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Raptors president Masai Ujiri appears on Knicks' radar

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri built the Raptors

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri built the Raptors into a championship team and have been performing well this year despite the loss of Kawhi Leonard.   Credit: AP/John Locher

Judgments are being made every day about the progress — or lack of it — by Knicks coach David Fizdale and the players thrown together as the roster for the Knicks.

Ever since team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry, at the urging of Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan, took to the microphones after an embarrassing home loss to Cleveland on Nov. 10, Fizdale has been considered on the hot seat, and he certainly is. The Knicks assembled a roster that, regardless of how disappointing free agency was for the club, still was a $70 million spending spree with the intent of changing the image of the franchise after a 17-win tanking season in 2018-19.

But based on comments made by numerous people in Toronto on Wednesday, many in the Raptors’ organization believe that the changes could come higher on the organizational chart and that if the Knicks’ struggles continue, at season’s end, Dolan will make an effort to convince Masai Ujiri to come to New York. And the fear within the Raptors’ organization is that Ujiri will go.

Ujiri has a reputation as an organization-building prodigy, earning executive of the year honors in Denver and then turning the Raptors into NBA champions. Maybe just as impressive, after failing to keep Kawhi Leonard from departing to the Clippers, Ujiri has the Raptors back in contention with a roster that includes late draft picks and undrafted finds.

But it’s not just his player development program or ability to find talent that folks in Toronto say could get him to leave for New York.

Ujiri is passionate about his foundation, Giants of Africa, and New York could be a stage for him to take it to new levels and continue to provide help to children in his home continent. (He was born in England, where his parents were students, but moved at 2 years old to Nigeria, where he was raised.)

The thinking is that for the right opportunity, Ujiri could be convinced to leave, not because the Raptors would fail to match any offer Dolan could make but because New York would provide a platform to raise the profile and fundraising efforts for his foundation.

From a basketball standpoint, for it to work, the Knicks would have to move Mills, who has been with the organization for most of the last 16 years, out of his president’s role.

As president of basketball operations in Toronto, Ujiri has had free rein unlike anyone has had under Dolan. He has made moves that may have seemed controversial, including parting ways with Dwane Casey after a Coach of the Year season to install unproven Nick Nurse.

That move created waves in the organization with concerns about backstabbing, but it resulted in an NBA championship last season and has the Raptors near the top of the Eastern Conference standings this season.

The Raptors have survived the departure of Leonard, something Ujiri had experience handling during his days in Denver, where he turned the loss of Carmelo Anthony into a contending roster — thanks to a fleecing of the Knicks.

The task in New York certainly would be more difficult with a roster full of ill-fitting veterans on short-term deals, a less than star-studded free-agent class available next summer and young players who have not nearly achieved the success of the less-hyped young players on the Raptors.

And the biggest question: Although amplifying the attention paid to his foundation might lure Ujrii to a bigger market, would he be able to repeat his success in New York?

Would he be free to run things without interference or resistance?  

Odd stat of the week

Entering Friday night’s games, who was the only NBA player with at least 25 steals, 10 blocked shots and fewer than 10 turnovers? (Answer below)   

Canadian baking

While the United States figures to have a representative squad in place for the Tokyo Olympics after the disappointing performance in the FIBA World Cup, Team Canada is stocking up for the upcoming Olympic qualifying tournament.

RJ Barrett committed to play for the team, for which his father, Rowan, serves as general manager, joining an impressive group of NBA players.

Just ahead of Barrett’s announcement, Denver’s Jamal Murray said he was in, followed closely by the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and his cousin, Pelicans rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Mavericks’ Dwight Powell and the Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks.

Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse said there currently are 16 Canadian players in the NBA and four more on two-way contracts, providing a large pool of experienced players.

“It’s great,” Barrett said. “I feel like it’s a way to serve and give back to your country. So many people, especially being a basketball player, an NBA player, so many people give to me, give to us, every day. So for us to give back and make our country proud, this is one of the ways we can do that.”

Odd stat that isn’t so odd

The answer to the question above? Frank Ntilikina. But it’s really not that odd that he has fewer than 20 turnovers, considering how little the point guard in general and Ntilikina in particular handles the ball in the Knicks’ offensive schemes.

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