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Let’s Remember Some Raptors: Roko Ukić, the forever hopeful

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Toronto had four 2005 draft picks and selected Ukić with their third one, 41st overall. He played just one year in Toronto but we all believed he’d have a long career with the Raptors (or in the NBA). It did not go that way.

Toronto Raptors v Chicago Bulls Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Roko Ukić was not the first draft pick Raptors fans passionately — and illogically — hoped would pan out in the NBA. I tend to start the clock on that particularly sad category with the team’s selection of Aleksandar Radojević with the 12th overall pick in 1999. We could also maybe include Kareem Rush and Michael Bradley in there, or maybe even longshot DeeAndre Hullett. Rafael Araujo would qualify too, only we knew immediately he sucked.

In any case, Ukić surpasses most, if not all, of those aforementioned players. The Raptors picked him 41st in the 2005 NBA Draft, which is not a usual spot for discovering young talent. Nevertheless, the team seemed poised to turn him into an actual player for the squad. That year, Toronto had four picks in the draft, two in the first round and two in the second, and it was felt that they’d come away with at least one franchise piece, a rotation player who could help them in the short term and become a building block for the future.

Ukić was the third of the four players the Raptors selected that year — along with, in order, Charlie Villenueva, Joey Graham, and Uroš Slokar. In short, Toronto ultimately whiffed on all four selections.

His Raptors Run

In true Toronto fashion, the Raptors invested in Ukić in 2005 despite the fact that he was already 24 years old upon joining the team in 2008. Listed at 6’5” and 180 pounds, Ukić played like an uptempo version of Jose Calderon, already on Toronto, but for one small problem: he couldn’t shoot at all. Ukić put up averages of 4.2 points and 2.1 assists in 12.4 minutes per game that year. But he only shot 38 percent from the field and 18 percent from three.

Still, Ukić appeared in 72 games during his rookie season, and played as Toronto’s back-up point guard behind Calderon by dint of being the only other usable player in that spot on the roster. (We will decidedly not be remembering Marcus Banks in this series.) Naturally, there were moments when we thought Ukić would break out. He put up 12-and-7 against the Magic one night, posted a career-high 22 points while taking on the Spurs, and even reached 10 assists for one magical night against the Thunder.

This all seems like microscopically small potatoes now, but we really did want Ukić to become if not a star in Toronto’s future, then at least a steady contributor to a good team. The Raptors were already heading into a phase of treading water (or drowning), in the midst of a 33-49 year. And even absent Ukić the following season, they’d only improve to 40-42 in 2009-10. There wasn’t a lot of hope to go around at the time.

In that spirit, it becomes clear why Ukić felt so important to fans. If the Raptors could manage to find help with the 41st pick in the draft, if they could develop an actual player, maybe the franchise wasn’t in such bad shape after all. Maybe they could turn things around. Maybe it was possible they’d get better soon.

Alas, as we know now, it was not to be for a few more years.

The Wikipedia Fun-Fact Deep-Dive

Unlike many other marginal players in Raptors history, Ukić has a rich Wikipedia page, owing to his international playing experience. There are numerous teams to mention here from all across Europe. And there is all of Ukić’s international playing experience too — his runs into EuroBasket, the FIBA World Championships, and the Olympics. We can even note that Ukić became the captian of the Croatian national team in 2010, continuing a legacy he began in his native country at the age of eight.

But those aren’t fun facts, per se. The real fun fact here is in considering where Ukić got his name. For that, I will quote directly from the Wiki-page, to display all of this information in its direct glory:

Roko Ukić’s father is Zoran Ukić, drummer of the Split-based rock band The Obala, and the former drummer of the dissolved Daleka Obala. Roko got his first name after his grandfather, and his middle name after drummer Lenny White. He also plays the drums.

Now I need a whole other deep-dive into the history of the drum-playing Ukić clan and their spiritual connection to noted American jazz-fusion drummer Lenny White. The things you learn in Let’s Remember Some Raptors!

A Highlight

This is the most succinct (English-language) highlight package of Ukić in a Raptors uniform — and it happens all in one sequence.

It’s not much, but there’s Ukić getting after it on the defensive end and getting out in transition to his best effect. The guy could run, and he could also find talented played (like Chris Bosh) while doing so. That’s about as much as you could hope for in a Raptors player circa 2008.

Fittingly, Ukić put together his final big-time NBA performance in a random early-December regular season game in 2009 against none other than the Raptors. (Toronto happened to trade him and Carlos Delfino for [checks paper] Amir Johnson and Sonny Weems.) In 25 minutes that night, he went off for 17 points (five off his career-high) on 5-of-9 shooting, to go with four assists, two rebounds, and a steal. The performance was strong enough to earn its own Youtube package.

Nevertheless, Ukić would only appear in one more NBA game (three nights later against the Blazers) before sitting for the rest of the month and to open the new year. He subsequently asked to be released from his purgatory in Milwaukee, never to set foot in the NBA again.

Where Are They Now?

At 35 years old, Ukić is apparently still playing ball. In the summer of 2019, he signed with the Antibes Sharks of the Pro B League in France, which, like every other league, had to suspend its season in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This all comes after Ukić had made professional stops in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece, and his native Croatia.

Still, while it’s a second division league in France, I have no doubt Ukić is doing what he can to help his team win. At this point, it feels like on pure institutional knowledge alone, Ukić could excel wherever he played. He probably still can’t shoot that well — but he sure has been around. In that, maybe some of our belief wasn’t quite as misplaced as we thought.