TORONTO - For only the third time in the franchise's 20-year-history, and first since 2002, the Raptors are slated to select outside of the top 19 in the first round of Thursday's NBA Draft.
A year ago, as newly appointed general manager Masai Ujiri bided his time and sat out of a lacklustre 2013 draft, this scenario seemed highly improbable.
The Raptors, like every other team in the association, had at least one eye on this year's rookie crop, one of the most highly touted and eagerly anticipated ever to enter the league.
The rest is history. Ujiri's team overachieved in his first year on the job and as a result, they will miss out on this draft's biggest prizes: hometown phenom Andrew Wiggins, NBA ready star Jabari Parker, the intriguing Australian Dante Exum and, depending on your aversion to risk, Joel Embiid.
Even so, their reality doesn't sound half bad. Instead, they find themselves nearing the end of an extensive pre-draft process, intending to add a complimentary piece to their winning program.
This is not a bad year to be in such an advantageous position. Although Ujiri has called this draft "a little overrated", it's one with solid depth specifically at the wing positions, one of Toronto's most glaring needs heading into next season.
Provided the Raptors hang onto the 20th overall pick, as expected, they will hope to hit a home run although they won't necessarily be swinging for one. Their philosophy throughout this process, one that has seen them audition roughly 60 prospects over the last four weeks, has been consistent with Ujiri's management style. As always, he's ambitious albeit realistic and well prepared while knowing full well he'll have to roll with the punches. And on draft day, specifically what figures to be one of the most eventful and unpredictable in recent memory, there will be more than a few punches to roll with.
"It's a huge process for us," Ujiri acknowledged just ahead of the team's final pre-draft workout Monday afternoon. "It just builds and builds and builds. Hopefully by [Tuesday], Wednesday morning, we'll have gathered all the information that we have."
"And they'll mess it up with a trade or something," he joked.
Indeed, the Raptors are at the mercy of the 14 teams that occupy the 19 slots ahead of them. So much of this is a poker game, only the guys you're playing with, 29 other executives, are not sitting across from you at the table. The "homework" that Ujiri references is far more involved than just player scouting but also anticipating the motives of every other team, which will ultimately determine who is available to them at 20. That's the biggest challenge. It's feasible to look at the Bulls, slated to draft 19th overall, and their roster to determine who or what they might be targeting with their pick. Accounting for a possible trade, an unknown team with unknown interests moving up, is not so simple.
So Ujiri and his staff have put together their wish list. On Monday, it was 10 players long, as the draft approaches it figures to be cut in half. They'll weigh the pros and cons, ranking each prospect while keeping a keen eye on the ones that could fall to them unexpectedly.
"Our mindset is we get the best guy, best talent available and we try to do our homework as much as we can," Ujiri said. "We've done our homework on the top guys because you never know what can come up in the next couple days. Our job is to do our homework. We really have to be prepared for this draft."
Among the 60 or so prospects the Raptors have brought in over 11 workout sessions this month, they've seen about a dozen that figure to be selected somewhere between the middle of the first round to the beginning of the second.
Here are a few names that may interest them should they be available at No. 20.
Tyler Ennis - PG, Syracuse, freshman
Last year's stats: 12.9 points, 5.5 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 2.1 steals
When the Brampton-native auditioned in Toronto as part of the Raptors' first workout crop this spring, it seemed like a pipe dream to think he could fall to his hometown team at 20. At worst, Ennis was believed to be a lock to go in the top half of the opening round. Since then, his stock seems to have dropped, a likely result of fellow prospect point guards Elfrid Payton and Shabazz Napier rising up draft boards.
The correlation is understandable, though it's hardly an indictment on the NBA player Ennis could become. The qualities that make the 19-year-old such an intriguing prospect won't necessarily jump out at you in a workout. While Payton and Napier are probably quicker, flashier and more athletic players, Ennis is still considered to be the best pure point guard in the draft. He's a natural leader with a nose for the game, something that is evident on the court in live action more so than in drills or smaller scrimmages.
He has a fan in the Raptors, who have been tracking his progress for a long time.
"From what I've seen, he's very poised, he plays very calm and that's the first thing I noticed," Ujiri said ahead of his workout in Toronto. "[He] can get his teammates involved and then when he needs to score, he takes care of business which I think is a good trait to have as an NBA player."
The Raptors top priority is re-signing Kyle Lowry, they also have to make a decision regarding Greivis Vasquez, a restricted free agent, but Ujiri has made it clear he intends to select the best player available, regardless of position. If Ennis' name is on the board, Canadian angle aside, they would have a hard time passing up on him as Lowry's back-up or possible insurance should the incumbent go elsewhere.
K.J. McDaniels - SF, Clemson, junior
Last year's stats: 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 1.1 steals
Given his elite athleticism and upside as a lockdown defender at one of the NBA's most crucial positions, it's hard to fathom why McDaniels is routinely overlooked in this draft. With each year at Clemson, accompanied by increased playing time, McDaniels has expanded his game and appears to be well on his way to becoming an impact rotation player in NBA.
Questions surround his offensive versatility, efficiency and whether or not he'll be able to knock down the NBA three with consistency. Still, with his athletic gifts, size and commitment to defence, he would be a welcomed addition to Dwane Casey's roster.
"I think he's a dynamic player," Dan Tolzman, the Raptors' director of scouting, said earlier this month. "It's hard to see how good he is in this [workout] setting because in five-on-five, with help-side defense, that's where he flourishes. I think with the way the spacing in the NBA is, rotations and defensive principles are so important. A guy like him, he can fly in from the wing and get blocks off the board like nothing. I think plays like that, that's what gets guys time in the NBA."
Kyle Anderson - G/SF, UCLA, sophomore
Last year's stats: 14.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 6.5 assists
Not only is Anderson the most unique player in this draft but he's poised to become one of the most unique in the association. The 20-year-old won't blow you away with speed or athleticism but he has a tremendous command of and vision for the game, a point guard in a 6-foot-8 body with a massive 7-foot-2 wingspan.
The question is, where will he play in the league and what position will he guard? Although, in today's position-less NBA, it doesn't seem to matter all that much.
"I think he can definitely play the point, I think it's the defending the point that's the thing," Tolzman said of Anderson. "So many point guards are scoring guys now. So that means you have six-foot, 6-1, 6-2 guys on the floor who are just there to score and then you'd have a guy like Kyle who is on the floor to do the actual running the team at the point. And on offence that sets up fine but then on defence you can just switch men."
Outside of their point guards, the Raptors don't have anyone that can handle the ball and initiate the offence in a pinch. Although it may be more of a challenge to fit Anderson into your system than, say an athlete like McDaniels, there is undeniable value in having a player that combines size, versatility and court vision, something that made Boris Diaw such an integral part of the Spurs' championship run.
"He's the definition of versatility, really," Tolzman added. "I mean that guy, he can play just about every position on the floor. Just the pace that he plays at and the level of IQ that he plays with and the composure that he shows when handling the ball it's at NBA level, no question. He's like a throw-back player to the fullest. He's an old school-type guy."
Others to keep an eye on: Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early, Swiss forward/centre Clint Capela, Michigan State power forward Adreian Payne, Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, Missouri guard Jordan Clarkson.