TORONTO – A year ago, the Toronto Raptors were getting set to make the kind of high-leverage decision that could alter the future of a franchise.
Thanks to what team president Masai Ujiri has cheekily referred to as their “Tampa Tank” season, they had the fourth-overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and were gifted the opportunity to add an elite prospect.
As a front office executive, there isn’t a better feeling than hitting it big at the top of the draft. With good scouting and at least a little bit of luck, that’s where you can find the transcendent talent that most lottery teams crave, a player that can help expedite any rebuild, or retool, and set you on the path to becoming a contender.
Needless to say, it couldn’t have gone any better for Ujiri and the Raptors. In Scottie Barnes – a selection that wasn’t universally popular at the time – they would find a budding superstar and the league’s eventual Rookie of the Year.
The stakes are different this year.
Toronto’s first-round pick, which turned out to be 20th-overall, now belongs to the Spurs as a result of the deadline day deal that sent Goran Dragic to San Antonio in exchange for Thaddeus Young. They also received a second-rounder, via Detroit, which became the 33rd-overall pick. That’s where they’ll select from on Thursday night.
It should be a more familiar position for them to operate out of. In nearly a decade at the helm of the organization, the Ujiri-led front office has only drafted in the lottery twice. They have far more experience hunting for undervalued talent late in the first round, throughout the second round, or outside of the draft altogether. They also have a strong track record there, which is one of the reasons they felt comfortable trading down 13 spots to go get Young, whom they like and hope to re-sign in free agency this summer.
“I think last year was probably the year that was a bit different,” said Raptors general manager Bobby Webster. “So I think we're kind of attuned to [the fact that] there's gonna be guys [available] in this range. It's obviously our job to find them but I think operating here felt a bit more comfortable.”
“No matter where the pick is there’s always pressure to try to get the best available talent that you can,” assistant GM Dan Tolzman said earlier this month. “You’re looking at a completely different tier of player to where the magnitude of it is not even close. It’s not even comparable when you’re talking about a top-five guy that is potentially franchise altering versus a [second-round] player. The hope is that you get a player that’s going to make your team and be a rotation player for a lot of years. There are clearly a lot of players that are taken in the 30s and 40s that end up not just being good players, but really good players in the NBA. And so they’re out there, it’s just a matter of doing the right work to try and hit when you can.”
After months – or years, in some cases – of scouting this class, the team is putting the finishing touches on its draft prep this week. They’ve hosted workouts with roughly 72 prospects in Toronto, including Canadian guards Caleb Houstan and Andrew Nembhard, as well as Julian Champagnie, the twin brother of Justin Champagnie, who spent last season with the Raptors on a two-way contract. These were a mix of players they might be considering at 33 and some that could be of interest after the draft in the event that they go unselected. At last month’s draft combine in Chicago, they had an opportunity to sit down with additional prospects that, for a variety of reasons, weren’t scheduled to come up for a visit. So, they’ve cast a wide net.
Their plan was to cut the list of players they’re zeroing in on to 10 this week. It’ll likely be down to five or fewer by draft night. But what if a projected first-round player that they liked earlier in the process unexpectedly falls to them? What if an intriguing opportunity to move up, trade down, or trade out of the draft presents itself? They’re keeping their options open, as they do at this time every year, and they’ve got to be prepared to pivot on the fly, if the situation calls for it.
Drafting outside of the first round has its benefits. For one, second-rounders aren’t tied to a standard, fully guaranteed rookie scale deal. If the Raptors decide to sign their selection to an NBA contract, they’ll have some flexibility in regards to salary and term. Theoretically, they could draft a raw, high-upside prospect and allow them to develop overseas or in the G League for a year. They could sign the player to a two-way contract, like they did with David Johnson, their 47th pick in last year’s draft, or ink them to a partially guaranteed multi-year deal, like they did with Dalano Banton, last year’s 46th pick.
Believed to be a weaker draft overall, there isn’t much of a consensus outside of the lottery. After that, it could come down to team preference. A player ranked in one team’s top 20 might not even be inside another team’s top 40. The Raptors are confident that at least a few guys that may have been considered with the 20th-overall pick they traded to San Antonio could still be available to them at 33.
“With this year’s draft, after the top-15 players it’s pretty wide open in terms of where guys might slot it,” Tolzman said.
The obvious caveat when selecting in this range is that it shifts the goalpost. It’s not impossible to find a star – two-time MVP Nikola Jokic was once a second-round pick, after all – but the chances of striking gold are slim. It changes what you’re looking for and your odds of finding it.
“Historically, 20 of the 60 [prospects] in the draft become real players,” said Webster, who estimated that the success rate in the 30-range is three out of 10.
While this Raptors front office has shown a willingness to go off the board and draft for upside – selecting Bruno Caboclo, the enigmatic teenager out of Brazil, 20th-overall in 2014 immediately comes to mind – they seem more inclined to use the pick on somebody a bit more NBA ready. With a lack of depth forcing Nick Nurse to lean heavily on his starters last season and limited resources with which to add depth this summer, the goal is to find a player that can come in and compete for a spot in the rotation early in the campaign, if not right away.
“We’re going into this year expecting that and planning for whoever we take at this pick will be on our roster,” Tolzman said. “In what capacity, we don’t know yet but we’re kind of planning as if that’s the case.”
“I think a lot of it is just knowing the type of players that we’ve had success with in those sorts of roles and what they bring to the table... So if you look for those sorts of things, it at least sets the tone of this guy could be a pretty good role player for us down the road.”
In addition to Barnes, the Raptors’ current core consists of Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby – who they selected with picks No. 27th and 23rd, respectively – as well as Fred VanVleet, an undrafted free agent. They’ve set the bar high for themselves, finding franchise cornerstones at just about every point in the draft, but they would be happy to use this pick to help complement the young group they already have in place.
The question is, do they stick with the player archetype they’re so fond of and continue growing their army of long and athletic 6-foot-8 wings, or will they finally address a more glaring need by adding a guard, a big or some shooting?
“It’s always going to be best [player] available,” said Webster, when asked what the team will be looking for at pick No. 33. “You kinda know what we’re doing here – versatile, defensive [minded], if they can make a shot; great. [We’re] looking at those types of players typically.”