'IT'S ON US': Raptors' Masai Ujiri knows gems to be found despite dull 2024 draft class

Raptors boss thinks talent can be found if they keep pick or they will be happy to pick next year

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Masai Ujiri has heard the same opinions for about two years now as everyone else: This year’s draft class is extremely underwhelming, to put it mildly.

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The pundits have been knocking this group for so long, last year’s NBA draft hadn’t even happened yet and the next one was already being slagged. While it might be true, this seems to happen whenever a group of incoming NBAers isn’t headlined by a big name or two like this one.

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Nobody seems too upbeat about a class when there isn’t a consensus top dog destined to be a star such as Victor Wembanyama, Zion Williamson or even Paolo Banchero.

And it’s doubly so when non-American talent is projected to dominate the top five, as is expected on June 27. Many believe that three international players, Alex Sarr, Zaccharie Risacher and Nikola Topic, could go right away, with a fourth, Matas Buzelis, going not far behind. The crop of Americans isn’t sexy, with two-time NCAA champion big man Donovan Clingan perhaps the first off the board.

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But Ujiri cautioned at his season-ending media availability that every draft produces stars, you just have to be the team that nabs them.

“It doesn’t matter, I think players are found everywhere. I can guarantee you there are going to be two or three all-stars that will come out of this draft here,” Ujiri said when asked by the Toronto Sun if he’s excited heading into this draft.

Toronto will either draft somewhere in the top six, or lose the pick to San Antonio to fulfill the Jakob Poeltl trade of February 2023. There’s a 45.8% chance the Raptors retain the pick and decent odds they jump into the top three.

If not, Toronto will at least have the 17th, 18th or 19th selection, via Indiana after coin flips decide the exact order, as well as the 31st pick, which will kick of the new second day of the NBA Draft as the league tries to borrow a page from the NFL and stretch out the proceedings.

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“It happens every year happens all the time. It’s on us. The responsibility is on us to find those players wherever we pick,” Ujiri said. “So we can complain about the draft or draft class as much as we want. I think maybe sometimes people will say that a bad draft class was Giannis’ class, but Giannis, Gobert, those guys got picked out of that class. So we have to do our jobs and it’s on us.”

Two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo indeed went 15th overall in 2013 (the Raptors tried hard to trade into the draft to acquire him but even they never saw his rise coming, though they figured he’d be a solid player). Soon-to-be four-time defensive player of the year, Rudy Gobert, went 27th that year (not to mention the current best player in the world, Nikola Jokic, went 41st a year earlier). But those were anomalies and the critics were right in predicting that crop would be pretty dismal. (Canadian Anthony Bennett went first and never found his way in the NBA, and the only other quality players to emerge from 2013 were CJ McCollum, Victor Oladipo, Kelly Olynyk, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder and Mason Plumlee.)

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Which could be why Ujiri also said that he’s fine with the Raptors keeping the pick this year or losing it to San Antonio, meaning they’d have their pick in 2025 in what’s considered one of the strongest prospect groups to come along in years.

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“Any way it goes, we will be grateful, we’ll be happy. If we’re not in the top six, we have our pick next year; if we are in the top six, you go out and find the best guy or find whatever transaction there is to make the best use out of it,” he said, hinting at even moving the pick for other assets.

“I don’t go into any situation in the NBA draft or free agency thinking negative anything about it. You do the best, try to win it, whether it’s a pick, whether it’s a transaction, anything you do you are trying to do the best. That’s what we do here in Toronto to get back on track.”

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