Unlike both his old boss and his new boss, Masai Ujiri is not going to drop any declarative bombs on his team’s fan base. During Bryan Colangelo’s tenure, the former Toronto Raptors general manager who first brought Ujiri to Toronto was famous for setting high expectations on the first day of training camp. Usually, his words wound up stalking him. Tim Leiweke, who brought Ujiri, the reigning NBA executive of the year, from Denver to the Raptors this off-season, has been bold during his short tenure. Famously, he has revealed that he has already planned out the parade route for the Maple Leafs’ eventual Stanley Cup win.

Ujiri knows the power of words, though. He is careful.

“I really can’t say this team is going to be fourth or seventh or 12th,” Ujiri said in a one-on-one interview in his corner office days before his first training camp as general manager of the Raptors. “I can’t do that. I want us to have growth, big-time growth, and improvement so that we can actually know what we have on this team. And then we can move from there.”

It is a patient approach — perhaps too patient for some fans who would like Ujiri to take a blowtorch to the roster Colangelo built — but don’t mistake patience for a lack of confidence. You do not rise from an obscure international scout to winning the top award for NBA executives in little more than a decade without a little faith in your ability.

National Post  During her travels, your mother [a doctor] used to bring you back basketball magazines and VHS tapes when you were a child in Nigeria. What about basketball hooked you?
Masai Ujiri  The university basketball court was on the way to the soccer field. We used the [soccer] ball to shoot on the basketball court. There’s something unbelievable about the game. From scratch, from a young age, it’s more [about] family than other sports. There’s more togetherness. Soccer is so big. It’s weird how the basketball circles, the people in the NBA know the people in FIBA. You know the people in Asia. You know the people in Africa. That’s how it’s been for me, even when I started with the people around the country and in tournaments. It was such a unique sport. I was honestly more talented in soccer than in basketball. I don’t think I’d have gone anywhere in soccer. But I think I was more talented in soccer.

Honestly, I don’t feel pressure in this job, not for one day. I never come in thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’

NP  Did you have a favourite player or team?
MU  I was intrigued by Magic [Johnson] and Larry Bird. And then when Michael Jordan came, we all watched him. He was incredible. I was a huge fan of Hakeem Olajuwon, just because of his [Nigerian] background. Now I’m really close to Hakeem and have developed a friendship with him. I went to South Africa with him. It’s funny to sit down with him and think this is who you were watching with Phi Slama Jama [at the University of Houston].

NP  How would Masai Ujiri the scout or general manager have broken down the game of Masai Ujiri the player?
MU  That’s a tough one. Athletic. I think as I got older I figured out the game a little bit. I couldn’t shoot. When I went to play in Europe, I learned to shoot better. I could jump, so people would just back off of me. I was one of those athletic African players [laughs].

NP  What’s the toughest thing about scouting or player identification that many might not be able to understand?
MU … if we could crack this, we would have 30 unbelievable NBA teams. How can you tell what a player is going to be five years from now? That’s the thing we battle. It’s a projection with young players. You can say you’ll give him this coaching, this weight training, this health program … There’s no analytic for this, the heart, and growth, inner growth. How can you tell that a kid is not going to get softer or tougher, change his attitude?

NP  Is the challenge of fixing the Raptors what ultimately got you to leave Denver?
MU  I left a great organization. I left great owners who were dear to my heart. I got close to the [Kroenke] family. I left a great team. I was close to my guys in Denver, the coach. There was good upside. There were good young players growing. Coming here, you have to want to meet the challenge. You can say it’s [about the] money. You can say, ‘OK, I worked here before.’ All of those things play a part. There’s no doubt about that. For me, the challenge — when it came up, that dream of getting it going here for the fans, for the organization, for ownership, for people, there’s something about Toronto. It’s a sleeping giant in some kind of way, if we can figure out how to get it going.

NP  After five years watching their team miss the playoffs, do you see why some fans might have expected bigger moves from you right away?
MU  I wouldn’t understand what there is to do bigger. I understand [the feeling]. I wish I could come in and make it an Eastern Conference final team the next day. That’s not how sports work. I study history. I study the game. I study the NBA and the team I’m working for very, very closely. Everyday, you think about it … My job, from when I took the job and when we started here, is to try to move forward. That’s the way I see it.

NP  What about Dwane Casey makes you think he is the right coach for this team?
MU  For me, he had a good year the first year. Last year, there were many things, when I studied it, be it injuries or the tough schedule — sometimes luck [plays a big part]. We all think we know everything. But you have to have some kind of luck. Chemistry, those kinds of things have to come into play. Sometimes the timing isn’t right. But when I look at the person he is and the hard work he puts in, for me he deserves the opportunity to coach the team.

NP  How much pressure do you feel as a representative of Africa in this league?
MU  Honestly, I don’t feel pressure in this job, not for one day. I never come in thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ I totally enjoy it. This is my life … The truth is, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. On that scale, with Africa, I have to be good. I have to represent. I have to give them the chance, right? For me, there is no other [option] than to be successful. It’s going to give one, two, three more kids a chance over there to do what I’m doing now, to be players, to build a court there, to develop young kids, have camps, build facilities. Being successful here will affect that.

Eric Koreen