Raptors president Ujiri preaches patience after quieter than expected trade deadline

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri preached patience as his team's fan base called for big moves — either buying or selling — at the NBA trade deadline.

Centre Jakob Poeltl rejoined the Raptors in a trade with San Antonio early Thursday morning that sent Canadian centre Khem Birch, a protected 2024 first-round pick, and two future second-round picks to the Spurs.

It was Toronto's lone deal before the NBA's trade deadline, and Ujiri said it was because he still believes in his roster.

"We think growth sometimes takes a while," Ujiri said about an hour after the deadline expired. "I think there's a level of impatience now with how we think about things and do things, and hopefully we can have a little bit of patience.

"Everything we could have done today, maybe we can do in the summer."

Ujiri said it's easier to make deals ahead of the draft or during free agency because in the off-season there are "29 losers and one winner," but at the trade deadline many teams think they are still contenders.

He also acknowledged that the Raptors (26-30), 10th in the Eastern Conference heading into play Thursday night, have had a disappointing season. A rough patch in December where Toronto went 5-10 made it an ideal candidate to trade away some of its best players for draft picks or young prospects.

"I believe in the players. I believe in the coaching. I believe in the organization. I believe in them individually. I believe in their talent," said Ujiri. "I think that at times in the season we got a little bit too individual. I think there are times in the season when we went away from it, there wasn't as much focus.

"I'm hoping it comes back. It seems like it has started to a little bit."

Poeltl spent the first two seasons of his NBA career with the Raptors after Toronto drafted him ninth overall in 2016. He was traded with all-star swingman DeMar DeRozan and a protected 2019 first-round draft pick to the Spurs in the summer of 2018 for forwards Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

That deal laid the foundation for the Raptors' championship run in 2019, with Leonard earning NBA Finals MVP honours.

Poeltl, who was already in Toronto on Wednesday night as the Spurs lost to the Raptors 112-98, spoke about the possibility of being traded again after the game.

"I just try to focus on the here and now for the most part," said the 27-year-old. "I know there's a lot of noise and stuff. I'm just trying to keep it out as much as possible, just trying to focus on these games now.

"Whatever happens by whatever time it is tomorrow, I'll deal with it then."

It was quickly apparent that Poeltl would seamlessly fit in with his old teammates.

He appeared in star forward Pascal Siakam's Instagram story in Thursday's early hours, a photo that point guard Fred VanVleet also shared on his social media. Ujiri said that the former Spurs centre had breakfast in the Raptors practice facility before reporting for his medical evaluation, just like old times.

Poeltl is a significant upgrade at centre for the Raptors, who have been searching for a capable hand at the five spot for several seasons. He is averaging 12.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 26.1 minutes per game across 45 appearances for the Spurs this season.

"Sometimes we need that lone rebound, you know, that a big would get us, that protection a big would get us," said Ujiri. "With Jak, even that passing that he can get us."

Birch, from Montreal, is averaging 2.2 points, 1.3 rebounds, 0.4 assists and 0.3 blocks in 8.1 minutes per game over 20 games this season.

Poeltl's return to Toronto will likely cut into the minutes of 23-year-old forward Precious Achiuwa and 22-year-old rookie centre Christian Koloko, both of whom are still developing.

"I think Precious is trying to be a versatile player, this was asked of him now. But I think he's going to grow as a player," said Ujiri. "Christian will play (in the G-League) or he'll play backup minutes here. I think he'll continue to develop. His development has been gradual, we knew that.

"This is what has presented itself now. These guys are good players so they'll adapt."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2023.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press