After yet another disappointing season, the Toronto Raptors are shuffling the deck chairs in hopes of achieving success with a new assistant coaching staff. Head coach Dwane Casey remains, but several new assistant coaches have arrived on the scene — the most notable of which, for U of T students, is former Varsity Blues basketball assistant coach Jama Mahlalela.
Mahlalela was active with the Blues from 2005-2009, leading them to the postseason in all four years. The Blues’ basketball program has consistently been considered one of the best in Canada, despite the challenge involved in recruiting players who have, and can continue to meet the high academic standards. Mahlalela’s success in a program with such restrictions impressed the Raptors enough to land him his first NBA coaching job.
Mahlalela is inexperienced as an NBA coach, but brings with him an impressive résumé. The Swaziland-born and Toronto-raised coach began his basketball career as a standout athlete at Oakwood Collegiate. His high school track record brought him to the University of British Columbia (UBC) where he was a four-year starter. From there, he began working in the Raptors’ front office as director of player development, and continued to do so for over a decades.
Mahlalela has not only bounced around Canada, but has also managed to spread his love for basketball globally. He has worked in basketball camps in his native Swaziland as well as in Kenya and Brazil. Moreover, he was named director of basketball operations for NBA Asia, helping to develop young players in the burgeoning market. Mahlalela described his work for NBA Asia as “a business suits and shorts kind of job,” which should make the transition to assistant coaching pretty seamless for him, considering the NBA’s dress code for coaches during games.
“Jama is one of the best player relations and player development guys that we have,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “I’ve seen the talent he has as far as teaching on the court and working with guys.” Casey speaks glowingly of his new assistant, having already seen his skills working with the Raptors’ front office.
The Raptors organization that Mahlalela has worked with over the past decade does not appear to be a very appealing team — having missed a playoff spot five years in a row — but his new position is a unique opportunity for a Canadian basketball lover like him. The Raptors have a history of giving Canadian basketball alumni this kind of opportunities, such as that given to former Canadian senior men’s national team head coach Jay Triano.
Time will tell if Mahlalela will be offered the same opportunities as prominent figures past, but given his crucial part in putting U of T basketball on the map, he will hopefully help to lead the Raptors out of their multi-year drought.