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Lewenberg: Raptors narrowing focus as draft day approaches

Josh Lewenberg, TSN 1050
6/23/2014 6:41:02 PM
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TORONTO - After auditioning roughly 60 prospects, including nine Canadians, in 11 sessions spanning over nine workout days this spring, the Toronto Raptors are putting the finishing touches on their wish list heading into Thursday's NBA Draft.

For most of the last week, Masai Ujiri and his scouting staff have been mulling over 10 targets they anticipate will be available with the 20th overall pick, their first of three selections, hoping to narrow that list down to five by Tuesday.

With three days to go, does he have someone in mind?

"He's around like the back here," said the former scout, gesturing to the back of his head just before the Raptors concluded their final pre-draft workout Monday afternoon. "But he hasn't made it to the front yet. He's working his way."

No, Ujiri won't tip his hand, not with so many variables at play. Fourteen teams occupy the 19 slots that precede the Raptors and will determine who is available to them. They have a list of about 13 players that are expected to be off the board by the time Toronto is on the clock.

The pick will be Ujiri's first as Toronto's primary decision maker - the Raptors did not have a selection in last year's draft - and should immediately put his keen eye for talent to the test.

Since Ujiri took control of the Raptors, a franchise that has mostly been accustomed to selecting in the lottery, he has emphasized the importance of drafting well regardless of where you're situated in both the first and second rounds.

For only the third time in franchise history, and first in 12 years, the Raptors are positioned outside the top 19 in the draft's opening round. Although it's not an advantageous spot to find can't miss, NBA-ready talent, history has shown it can be done. In 2000, with the 20th overall pick - the team's lowest ever first-round selection - they found one of their best and most reliable contributors in long-time Raptor Morris Peterson. In 2011, then with the Nuggets, Ujiri used the 22nd pick to snag emerging forward Kenneth Faried.

As Ujiri knows, the key is preparation aided by a little bit of luck and the subsequent development that is required to turn a late first-round pick into an impact player at the game's highest level.

"It's a huge bonus," Ujiri said of finding a diamond in the rough on draft night. "You look at the programs that have done well in the NBA, they just strike with picks like that. Its takes constant study, and really knowing players, believing in players and a system."

"I think a big thing is you kind of have to be realistic on the expectations of the players," added Dan Tolzman, Toronto's director of scouting, who was also a member of Ujiri's front office staff in Denver. "I think everyone wants to find those diamonds and the guys that will be all-stars and MVPs and this and that but those guys are pretty hard to find outside of the lottery and the top-five even." 

"So I think the idea is if you can find guys at 20 or 37 or wherever that have careers," he continued, "that are eight-year players and they're role players on your team and they're doing good things to help you win, that's a successful draft pick. You might get lucky and hit a guy that's going to be a big time contributor and he's pushing for all-stars and that kind of thing, but that's not really what you're looking for when you're outside of the top-five or the top-10."

Over the last four weeks, the Raptors' brass have seen around a dozen players that figure to be selected in the latter half of the first round, or early in the second. According to team sources, there are roughly five prospects of interest that were either unable or unwilling to come in for a workout. While the workouts are not the be all and end all - the team has scouted them all in live action - they can go a long way in getting the coaching staff and trainers on board with a potential pick.

Should a player fall to them unexpectedly, Ujiri will keep his options open and hasn't ruled out the possibility of trading up, if the price is right. Still, the focus is on making their make at 20.

"Those trades and talks, people don't understand," said the Raptors' GM. "We talk about like maybe 100 trades and then two happen. That's the nature of our business. We will be aggressive but our energy is focused on 20, rather than wasting our time on [something else]."

In addition to their first-round pick, the Raptors also own a pair of second rounders, 37 and 59 - the second to last pick in the draft.

Regardless of whether or not they're able to address their needs in the draft, Ujiri has prioritized his offseason to-do list.

"We need a big wing at the three position," he said. "We [also] need some kind of shot blocking big. We have good, skilled bigs, we have a shooting big, we have a big down low, but we want to figure out how we can protect the rim a little bit. That may come now, it may come later but it's something we know we need on our roster. So those two positions look like something we need."

His top priority has not changed.

"We're going full force after Kyle Lowry," Ujiri said, speaking of the team's coveted free agent point guard. "And if there's a talented point guard in the draft we know that it's going to be tough to come and contribute to where our team is off the bat, but we'll go for talent in the draft. But Kyle Lowry is our target and we'll try to get that done."

In just over a week, the Raptors - and other teams for that matter - can begin negotiating with Lowry, unable to officially sign him or announce a deal until the moratorium period ends on July 10. 

Until then the focus will be on the draft, one of the most chaotic events on the basketball calendar and an invaluable opportunity to add young talent, provided you're well prepared for it. The Raptors have done their homework.

"I was walking into the conference room where our guys were meeting and I was like 'okay, no news that will throw me off right now'," Ujiri joked. "Because you know it's going to keep coming. There will be something tonight and something else tomorrow morning. That's just the nature of the draft. I heard something yesterday that threw us off a little bit. But it will keep coming and coming and coming until that last minute. That's the joy of it, I mean you love it. That's why we do it. There is always action. As long as we come out on top, then we're fine."

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