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Raptors president Masai Ujiri won’t change things up for Kawhi Leonard

Toronto Star logo Toronto Star 2018-09-18 Doug Smith - Sports Reporter
Masai Ujiri wearing a suit and tie: Masai Ujiri might have remade the roster, but that doesn’t mean he wants to revamp the way the Raptors operate. © Bernard Weil Masai Ujiri might have remade the roster, but that doesn’t mean he wants to revamp the way the Raptors operate.

Confident as always in the man he is, the personalities of the men and women around him and the culture he has built around his basketball team, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri knows of only one way to face one of the trickiest situations of his professional career: Stay true to himself and what he stands for.

“There is nothing we are going to do different,” Ujiri said of the impending arrival of new Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard. “We are going to be ourselves.”

The Leonard situation — his long-term future, his impact on an already very good basketball team, his personality and fit with his teammates and new city — are threatening to become the single biggest storyline of the Raptors season that begins with training camp starting next week.

The details are well known: Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio, he was traded for the beloved DeMar DeRozan and he can become an unrestricted free agent next July.

Leonard is not one given to loud public pronouncements — the next words he utters to the Toronto media will be his first interaction with it — and reading tea leaves might become the enduring sport over the NBA regular season here.

But Ujiri, who has met once with the 27-year-old since acquiring him in July, won’t feed into it by doing anything differently. He will point to his team’s talents, the city’s charms and Leonard’s basketball competitiveness and take what comes.

“I think he’s already gotten to know the city a little bit, he’s been back a couple times and … I think it feels like everybody in Toronto is a family member is maybe the best way I can say it,” Ujiri said after a media session to discuss his Giants of Africa Foundation and a gala Dec. 4-5 celebration in Toronto to mark the anniversary of the death of the legendary Nelson Mandela. “There’s something about this place that I think brings people together. He’s going to love the fans, he’s just going to love atmosphere I think. And hopefully love to play. Basketball I think is going to be important.”

Ujiri, who will host a gala on Dec. 4 before the Raptors face the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 5 to honour Mandela on the fifth anniversary of his death, will be more interested than anyone in how the basketball part of Leonard’s Toronto tenure turns out.

Limited to just nine games last season because of a right leg injury, Leonard has spent part of the summer working out with Toronto coaches and in front of the medical staff in Los Angeles.

Ujiri spent most of the summer in Africa working with his foundation but the reports he got were encouraging, he said.

“All indications are he has worked out hard and we will see how he does when he comes,” the president said. “But all indications are he has been working out very hard and getting ready to roll.”

The other Raptors dynamic that is likely to dominate the start of the season is the relationship between Kyle Lowry and the organization and the on-court meshing of Lowry, Leonard and newly-acquired Danny Green.

Lowry hasn’t spoken publicly about the trade, either, but those close to the Raptors know he would have been miffed by the departure of DeRozan, his closest friend on the team and part of an all-star backcourt.

Ujiri is banking on Lowry’s competitive nature to take over and assuage any hurt feelings.

“Kyle is close to DeMar and he’s going to be sensitive to that. ... It’s a fact,” Ujiri said. “That was a blow to him. I think basketball-wise Kyle is always ready, he’s always going to be ready, he’s training hard and he’ll be ready.”

Doug Smith is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @smithraps

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