Two years ago, during his interview with the Toronto Raptors prior to becoming their general manager, Masai Ujiri was already asking Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to consider buying an NBA Development League team to call its own.
The idea stayed on top of Ujiri's to-do list after he took the job. And the ball got rolling in New York in February when Ujiri and an MLSE team made a convincing pitch to D-League president Malcolm Turner that Mississauga, in the heart of Southern Ontario's thriving basketball market, was ripe for the opportunity.
Less than four months later, Ujiri, Turner and Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie got together on Monday to announce that the D-League is adding its first international team, named Raptors 905, that will play home games at the Hershey Centre starting this fall.
It will be the 19th team added to the D-League, the official minor league of the NBA. The 905 nickname is a nod to where so much young basketball talent has emerged in recent years – Greater Toronto's 905 area code.
Before now, the Raptors had been sending young players such as Bruno Caboclo and Lucas (Bebe) Nogueira to the Mad Ants in Fort Wayne, Ind., a D-League team that serves as a shared affiliate for several NBA teams that don't have exclusive franchises. Neither player got as much playing time there as the Raptors would have liked.
Having a team of their own will give the Raptors more control over how their young players are handled, and being just 32 kilometres from the Raptors' home at the Air Canada Centre is an obvious convenience. The team will be allowed 14 roster moves each year.
"Having our own team right here is going to help us develop players, and it will also be our guinea pig, a place where we can try new things in instructing and coaching – things we want to try here first before bringing [them] to the Raptors," Ujiri said. "This is also huge for Canada Basketball. There are seven players in the NBA right now who are from the 905 area code, and we really think that number is going to keep growing."
NBA youngsters Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Ennis, Anthony Bennett, Andrew Nicholson, Nik Stauskas, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph all grew up playing locally, all part of basketball's spike in popularity here. Several kids from the minor Mississauga Monarchs, touted as one of Canada's largest community basketball organizations, were on hand to celebrate Monday's announcement.
"We had various expansion opportunities in various markets in the U.S. and Canada – virtually every NBA team is interested in their own D-League team. But we resolved that the right place was in Canada, and we should do it for next season," Turner said.
The Raptors are the ninth NBA team to fully own and operate their own D-League team, following the Cleveland Cavaliers (Canton Charge), Golden State Warriors (Santa Cruz Warriors), Los Angeles Lakers (L.A. D-Fenders), New York Knicks (Westchester Knicks), Oklahoma City Thunder (Oklahoma City Blue), Philadelphia 76ers (Delaware 87ers), San Antonio Spurs (Austin Spurs) and Utah Jazz (Idaho Stampede).
If Caboclo and Nogueira aren't getting much playing time with the Raptors, they will likely play in Mississauga. Ujiri said injured Raptors may also play rehabilitation games with the affiliate, and he hopes to have some Canadians play for Raptors 905.
Ujiri intends to hire a coach of the D-League soon. Then the players will be added to the team via an expansion draft in October, before D-League play begins in November.