Delon Wright is having the coming out party many of his followers anticipated.
He’s been instrumental over the course of the latest Toronto Raptors four game win-streak, averaging 14.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, four assists, two steals, a block and less than one turnover. He’s shooting 61.5 per cent from the field and has knocked down 5-of-9 from deep. If the Sixth Man of the Year award was based on overall impact rather than just scoring, his name would already be trickling into the conversation.
Drafted with the 20th overall pick in 2015, Wright has had to bide his time for this moment. A six-foot-five point guard with speed complemented by quickness, two years with the Utah Utes brought a level of maturity and discipline to his game that suggested he could contribute right off the bat.
Cory Joseph, though, ate into the minutes he once thought were waiting for him, and the then 23-year-old had to ply his trade in what was the D-League to prove his case. Instead, it was Powell who broke through first, with Wright mostly brought into the fold for insignificant minutes.
The impressions left by Wright’s college career became the trademarks of his game with the Raptors 905. Crafty with his length, yet steady like a vet. Shifty, but yet hardly ever out of control. Suffocating on the defensive end while sneaky on the offensive end.
On Zach Lowe’s The Lowe Post which featured Bruce Arthur and Eric Koreen shortly after Christmas, one of the most interesting points they brought up about Wright was when Arthur referred to Lowe’s magnificent story about Manu Ginobili and the Argentina national team and how current general manager of the Utah Jazz Dennis Lindey describes Ginobili as someone who “plays between dribbles.”
Arthur expanded further and said, “It’s like in music — the space in between the notes — and Delon Wright has a little bit of that. The ability to just play at a different speed and in a different place than other people.”
This is what Wright does best. Whether bringing the ball up the floor himself or playing off Fred VanVleet, he seems to be able to deliberate at a time when opponents are looking to swiftly react.
Commit to a charge, and he’s got a euro step that has no mercy for even one of the game’s all-time greats.
Get on your heels as rim protector when he head-fakes a look to an outside shooter, and he’ll drive right at one of the game’s best defensive bigs to finish at the rim.
Notice the timing of the head fake in between the dribble. It comes at the point on the floor where Wright is on the right side of the “nail.” The nail is a basketball term used to refer to the center point of the free-throw line. This is when communication and anticipation is at its most critical in ball-stopping or getting out to shooters, and so when Wright deftly tilts his head towards Norman Powell is a big reason why both Joel Embiid and Dario Saric are left looking so helpless against the point guard’s inside moves.
All these facets of Wright’s game — sprinkled in with some threes — were on full display during his career night against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday. Wright exploded for 25 points, but it’s the 13 rebounds, four steals and a block that made head coach Dwane Casey leave a glowing reference after the game.
“He does a great job using his length and he’s sneakily a good athlete,” Casey said. “Kinda surprises some people in certain situations when he uncoils — his rebounding — he went and snapped a couple out of there.”
While it can sometimes be terrifying to watch Kyle Lowry crash the offensive glass against bigs of the other team, there seems to be more of a tactical know-how to Wright’s approach. He’s got some wiry strength, and he’s not afraid to flex after some dirty work to let people know about it. He grabs 3.7 per cent of his team’s field goal misses, which puts him in the 88th percentile among combo-guards per Ben Falk’s Cleaning The Glass.
This is perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of his game, as his former Utes teammate Jakob Poeltl takes most of the adulation in this department.
Much like the rest of the young players on the Toronto Raptors roster, Wright has been handed the keys to showcase all that he is, and what he could be as the franchise attempts the difficult juggling act of winning both now and in the future.
His usage is still the same as last year, but this can be attributed to both playing off VanVleet as well as the extra minutes he’s picked up at small forward when the Raptors go with their three-guard lineup. His turnover rate has risen to 16.7 per cent, placing him in the unenviable 13th percentile of combo guards per Cleaning The Glass.
The all-bench units are primarily guilty for this, as the lack of shooting as a whole shrinks the dimensions of the court for defenses and allows opponents to get in passing lanes and disrupt off-ball actions more easily. A consistent C.J. Miles and a resurgent Norman Powell would obviously make a world of difference here, but if neither of the two arrive, the playoffs should help quell some of the offensive misery as Lowry would likely pick up some of those minutes in place of VanVleet.
What those units do hang their hat on, though, is the defensive end, and Wright is the head of the snake in that department as well.
Among players who have played at least 500 minutes, he is sixth and 10th in the league respectively in deflections per 36 minutes, and loose balls recovered per 36. The baby-faced assassin is consistently able to stay chest-to-chest with his man in 1-on-1 situations, which allows him to then use his length to poke balls away. Pascal Siakam ranks first in loose balls recovered per 36, and he can thank the pressure up top that doesn’t allow opposing guards to throw fastballs to their teammates for it.
The next step for Wright’s game, of course, is the three-point shooting. Like DeMar DeRozan — one of his summer workout partners — patience could be a virtue here. He has already made strides in taking the right shots (no pun intended) in terms of his shot spectrum, making an impressive 66 per cent on finishes at the rim. While Casey used the term uncoiling for the rebounding aspect of his game, it’s relevant on offense, too, where he’s able to appear as though he’s just getting across the timeline at the logo one second:
Before springing into action and finishing at the rim just two seconds later.
Those rim attacks account for more than half of his shot attempts this season, while he has cut down his midrange attempts from 34 per cent in his rookie season to just 15 per cent this season.
He has made 34.7 per cent of his 95 career attempts from beyond the arc, and he has already made strides in terms of volume by attempting more threes through 25 games this season than he had through 54 games over the past two seasons. Games like the one against Chicago where he was 4-for-5 from downtown only serve to build that confidence.
“I kind of felt bad last game (vs. Bucks) because I passed up so many shots,” Wright said after the Bulls game. “I was like, I’m doing all this work I might as well shoot it. Everybody, even people at the top of the organization — coaches — they were saying just shoot the ball, we don’t care if you miss. That helped me today after I made my first one.”
This is exactly why, in spite of possibly being looked at as an old-young guy at 25 years of age, it’s important to be mindful of the fact that Wright has played less than a single season’s worth of NBA games for his career. He’s barely scratching the surface, and the organization is doing well to encourage him to delve further. Injuries and a lack of opportunity have hindered his timeline, but he’s making it as clear as day he’s capable of much more.
Wright fits perfectly in the role he’s in, but there will likely come a time when there will be bigger shoes to fill, and all signs point towards him being able to do so admirably.