Monday’s announcement of the Toronto Raptors’ acquisition of a new NBA Development League affiliate is two years in the making — or more specifically, two years and one month, back to May 31, 2013.
That was the day the Raptors hired Masai Ujiri as their new general manager. Venturing into the NBA’s minor league has since been one of the organization’s top priorities, according to Bobby Webster, the team’s vice president of basketball management & strategy.
The transaction began taking shape in February, when Raptors officials met with NBA D-League president Malcolm Turner at All-Star Weekend in New York City. From there eventually came Raptors 905, with a series of decisions in between — from where the team would play and how its ownership would be structured to where players would live and in-arena entertainment.
It helped that Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, had already supported the Mississauga Power, a team in the National Basketball League of Canada. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the company that owns the Raptors, also has experience running MLS club Toronto FC and its two minor-league affiliates.
As the Raptors franchise enters a new era, Ujiri spoke with NBADLeague.com about the league’s northern expansion.
What does this move mean for the franchise? Why did you feel the need to add a D-League team?
First of all it’s been a huge collaboration with the NBA and the city of Mississauga and our ownership. It’s such a privilege to have this opportunity for us to have a D-League team. You want to develop your young players and I think it’s definitely the way to go.
[MLSE president and CEO] Tim Leiweke really made it possible here. We told him it was a priority for us to really have a home for our young players, but also to develop a place in the community where we can have basically a smaller version of the Raptors playing. That is absolutely huge for us.
From your standpoint as a general manager, how does this change how you operate as a front office?
It completely changes it because right in your backyard, you can send players down. We intend to use it fully, developing players, rehabbing players, getting players back in shape. It’s for us going to make the opportunities even broader. We are going to make the best use of this opportunity and find other ways to explore using the D-League even more. It’s just so exciting. I can think of 100 things.
What are some examples of success stories you’ve seen in the D-League recently that you hope to emulate?
We’ve studied a lot of the teams. Before you venture into something like this, you do all the research – teams that have done it, teams that have used it so well. We’ve talked to other teams. I don’t want to mention by name, but many teams have absolutely done well. I know the Commissioner has really led this in a great way to position almost every NBA team to have a D-League team. I think that’s coming even sooner than later.
Some teams have chosen to basically re-create their parent club at the minor-league level while others have used the D-League as a place to experiment with different players and coaches and styles of play. Which route do you plan to go?
I think we’re going to do both to be honest with you. We’re going to try out new experiments and see some of the things you can’t possibly experiment with in the NBA just because of the competition level and what’s at stake. But we’re also going to build it as a model of the Raptors. That’s what we want to do. It’s not even solely playing. It’s coaching, it’s front office, it’s research, it’s analytics — it’s everything. Even taking it further with marketing and the way we position this in the community and kind of building a baby franchise there.
Last year you guys sent down Bruno Caboclo to a team that didn’t really have an incentive to develop him. Did seeing that increase the urgency to get your own affiliate? And what benefits will this new setup provide when you want to develop your own players?
They (the Fort Wayne Mad Ants) wanted to win. Their D-League team is in a different place. Unfortunately that did not benefit us. It really triggered us to push even harder. When you have what we feel are talented young players on our team and you want them to go get that experience when they’re not playing on the NBA team. you want them to play, you want them to develop, you want to pay attention to it. That wasn’t the case with Bruno unfortunately, and we needed him to play.
Now we have an advantage – it’s going to be our coaches, it’s going to be our system, it’s going to be our vision. So you can develop and develop and get playing time and put him in situations where you think he can grow with instruction and teaching. That’s very important for us. To do it 20 minutes from where your main team plays is the biggest advantage.
Everyone immediately thought of Bruno after hearing this news. Do you expect him to spend a significant amount of time with Raptors 905 next season?
He will definitely be playing, whether it’s with the Raptors or whether it’s with 905. That I can guarantee at least. He’s going to get tired next year because he’s going be practicing with the big team and then playing on the small team. That’s how we envision it.
But you never know; you don’t know how much he will develop, too. and how fast. This year we developed him a lot, getting stronger, getting bigger and learning the NBA life, and now it’s time to play. That was one of the reasons we’re very appreciative to our ownership for taking this leap.
The Raptors have a bunch of players with D-League experience: James Johnson fell through cracks, Amir Johnson when he was really young. How have you seen the D-League contribute to the development of some of the players already on your roster?
Those guys going through it – the grind — it’s an experience for them. It developed them. Amir still talks about it, James talks about it. I like seeing the growth of the D-League. It’s becoming more relevant, more important. There’s no doubt that there are quite a few players that have benefited from this and I know there will be even more that will benefit.
What do you see in Mississauga as a basketball market?
Great, especially with the development of all the young kids in Canada. The city of Mississauga, those guys have been so great to us and so encouraging and welcoming. The proximity is going to be fantastic for us. Hopefully we can really build this thing. We plan to make it the best D-League team in the NBA. That’s our goal.