Wanting to learn a bit more about the Nuggets new general manager, Masai Ujiri, I asked a few people who know him best: Raptors bloggers.
First off, for a Denver perspective on the hiring of Ujiri I recommend reading Nate's Thursday column, the Post's Woody Paige's Friday column detailing Ujiri's life story and the Post's Chris Dempsey's recent interview piece with Ujiri. But while Ujiri is a relative newcomer for Nuggets fans (even though he was with the team as an international scout a few years back), he's better known to those who closely follow his latest team, the Toronto Raptors.
As soon as the Ujiri hiring was announced, I reached out to a few colleagues of mine who cover the Raptors and was going to publish this column before leaving for New York on Friday. But then Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnaworski blew the lid off the continuing Carmelo Anthony saga which engulfed Nuggets fans' - and NBA fans, for that matter - attention all day Friday and throughout the weekend. So pardon my tardiness on this but I hope you enjoy learning more about Ujiri.
From Hoops Addict's Ryan McNeill...
While casual basketball fans won't recognize his name, Masai Ujiri's story is fantastic. He left Nigeria as a kid to chase his dream of becoming an NBA general manager and slowly worked his way up through Denver's front office, moved briefly to Toronto to work with Bryan Colangelo and has now returned to the franchise that gave him his start working in an NBA front office.
His story is proof you really can get what you want in life through hard work and determination.
There are countless young players that Ujiri has influenced over the years, but one player in particular, Solomon Alabi, was drafted by the Raptors last June.
"Masai (Uriji) means a lot to me," a humble Alabi told me after his pre-draft workout in Toronto in June. "When I first started playing basketball in a small town where nobody really knows much about basketball – and only a few people played. He held a camp in my town and he invited me. He only invited two players who played basketball in my town and that is when I started to get exposed to basketball. Since then I’ve taken basketball seriously."
It was at this camp that Alabi made an impression and earned an invitation to a Basketball Without Borders camp being run by Uriji.
After hearing both men talk about this camp it became clear it was the invitation to Basketball Without Borders that got Alabi hooked on basketball.
"Basketball Without Borders is the first time I was exposed to organized basketball and that really encouraged me to play basketball more," Alabi explained to the media huddled around him. "Through Basketball Without Borders I came to America and I was offered a scholarship to go to school to play basketball."
Even though it’s only been a few years since Alabi was introduced to Uriji, there’s already been tremendous growth in the his game.
"It’s funny because Alex English was at Basketball Without Borders when Alabi came and he was in shock to see him today," Uriji told the media. "Lots of coaches saw him in Basketball Without Borders and now they see that he’s really grown. We’re really proud of him."
Aside from his incredible ability to teach the game of basketball, while dealing with him the past few seasons Uriji has always come across as humble but incredibly knowledgeable about the game of basketball time. Often times when dealing with people from front offices or coaching staff they come across as arrogant when trying to explaining nuances of the game to media folks like myself. Not Masai. He was always patient with me and other members of the media and continued explaining things until we grasped what he was teaching us.
Which is ironic since it appears Uriji will need a ton of patience dealing with Carmelo Anthony and a Denver front office that appears to be in disarray this summer.
From Adam of SB Nation's Raptors HQ...
Really, Masai's a bit of a man of mystery. Unlike the rest of the Raptors' previous braintrust, Ujiri didn't have the "brand recognition" that someone like a Maurizio Gherardini had, however he's been well regarded in basketball circles for quite some time. Masai was actually a fairly solid player, playing his college ball at North Dakota State, and after, decided he wanted to stay involved with the game, eventually scouting for teams like the Magic and Nuggets. He really is a supreme networker, rarely have I seen him at a draft combine or media event etc where he's not seeking out folks he doesn't recognize in order to say hi or chat. This, combined with his hard work and due diligence, put him on the fast track in the NBA and Bryan Colangelo made him the Raptors' director of global scouting after the 2006-07 season, before eventually promoting him to an Assistant GM role.
Besides a great deal of scouting experience both in North America and overseas (scouting he did previously with the Nuggets in fact), he plays a huge part in the "Basketball Without Borders" initiative, and is probably one of the most well-liked front-office types in all the NBA.
Of course he'll need more than just his infectious smile in Denver. He's coming off a tough season in Toronto where the team failed to live up to expectations, then lost their prized free-agent. Now he'll have to go through it all over again with Carmelo Anthony.
Finally, it's hard to do much in terms of evaluation of Masai's "GM skills." He's done a great job finding some low-cost, high-value players (he helped Toronto grab Soloman Alabi late in the second round this past June as Alabi once played at his "Basketball Without Borders" camp in Nigeria), but outside of that, it's hard to pinpoint his exact impact on the Raptors in terms of "on-court performance." Most of the transactional moves and "playing style" decisions seem to start and stop with Colangelo and Gherardini, but even so, considering how disappointing the Dinos have been the past couple seasons, well, it's not as if Ujiri looks to be the second coming of Daryl Morey.
That being said, Masai's biggest strength is probably his ability to communicate so if the end goal here is to keep Carmelo around, and straighten out the likes of J.R. Smith, then on paper this looks like a pretty good hire.Here's a good link on Masai.
From Scott Carefoot of RaptorBlog...
I don't have anything to contribute about Masai because I don't pay that much attention to the minutiae of the various front office assistants in the Raptors organization. I'm a little surprised he got this position, but with the low salary and the turmoil involving Melo and J.R., I can see how it might not be the most desirable job right now.
Please note that I'm not throwing stones over here. The Raptors are obviously going to suck next season. But the Raptors pay Colangelo $4 million per season and it's my understanding that Masai is going to earn $500,000. Regardless of the team or market, it's safe to say your options are different at the two payscales.
Reading the above combined with what Nate, Woody and Dempsey have dug up, I can't wait to see how Ujiri does with the Nuggets and am glad someone of his high character is being given this opportunity. For the Anthony-must-stay crowd among our Stiffs contingency, I wouldn't read too much into Ujiri's recent comments about keeping Melo being a top priority, however. Having seen how Chris Bosh's similar contract situation ultimately decimated the Raptors this summer and for years to come, I have to believe that Ujiri doesn't want the Nuggets to get caught with their pants down like his Raptors did. Just my two-cents.
I very much look forward to meeting Ujiri and welcoming him back to Denver in person. Hopefully he'll be a little nicer to me than Mark Warkentien was when I first met him.