While Fred VanVleet has been heaped praise all off-season for the bench mob’s sudden rise to stardom this past year, it seems a lot of the NBA community has forgotten about Delon Wright. Don’t get me wrong, VanVleet deserves it all. But, the lack of acknowledgment thrown Wright’s way is puzzling. The guy is a two-way stud.
At 6’5 with an almost 6’8 wingspan, he’s the perfect guard defender for the modern NBA. Per Synergy Sports, this past season he ranked in the 93rd percentile for isolation defense and 75th percentile for pick and roll defense—the two most important play types for guards in this era. In isolation, he can competently switch 3-4 positions depending on the lineup, and in pick and roll, he’s as good at rear-view contests as anyone in the league.
Off the ball, he’s equally as effective. His cat-like instincts mixed with his rangy wingspan allow him to get his hands on enough balls to register an excellent steal rate and rank fourth in the league in steals per foul. Wright’s versatility gives Nick Nurse the luxury of considering possible extinction lineups this season such as Wright, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam. That’s enough wingspan and switch-ability to make any Orlando Magic executive pass out.
Wright’s value isn’t just defensively either. He’s a complete player. His ability to fit seamlessly into any lineup as a second or third guard, providing both spacing and secondary playmaking, puts so much pressure on opposing defenses that they’d routinely go on game-altering runs during his minutes. VanVleet’s impact stats were good enough to merit sixth man of the year consideration last season, but Wright wasn’t far behind. He finished top 50 in the entire league in box plus-minus (BPM) and enters this year top three for returning players in value over replacement players (VORP) and win shares per 48 (WS/48). Some may doubt the validity in assessing players based on advanced metrics, but when they all show a player is having a winning impact, it’s pretty tough to ignore.
Unfortunately, despite Wright’s combination of 93rd percentile for defensive points per possession (PPP) and 94th percentile for offensive PPP including assists being absolutely ludicrous for a fourth guard, its likely Wright is pigeonholed into the same role this upcoming season. Unless someone goes down with an injury, he figures to slot in as the third or fourth guard in the rotation (depending on your opinion of Danny Green). However, that doesn’t mean fans shouldn’t expect growth. Wright’s been a late bloomer at every level, so despite his advanced age for a rookie scale player at 26, it’d be a surprise if he’s done progressing.
The most intriguing area where Wright may have improved this offseason is his outside shot. While he did shoot 36.6% from three this past season, it felt like found money at times. Despite all the progress he’s made since entering the league, his shot often looked mechanical last season. However, a healthy summer with lots of reps can make a world of difference. With the Raptors primed to take more threes than ever under Nurse, it won’t be long before we know how legit Wright’s jumper truly is. His progress in this regard truly defines his ceiling as a player.
The other key area where Wright should improve this season is finishing around the rim. Wright led the team in percentage of shots at the rim last season and shot a solid, yet unspectacular 63% on those attempts. But, with the paint-dwelling Jakob Poetl now departed from the mob, that number seems inclined to rise. Last season with Poetl at center the Raptors shot 63% at the rim, however, when Poetl was replaced by the floor spacing Serge Ibaka (which will likely happen on the second unit this year) that number rose to an elite 78.8%.
Wright is an excellent athlete but lacks vertical explosion, so subbing-in Ibaka for Poetl will open far more space for Wright’s patented euro-steps and off-footed scoops. Furthermore, having the center out-of-the-way will allow Wright to get all the way to the rim more often and decrease the volume on his floaters (which he also led the team in based on rate), thereby increasing his efficiency. Wright’s pace, touch, and creativity around the rim is perhaps the most visually appealing aspect of his game so fans should welcome increased opportunities for him in the paint.
Lastly, considering Wright finished in the 83rd percentile for transition offense last season, it’s fairly intuitive he sees a bump in production should the Raptors pace increase as expected under the innovative Nurse. Playing smaller lineups should increase opportunities for Wright to secure defensive rebounds and break out into transition quickly, saving the time of an outlet pass. At times, Wright looked like a poor man’s James Harden in transition last season, using his long strides to put defenders on their heels and mess with their timing en route to a finish far more open than it should have been. Expect even more of that this year.
Entering a contract year, and with the 2014 draft class’ extension deadline approaching quickly, fans should know soon where the Raptors stand with regards to Wright’s future. At 26, he’s older than a typical rookie in this position, but that could be even more of an incentive to extend him at a reasonable figure prior to this year as it would lock him up for his projected prime.
If Wright isn’t extended, it’s possible he’s included in a trade throughout the year should the front office wish go star-hunting, or another team thinks he’s ready to become their starter. As much as Raptors fans should love to see Wright stay with the team, one can’t help but wonder how he’d fare in a larger role. Despite being at his best with the ball in his hands, the Raptors glut in the backcourt forced him to play 69% of his minutes at the two this season and register the third lowest usage of any perimeter player in the rotation. His upside elsewhere likely isn’t all-star level, but it’s within the realm of possibility he becomes a quality starter à la George Hill or Darren Collison. It’d be a shame if he never got the opportunity.
Regardless, Wright is as low maintenance as they come, so don’t expect his contract uncertainty to cause any tension. He’ll keep doing him this season. Giving the Raptors his criminally underrated two-way play 20 minutes a night and winning the team games. Long live the bench mob.