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Deadline day additions, Olynyk and Agbaji, destined to be Raptors

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TORONTO – Newcomers Kelly Olynyk and Ochai Agbaji check off a bunch of important boxes for the Toronto Raptors.

Agbaji was a four-year college player and helped lead Kansas to a national championship as a senior – a couple of things that Toronto’s front office has always valued highly. He’s got the prospect pedigree as a former lottery pick, the 14th-overall selection in 2022.

His dimensions are pretty Raptorsy, as well. He’s 6-foot-5, not 6-8 or 6-9, but he does have a 6-foot-10 wingspan and isn’t lacking for athleticism or two-way upside. His jumper isn’t a reliable weapon yet, he’s knocked down just 33 per cent of his three-point attempts in his second NBA campaign, but there’s reason to believe it can become one with time, reps and work. He’s an 80 per cent career free throw shooter, who improved his three-point percentage in each of his four years at Kansas (shooting 41 per cent on 6.5 attempts as a senior) and is hitting 42 per cent of his attempts from the corners this season.

Agbaji’s a high-motor player and, by all accounts, a high-character guy who fits the organizational culture, and at 23 – less than 16 months older than Scottie Barnes – he’s also in the right age group.

Olynyk will turn 33 before the end of season, but the Raptors view him as the perfect veteran complement to Barnes and their young core. Growing up as a point guard before hitting his growth spurt – and playing quarterback in high school – the 11-year NBA vet is uniquely skilled for a big man. He can handle the ball, pass and shoot – he hit a career-best 43 per cent of his three-point attempts with the Utah Jazz this season. It shouldn’t take him long to become a favourite of head coach Darko Rajakovic.

And while the Raptors didn’t target him specifically for his passport, his Canadian roots and years of service with the national team certainly don’t hurt.

But not to be overlooked is that both guys wanted to play in Toronto. It’s not the only reason why Olynyk and Agbaji were acquired from Utah for Otto Porter Jr., Kira Lewis Jr., and a late first-round pick in the maligned 2024 draft a few hours before Thursday’s trade deadline. It also wasn’t the biggest reason. However, it is a factor that Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster are considering and valuing more than ever before as they navigate the early stages of a rebuild, or as Webster called it, a “multi-year process.”

“I talked to both of them [after the trade] by phone, and that was my feel right away,” Rajakovic said. “They were really upbeat and very excited to join our team. They like what we're developing here with the young roster, with players in their 20s. That's a great fit for Ochai. I think for Kelly, coming back home is a big part of him being happy, enjoying our team. I think it's very important because they want to be here, we want them to be here, and it just gives us continuity for us to start building something really special.”

Naturally, it’s easier to draw a straight line to Olynyk, who was born in Toronto and raised in nearby Scarborough before moving to Kamloops, B.C. as a teenager. His father, Ken, a long-time head coach at the University of Toronto, spent one season as a second-row assistant on Lenny Wilkens’ Raptors staff when Olynyk was 10 years old. His mother, Arlene, was the team’s first ever scorekeeper.

“It’s a full circle moment,” said Olynyk, wearing a big smile on his face and a Raptors logo across his chest just a few hours after arriving in Toronto and joining his new club. “It's really cool to look back at your life and everything that you've done up until now, and how monumental the Raptors have been in my life… Just being in the driveway pretending you're a Raptor growing up. I used to fall asleep at night with a little alarm clock radio listening to the FAN590 and Chuck Swirsky. So to be putting on this jersey, these shirts and hats and stuff, it’s something that you can't even put into words.”

Olynyk had heard his name tied to a number of different teams going into Thursday’s trade deadline. Most were contenders looking for that missing piece to help put them over the top. The Raptors, as Olynyk put it, “came out of nowhere.” They’ve had mutual interest before. He’s admired the franchise from afar, and they’ve needed a versatile floor-spacing big man for a while. It almost felt inevitable.

“It’s always been on our radar, both of our radars,” he said. “I think maybe it’s been close [before], but it’s hard for me to know [for sure]… But [now that] it did happen, it’s pretty awesome.”

Agbaji also has a long-time Raptors connection: the team president. An old friend of his father Olofu, who hails from Nigeria, Ujiri has known Agbaji since he was in high school. As such, Toronto kept tabs on him throughout his collegiate career and into his NBA career, but didn’t have a first-round pick in his draft year. Ujiri called Agbaji after trading for him on Thursday. The first thing he said: “You’re with family now.”

“He’s really close with my dad, they grew up together,” Agbaji said. “Having those relationships before being on the team and knowing him was good. Now, being here, he’s right, it’s like being with family.”

Agbaji was able to crack Will Hardy’s rotation midway through his rookie season with the Jazz and has been playing regularly – around 20 minutes a night – ever since, which is no easy feat. Agbaji was sent to Utah in the Donovan Mitchell trade a few months after he was drafted, and shortly after Rudy Gobert was dealt to Minnesota. The roster was young, but very deep and competitive.

With Toronto, the sense is that he’ll have the chance to earn an even bigger role playing for a team that isn’t quite as deep or as far along in the rebuilding process.

“Ever since I got that phone call yesterday, I feel like it’s a fresh new start,” Agbaji said. “I really feel like there’s another part to my game that I can show. Just talking to Darko, I feel like he knows that too, and Masai understands that. So really, it’s all about opportunity, and I feel like I have a good opportunity here to show that.”

Agbaji still has a couple seasons of team control left on his rookie contract, and while Olynyk’s deal is expiring, the Raptors view both players as long-term pieces. No, Olynyk isn’t going to help a team make a playoff push this season, as he would’ve had he joined the Philadelphia 67ers, Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors, or any of the other teams that expressed interest in him ahead of the deadline. He’s had to adjust his expectations and come to terms with that over the past 48 hours or so. That he ended up in Toronto has made it easier. It’s not the first time he’s played the part of veteran leader with a young, rebuilding team – he did it with the Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons and most recently in Utah. This time he’s hoping to see it through.

The Raptors want to keep him around beyond this season – it’s not hard to see them offering the veteran centre a two-year deal in free agency over the summer, or perhaps even extending him before the end of the campaign. The feeling appears to be mutual.

“I’d love to be here for the rest of my career if that plays out,” Olynyk said.

Both players are expected to fill key roles off the bench over the final 30 games of the season, and depending on what the future holds for pending free agent Gary Trent Jr., there could be an open spot in the starting lineup at Agbaji’s position next year.

The plan is to ease the new guys in as they get settled and up to speed. They didn’t clear medicals until a couple hours before Friday night’s game, a nail-biting win over a Rockets team missing former Raptor Fred VanVleet. While they were available to play, the team decided it best to hold them out, and the plan is for them to make their debuts against Cleveland on Saturday.

For both Olynyk and Agbaji, but for different reasons, it feels like this is where they’re supposed to be.