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Raptors president Ujiri says free agent VanVleet a priority, not his own contract

Less than a week after the Toronto Raptors were dispatched from the NBA bubble playoffs at Disney World by the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Masai Ujiri said feelings are still frayed.

The roller-coaster last few months saw COVID-19 bring the global sports world to its knees. Police brutality against Black people ignited unrest in the U.S. and abroad, and threatened to end the NBA post-season. The Raptors president faced his own ugly incident involving a security guard.

All this went along with the feelings of isolation in the NBA’s Florida bubble.

So Ujiri is enjoying his 14-day quarantine period with his wife and two young children in Toronto, and said contract talks haven’t been a priority.

“I haven’t had discussions, and honestly, coming out of this, things are a little raw,” Ujiri said. “I’m going to reflect a little bit and we will address it when it’s time to address it. It’s not something I’m going to do in the media and publicly, with respect, but no I haven’t had conversations.”

‘Close’ to extension with GM Webster

Ujiri, one of the league’s most coveted executives, has a year left on his contract, but securing his own leadership team, including head coach Nick Nurse, was a bigger priority. Earlier this week, the Raptors signed Nurse to a multi-year extension. Ujiri said he’s “close” on signing GM Bobby Webster to an extension.

Ujiri spoke to reporters for nearly an hour on Thursday in a season-ending Zoom call that touched on everything from bubble life, to Black Lives Matter, to the immediate future of the NBA amid the global pandemic.

The thread running through it: it’s been a tough few months, but Ujiri is proud of his team.

“I’ll go to battle with the guys any time, any day,” he said. “They were incredible.”

WATCH | Raptors president Ujiri to take time before deciding his future:

Masai Ujiri answered questions from the media on Thursday about both he and GM Bobby Webster’s future with the Raptors. 1:43

Among the immediate tasks is free agency. Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher are all free agents, and the Raptors should be keen, in particular, to keep VanVleet, who averaged 17.6 points and 6.6 assists while providing excellent defence.

But Ujiri noted the league salary cap is still unknown, plus flexibility is important ahead of a 2021 free-agency class that could feature several stars including Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“We to look at what is now, we have to look at the short-term future and we have to look at the long-term future,” Ujiri said. “After that, we have to look at the key here, which is in 2021 and free agency then. This is where we really have to buckle down, make an assessment of what bubble basketball was, against what real, outside the bubble basketball was.”

Ujiri had kind words for numerous players, including Kyle Lowry, who was spectacular in the NBA’s restart while logging major minutes.

“That guy is a stud, OK?” Ujiri said. “I’m telling the whole world that guy is incredible. What he has done for this whole organization . . . I don’t want to start pushing him as a Hall of Famer and all this stuff, because I want 10 more incredible years from this guy. It seems to me the older he becomes, the better he becomes.”

WATCH | Raptors look back on season following playoff elimination:

The Toronto Raptors talk to the media after being eliminated from the NBA playoffs by the Boston Celtics. 1:08:16

He was also praised the growth of OG Anunoby, who hit the thrilling buzzer-beater in Game 3 that breathed new life into the series against Boston.

“To see OG go through what he did last year: He lost his dad [in the fall]. He went through the [appendectomy ahead of last year’s playoffs] and basically lost a year,” Ujiri said. “He’s come back this year, trying to help the team, growing up as a person. I thought OG was outstanding.”

Racial, social injustice issues

On top of the challenges COVID-19 has posed since mid-March, racial and social injustice issues caused a lot of heartache and anger, Ujiri said. The playoffs shut down for three days after the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play following the Wisconsin shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police. The Raptors were among the first teams to suggest a boycott, and nearly left the bubble. The Bucks’ refusal to play led to similar protests among pro leagues, including Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the NHL.

Ujiri is involved in a legal dispute with a law enforcement officer following a confrontation after the Raptors won last year’s NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif. As part of a countersuit filed by Ujiri’s team, a video came out showing Alameda County sheriff’s deputy Alan Strickland shoving the Raptors executive twice.

WATCH | Video shows altercation between Raptors president, sheriff’s deputy:

New video released by lawyers for Raptors president Masai Ujiri shows him being shoved by a sheriff’s deputy while trying to get onto the court to celebrate the team’s NBA championship last year. The deputy claims Ujiri was the instigator and has sued him for injuries. 2:23

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The Raptors sat down as a team at Disney World to watch the video. Ujiri said it caused him a few sleepless nights.

“This was very hard for me, this was the toughest thing in the bubble — I honestly struggled,” he said. “I began to question myself, I began to doubt myself and the second part to this is, when you start thinking about this stuff, especially when you are confined in that space, you have a lot of time to think, right? . . . I’m privileged. At the end of the day, I have support, at the end of the day, I’m able to face this square on and I just started to think about the people that cannot do this.”

While amplifying messages of racial injustice were an important theme of the NBA’s restart, Ujiri said the work can’t stop now just because the Raptors’ season is over. He pointed to the racist comments by some Canadians aimed at Pascal Siakam after the forward struggled in the restart.

“Let’s not make any mistake, there’s racism in Canada here,” he said. “We know there’s a focus on the United States, but this is a global pandemic, and as an organization we’re going to face it square on, and whether it’s calling people out, whether it’s developing programs, whether it’s hiring people, a focus on hiring Black people, minorities, Indigenous people, we’re going to focus on this.

“We were in the forefront of this, and I’m proud of not only our players, our coaches, everything we’re doing with, whether it’s voting, whether it’s talking about it, we’re going to do whatever we can to continue this conversation.”

Ujiri said isolation in the bubble was a huge mental health challenge. He acknowledged that people around the world are dealing with isolation and that teams were treated well on the NBA campus near Orlando. But the inability to come and go freely, and seeing opponents in the hotel was difficult.

“You’re limited in the things you do and the space you have and where you can go and so the mental game, I think that was really the hardest part,” he said. “It was hard for me, I can’t even imagine the players. Seeing your competitors, people you’re competing against every day and they’re in the same elevator . . . Like I saw [Boston coach] Brad Stevens like every [expletive] time, freaking time, I went into the elevator or went outside.”

Ujiri was proud of the team’s togetherness. When they first arrived in Florida in June, players would sit separately and spaced out on bus rides.

“As the bubble went on, we all sat closer together,” he said. “It was a very telling moment for me because we couldn’t wait to get on the bus and you all talk to each other, you spend time with each other. I loved it. To see these guys — I know it was a tough environment, but they showed real resilience and coming together.”

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