What Masai Ujiri's history tells us about the Raptors' 2020 NBA draft strategy

William Lou
·NBA reporter
·6 min read

The NBA draft is like baseball: If you bat over .300, you’re going to the Hall of Fame.

Drafting is equal parts diligent scouting, statistical modelling, good fortune and utter randomness. The practice itself is an inexact science, which makes predicting the draft even more ridiculous. Nobody knows how the 2020 draft will unfold, not even the 30 general managers in the league. There isn’t even a consensus No. 1 pick. Player access has been limited due to COVID-19, there was no NCAA tournament to evaluate, and the majority of prospects have been practising in empty gyms for the past eight months. Teams will be going off stale footage and hours of Zoom recordings.

The only safe bet is that Masai Ujiri will probably mine a diamond in the rough. Toronto won the 2019 championship without a single player picked in the lottery. Ujiri plucked Pascal Siakam (27th pick), OG Anunoby (23rd), Norman Powell (46th) and Fred VanVleet (undrafted) seemingly out of thin air. Through careful and patient development, the Raptors have done the most difficult thing in sports: They were able to contend while rebuilding at the same time. By one estimate, the Raptors have extracted the most value from their picks over the past decade.

Ujiri is famously hard to predict — look no further than the surprise selection of Bruno Caboclo — but there are some similarities in his selections. Across his time in Denver and Toronto, Ujiri has found success picking older rookies, often born outside the United States, with a surplus in wingspan.

What does Toronto Raptors' Masai Ujiri have up his sleeve for the 2020 NBA draft? (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
What does Toronto Raptors' Masai Ujiri have up his sleeve for the 2020 NBA draft? (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Age doesn’t matter

Players are never older than the time they are rookies. Freshman are always perceived with higher status, whereas juniors and seniors are seen as defective. So much of the draft is about the perception of value, rather than actual abilities, which is one reason why so many picks look ridiculous in hindsight.

Ujiri cuts through the hype. Through six seasons with the Raptors, Ujiri has only ever drafted one teenager, which turned out to be his biggest miss in Caboclo. Ujiri believes in development, and nobody is a complete product in their college years. Powell and VanVleet were four-year seniors. Siakam was a junior. Anunoby played two seasons. All four players have shown consistent growth over their first few seasons in the league, which is hardly a surprise due to the access to elite coaching, nutrition, training and technology afforded to them at the NBA level.

The caveat is that Ujiri’s teams have traditionally made the playoffs and 50-win seasons are the norm, which comes with the downside of having to pick late in the draft. In those positions, Ujiri has clearly identified an inefficiency with older players sliding due to their age rather than their talent.

No small guards (except for VanVleet)

Another trend is that Ujiri doesn’t pick small guards. Size is a priority — the average Ujiri selection has a plus-4.6 inch difference between height and wingspan — especially at the guard position. Ujiri has only ever picked one guard below 6-foot-4, and that was VanVleet who technically went undrafted in 2016. Ironically, the Raptors have the shortest backcourt in the league with VanVleet and Kyle Lowry, but that’s not necessarily Ujiri’s intention.

Ujiri drafted six guards in Denver and Toronto with an average height of just over 6-foot-4. Powell (6-foot-4), Delon Wright (6-foot-5) and undrafted Terence Davis (6-foot-4) are recent examples with the Raptors. There isn’t a trend in a specific playing style, but in terms of size, it’s almost a hard rule that Ujiri won’t pick an undersized guard. But then again, with Lowry on the roster for the last eight years, that could have been a conscious decision for Ujiri, although he took the same approach in Denver.

Internationals welcome

Another signature strategy is to expand the prospect pool beyond America. Seven of Ujiri’s 16 draft selections have been players born outside of the United States, with picks from every continent outside of Oceania and Antarctica. That is hardly a surprise given that Ujiri made his name in the NBA as an international scout with connections all across the world. He devotes his summers to training African prospects and keeps an open mind when evaluating talent.

Player

Nationality

Bruno Caboclo

Brazil

Pascal Siakam

Cameroon

Evan Fournier

France

Chukwudiebere Maduabum

Nigeria

Izzet Turkyilmaz

Turkey

OG Anunoby

United Kingdom

Jakob Poeltl

Austria

Who will the Raptors select 29th overall?

Predicting the draft order is largely guesswork, especially at the 29th pick. There are 14 players who have reportedly spoken to or worked out for the Raptors, with the true number of targets likely twice that. This group includes players from every position with varying amounts of experience. It’s clear the Raptors aren’t drafting for any immediate needs on the roster.

For point guards, the Raptors have been linked to Devon Dotson, Malachi Flynn, Nico Mannion, Theo Maledon and Karim Mane. Flynn, a junior for San Diego State, is the most polished of the bunch and already has a great feel for running pick-and-rolls. The downside is that he’s quite small (6-foot-1 in height, 6-foot-3 in wingspan) and he’s not explosive athletically. The opposite end of the spectrum is Mane, who is a 20-year-old Canadian guard by way of Senegal. Mane is making the ambitious leap from prep school in Quebec to the NBA, and his 6-foot-5 frame with a 7-foot wingspan fits the mold of what Ujiri typically looks for in the backcourt. Maledon, a guard prospect from France, is of a similar profile.

There are plenty options on the wing, with the Raptors being linked to Isaiah Joe, Josh Green, Tyrell Terry, Desmond Bane and Jalen McDaniels. The commonality between all five players is that they all shot the ball exceptionally at the collegiate level, which is hardly a surprise. Wing scoring is a weakness for the Raptors, and there is no such thing as too much depth on the perimeter. Bane is the exception out of the group since he’s not particularly athletic and is the rare prospect with a wingspan smaller than his height, but his shooting range is absurdly deep and he competes on the defensive end.

At centre, the Raptors have spoken to Zeke Nnaji, Xavier Tillman and Jalen Smith. Nnaji is a bit undersized, but makes up for it with hustle and athleticism similar to Kenneth Faried. Smith is a pogo stick lob finisher who runs the floor hard and hits 3s at a decent clip, but there’s a decent chance he is gone by the 29th pick. Tillman is the classic case of an accomplished player who slides in the draft only because they are supposedly too old, which is silly considering that Tillman won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award and has consistently shown tools at Michigan State that will translate to the next level. With Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Chris Boucher all heading into free agency, Tillman would make a lot of sense for the Raptors.

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