of the Year in 2019 actually revealed a lot of places he plans to contribute with the new role from helping the organisation continue to grow globally, the social justice movement, NBA Africa and even Canada Basketball.

"And I see this place as an incredible platform," he added. "I don't think players have even scratched the surface on what they can do here. Toronto sits as a place where you can really, really attack the world from. So whether it's the U.S. or whether it's Africa or whether it's Europe or whether it's South America, it gives me a platform, a voice to speak on a lot of issues that I think are important, global issues that are important."

MORE: How Masai's plea for change sparked a Canadian movement

Not diving into the specifics of the duration or financial details of his new deal, Ujiri looked at Larry Tanenbaum, the MLSE chair, who was seated in the front row and said with a laugh "Forever. Put pressure on Larry. Forever, man. I'm home, man. This is it. We're going to try to win the best way that we can. It's a commitment."

When the report from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, first came out on Ujiri's extension, it also stated that the executive was pursued by several sports organisations outside the NBA.

However, when pressed on that, the executive wasn't interested in diving into that.

Returning to Toronto

"Our hope is that we're playing at home," Ujiri said. "We have no interest. We haven't looked elsewhere. We are not going to look elsewhere."

Going by Ujiri's statements and considering the MLSE's recently released COVID-19 guidelines for their fans, it's probably safe to assume that Raptors basketball is set to return to Toronto.

"The NBA schedule is coming out in a few days," he said. "And I know this calendar says Toronto. It doesn't say anywhere else."

MORE: NBA releases Opening night schedule

Due to travel restrictions related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Raptors were forced to spend the entirety of the 2020-21 regular season in the temporary home market of Tampa, FL.

"I told Larry, Adam and even Prime Minister Trudeau that playing away set us back a couple of years. We know that. We are ready for that challenge. Playing another year somewhere else will send us back five years. We are not trying to do that."

The 2020-21 season became the first year that the team recorded a sub .500 record since Ujiri took office and it also snapped their consecutive playoff appearance streak of seven years.

Late in the press conference, Ujiri discussed the adversity of playing in a Tampa

"Everybody we had to work with to get to do this (move to Tampa), that experience we'll honestly never get again first-hand," Ujiri said. "I hope it never comes again. (But) there are many things we've learned from this. In terms of the players now, in terms of the team, it was hard for some of them, if not all of them. It's not easy."

Pascal Siakam

Dwelling on the hardships, Ujiri gave an example of Siakam, discussing the Cameroonian's struggles through the Orlando bubble and the 2020-21 season.

"The games get shut down here and Pascal has visa issues, I think. So, he's stuck here [Toronto] in his apartment and he doesn't want to go out and contract this disease. So, Pascal is doing nothing between then and the bubble."

"The bubble comes and he's not in the best shape that he can possibly be, [with] the shortened break and then he comes into the season. Honestly, Pascal realises this when he contracts COVID and he sheds and begins to find himself."

Despite Siakam's much-talked struggles, the 27-year-old still averaged numbers in the vicinity of his career-highs from the 2019-20 season. It's just that his meteoric rise didn't continue this past season like it had the previous three seasons.

His performance has resulted in his name reportedly getting included in trade talks this offseason. However, Ujiri put all that to rest and made it a pretty strong statement.

"Pascal is here. Pascal is a Raptor and he's going to play with us."

Kyle Lowry and vision for the future

As part of his opening statements, Ujiri called Kyle Lowry 'the greatest Raptor".

A fortnight earlier, when free agency began, Lowry was shipped to the Miami Heat as part of a sign-and-trade deal to the Miami Heat in exchange for Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa. After the deal, Larry Tanenbaum indicated that Lowry will retire as a Raptor and will have his No. 7 retired.

After nine great years, without mentioning his off-court impact, Lowry's spot on the franchise's all-time rankings more than validates calling him the greatest Raptor ever. He is the franchise's all-time leader in assists (4,277), steals (873), 3-pointers made (1,518) and triple-doubles (16), and would become the first player in franchise history to have their jersey retired.

MORE: Appreciating Kyle Lowry - the Greatest Raptors ever

"It's been really tough for us to see an incredible player like that go," Ujiri said. "We knew this was coming. The direction of our team was kind of going younger and Kyle still has these incredible goals."

Calling players like Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby as 'young veterans', Ujiri believes development is the way forward for the team.

The trio - who are all almost at the same age as when the Lowry-DeMar DeRozan partnership began in Toronto - are products of the team's development and the new Vice Chairman believes building around them as a core along with their young players such as Scottie Barnes (No. 4 pick in 2021 Draft), Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn is what the Raptors approach is.

"I said it here when I sat here eight years ago, we are going to develop players and we are going to build on that. And I'm saying it again that we are going to continue to develop these players, and we are going to find a way to win a championship here based on the development of our players," Ujiri added.

Drafting Scottie Barnes

Given the uncertain nature that comes with player development, Ujiri was non-commital on a 'championship timeline' but did share his excitement on drafting Scottie Barnes.

"All he talks about is winning," Ujiri said while recollecting their interview with Barnes where the prospect mentioned winning 34 times. "He was just a player that excited all of us."

That's not all. Despite all the chatter about Jalen Suggs and any other player that the Raptors could have considered, he detailed how Barnes fit into a mould and player-type that they like.

"Also, one day, we want to play big and long. When you look at him, look at Pascal, look at OG, look at Boucher, look at all these players and then you look at the feistiness of Fred. There's some excitement about having these sort of players."

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