The change theme that has pervaded almost everything around the Raptors this pre-season outside the actual dozen returning players is probably most evident in the coach’s room.
The obvious change is at head coach where Darko Rajakovic is already well on his way to putting his own stamp on this team, but the assistants and staff beyond him are almost uniformly new.
Jim Sann, a career-long development coach was the one retainee from last year’s staff working on the second of a two-year deal. Jama Mahlalela returns after establishing himself on Steve Kerr’s staff in Golden State following a stint as the head man on the Raptors 905 bench.
The other coaches — James Wade Pat Delany, Mike Batiste, Vin Bhavnani, Drew Jones and Ivo Simovic — will not be recognizable to most casual fans, though at least one surname should be familiar.
Wade is a Chicago native and cousin of Dwyane Wade, but unlike his famous cousin had no real designs on making it to the NBA after establishing himself as a force on the managerial and coaching levels of the WNBA.
Wade took the Chicago Sky from the back of the ranks to WNBA champions in 2021 doubling up as both the team’s general manager and head coach. He said he had no interest in the NBA until the Raptors came calling this past summer.
The Raptors interest came as such a surprise to Wade, he wasn’t initially sure he wanted to make the move.
“Yeah, it was difficult because this was never an aspiration for me,” Wade said of his decision Friday following a Raptors’ practice at the OVO practice facility. “It was never in my plans to be in the NBA, so I guess I’m a little different. But being here (now) I really appreciate the opportunity. I know how important it is and I know how big it is.”
“I’m a little, small, fish in a big pond so I never really imagined me being in this type of situation. I never think more than the job in hand. When I was in Chicago I was focused on that. So, when the (Toronto) opportunity came, I was waiting on somebody close to me to tell me I couldn’t do it, and everybody was ‘Holy crap, you’ve got to do it.’”
Still not convinced he went to the one person he knew would never steer him wrong.
“I called my Mom, she’s the grumpiest person I know, and she even told me I had to do it, so it (then it became) a pretty easy call.”
Wade might not be the traditional kind of hire for an NBA team, but then this is not a team that worries about following basketball tradition.
They made the bold move to go with an NBA head coach without any previous experience at that level for the second time in six years with Rajakovic replacing Nick Nurse.
As for Wade and previous ties with the team, there were barely any although Wade admitted he did seek out some advice from Raptors President and Vice Chairman Masai Ujiri when he first took the job in Chicago with the Sky.
“When I first got the general manager job at Chicago, I got our PR person to get Masai’s number and I called him and bugged him for about 30 minutes,” Wade said. “I’m a new general manager, how do I do this job? I was like, Chicago’s crazy enough to trust me with it, how do I make it good?
“He talked with me for 30 minutes out of his own time and that’s something that I valued for a long time, his advice,” Wade said. “I was taking notes and never bugged him again, though. That’s the only real line that I have (with the Raptors). I called a lot of smart, intelligent people. I’m always trying to pick people’s brains and trying to be the best coach and whatever I can be.”
Whether it was Ujiri or Rajakovic or someone else in the organization that led the Raptors to Wade’s door, he’s not certain.
“I was trying to be as discreet and quiet as possible walking through the kitchen, stubbed my toe and I guess it made a noise,” Wade joked when asked about the Raptors’ discovering him. “Nah, I don’t know how they found me. I never asked. You know when something’s too good to be true, you don’t even want to know?”
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As for fit though, there’s little doubt of that with Wade. He’s got an upbeat, positive demeanour that seems infectious from the top of this coaching staff down. And coming from the WNBA he’s got a perspective that might be just different enough to offer up an alternative to the tried and true, a direction this organization actually enjoys leaning.
Wade admits he began his summer with the Raptors putting pressure on himself in order to make a smooth transition to a different league but quickly found out coaching in the WNBA wasn’t all that different from coaching in the NBA.
“The resources are different,” he said. “One of other things is I’m throwing the ball up above the backboard and they’re catching it and dunking it, but other than that, the personalities and the talent and the buy-in into the game and the love for the game is all the same.”