Raptors’ Wright has the confidence, skill to shine in new role off the bench

Toronto Raptors guard Delon Wright looks to pass the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons (Carlos Osorio/AP)

TORONTO — Thursday night’s 117-100 dismantling of the Chicago Bulls provided many encouraging signs of how the Toronto Raptors might look this year. DeMar DeRozan moved the ball effectively; Jonas Valanciunas poured in points; CJ Miles lit up the scoreboard, going 6-of-9 from three-point range.

But one of the subtler positives to emerge from the game was the play of Delon Wright, who takes over this season as the club’s back-up point guard in place of the departed Cory Joseph.

Working with an incredibly young Raptors bench unit, Wright gleefully picked apart Chicago’s overwhelmed backups, getting to the rim for uncontested shots basically whenever he wanted to and creating plenty of opportunities for his teammates, as evidenced by the five assists he picked up in only 23 minutes.

He found the veteran Miles for three-pointers; he found second-year centre Jakob Poeltl rolling to the rim; and he found rookie forward OG Anunoby cutting to the basket for strong finishes in the paint. Wright found his own shot, too, finishing plus-21 with 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting, getting to the line five times and never missing.

But what the Raptors were most impressed by was the confidence Wright ran the floor with, and the variety of ways he created offence during the brilliant 20-2 run that bench unit went on to start the second quarter.

“It gives them a good identity with the second unit,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said after the game. “And that’s what we want to do is develop those guys and make sure they establish that and maintain it. There’s going to be some nights when they may not be as good, but we’ve got to live with it and have them grow. But I could see them growing through exhibition and training camp.”

Operating out of a variety of screen-and-roll looks (as thoroughly broken down here by Raptors Republic’s Cooper Smither) Wright made quick, aggressive decisions, and looked more like a seasoned floor general and less like a 25-year-old playing only his 55th NBA game.

The Raptors coaching staff is particularly pleased with Wright’s vision coming off those pick-and-rolls, and his ability to compute all four passes available to him and make the best choice possible, whether he’s moving the ball or keeping it in his hands.

Wright talks about “tricks” he’ll play on defenders, where he’ll mime a drive when he knows he’s going to pass, or look off to one teammate when he’s intending to move the ball to the other. It makes Wright a challenging guard for opposing guards, who have to try to think along with him.

“It’s something I’ve been doing since I was younger,” Wright said. “Just trying to find the right pass, kind of manipulating the defence.”

Casey likes to call Wright’s style of play “unorthodox” and says he thinks it helps the third-year guard keep defenders off balance. At six-foot-five, Wright’s taller than your average point guard, and uses that length to his advantage, whether it’s keeping the ball away from defenders as he moves through traffic or extending at the rim to avoid swipes and blocks in the paint.

The Raptors head coach is also looking to get the most out of Wright by using him in a dual point guard tandem with the speedy, energetic Fred VanVleet. That gives the Raptors two ball handlers on the court at once, and also provides benefits defensively, where the two guards can mix and match against different looks from the opposition.

“I think they complement each other,” Casey said. “Delon has some strengths with his length and his size— he can guard bigger guards. Freddie is quick, he’s tough. He can go against speed.”

“I think we have two guards who can penetrate and find their teammates. Defences can’t just lock in on one ball handler,” Wright added. “And then we have OG cutting, Jak rolling, CJ ready to spot up. I just think that we bring a balance to each other.”

The knock against Wright early in his career has been tentativeness, especially when he has an chance to shoot. Miles— who has more years of NBA experience (13) than the rest of the Raptors second unit combined (8)— has been all over Wright throughout the preseason, and especially during Thursday’s opener, to play more aggressively and not pass up opportunities to score.

“Yeah, I get a little carried away sometimes trying to pass too much instead of looking for my shots,” Wright said. “The more aggressive I am, the more shots CJ gets, the better the offence flows. I kind of need that sometimes, for people to tell me to stay aggressive. Because sometimes I’ll look to pass a little too much.”

When Wright was playing college ball at Utah he tried to score all the time, but once he turned pro he felt his role called for him to act as more of a distributor. That was all fine and good in his first two seasons, as Wright adjusted to the pace and flow of the NBA while playing limited minutes. But now that he’s filling such a crucial role on the Raptors second unit, and potentially seeing the floor in late game situations with starting point guard Kyle Lowry shifting over to shooting guard, he’ll need to shoot more, drive more, and force defences to pay attention to him, which should in turn open up opportunities for the players around him.

The next step in Wright’s evolution is his still-developing three-pointer, which the Raptors want him unleashing more often this season. He’s tweaked some of the mechanical movement in his shot which he hopes will make it more consistent. But it’s still a weapon that needs to be battle tested.

“I continue to work on it. I think for me it’s just about bringing it over from practice to the game,” Wright said. “It’s different when you’re in practice. You don’t have to worry about missing and stuff like that. But in the game, your legs are kind of tired, so you might not want to take that shot sometimes. I just have to take it with confidence and continue to trust in the work I’m putting in.”