TORONTO — According to Masai Ujiri’s wish list, the Toronto Raptors’ draft picks will be tough, eager to play defence, able to blend in well with coach Dwane Casey’s playing style, and one of them will be a shot blocker.
The Raptors general manager has his list of possible draft selections whittled down to a handful ahead of Thursday night’s NBA draft in Brooklyn, New York. The Raptors, who have auditioned dozens of players over the past couple of weeks, have the 20th overall pick in the first round, as well as the 37th and 58th picks in the second.
“I think probably by (Tuesday), it will be narrowed down to probably five guys (for the No. 20 spot), and that doesn’t include guys that could fall,” Ujiri said.
“And about 600 at 37,” he added laughing.
Ujiri said part of his pre-draft research is figuring out players who are capable of giving Casey what he wants.
“We’re an aggressive team, we’re going to play tough, play hard on the defensive end and stop people, and we are going to play up-tempo on the offensive end,” Ujiri said. “We have to bring in those kinds of players, we can’t just draft anybody to come here and throw to Dwane Casey, that wouldn’t be fair.”
He and his staff will go for the best player on the board rather than draft specifically for position, although he said he’d be happy if a shot blocker happened to be available at one of their three picks.
Ujiri, who was still with the Denver Nuggets during last year’s draft, hasn’t entirely ruled out moving up to a higher pick.
“(But) I don’t do heartbreaks very well,” he said. “Those trades and talks, people don’t understand, we talk about a hundred trades and maybe two happen. That’s just the nature of our business.
“We’ll be aggressive, but our energy is focused on 20 rather than wasting our time on what’s not. If there’s anything, I always feel like those kinds of things almost come to you rather than you chase them. If we smell anything anywhere, we’ll be aggressive, but 20 is what we’re counting on.”
Toronto didn’t have a pick in last year’s draft. They selected Terrence Ross with their No. 8 pick in 2012. They selected Kareem Rush at No. 20 in 2002 and traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers. The previous year, they took Morris Peterson at No. 21.
Ujiri said it’s been a gruelling few weeks of pouring over the specifics of this year’s draft class.
“We do a lot of mechanics, pictures, analytics, background checks, psych tests and all that stuff. When they come for workouts, there are so many things you look at, foot speed, how tall they are, their demeanours, so many things,” he said. “It’s a huge process for us and just builds and builds and builds.
“Now hopefully by Wednesday morning we will have gathered all the information we have. And then mess it up with a trade or something,” he added, laughing.
The difficult part is judging a player’s potential — “we have to figure out where the player is now and what he will be in a couple of years from now or four years from now.”
Point guard Kyle Lowry led the Raptors to their first post-season appearance in six seasons, where they were eliminated by the Brooklyn Nets in the first round.
Lowry becomes a free agent on July 1, but Ujiri said his status won’t be a factor in how the Raptors select in the draft.
“We are going full force after Kyle Lowry, and if there’s a talented point guard in the draft. . . we’ll go for talent in the draft. But Kyle Lowry is our target,” he said.
Several Canadians have been among the players who’ve worked out for the Raptors at the Air Canada Centre, including point guard Tyler Ennis, forwards Melvin Ejim and Khem Birch and seven-foot-two centre Jordan Bachynski.
There could be as many as five to eight Canadians taken in the draft, led by Andrew Wiggins, the Vaughan, Ont., star who’s expected to go No. 1 or 2.
Ujiri pointed out that plenty can happen between now and Thursday night. Three days before the NBA draft, there have already been a couple of surprises. Highly-touted prospect Joel Embiid had surgery last week on the stress fracture on his foot. Draft prospect Isaiah Austin has been diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a career-ending condition.
“I walked into (the office) today and was like ’Please, no news that’s going to throw me off right now.’ Because it will keep coming, there will be something tonight, tomorrow morning, there will be something, that’s just the nature of the draft,” Ujiri said. “You love it, that’s why we do it, there’s always action.”