Former Raptors Wright, Valanciunas, Miles finding success with Grizzlies

Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas drives against San Antonio Spurs forward Davis Bertans. (Brandon Dill/AP)

The Toronto Raptors underwent a fairly major shakeup at this year’s trade deadline. You may have heard something about it.

The team acquired three-time All-Star and former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, the 34-year-old veteran centre ready to contribute to a playoff team with eyes set on a Finals berth, armed with a versatile skill-set and big game experience to boot.

A significant addition, Gasol could prove to be a missing piece — particularly in the right matchup — to help further unlock the team’s potential. After nine up-and-down games, however, he’s not that yet.

Gasol is still to find his place on this Raptors team, suddenly platooning the centre spot after a successful career spent in the first chair. There have been low’s, like Tuesday’s 17-minute, one-rebound performance in the Raptors’ loss to James Harden and the Houston Rockets. And there have been flashes of the kind of difference the former Memphis Grizzly can provide, like in last week’s thrilling win over Portland:

As for Lin, well, he’s struggled early in his Raptors tenure, thrust into a bigger role than anybody imagined after backup point guard Fred VanVleet was sidelined after undergoing thumb surgery right around the time Lin signed with Toronto following a mostly forgettable season with the Atlanta Hawks.

Those with immediate high expectations for Toronto’s high-profile newcomers may be dissapointed thus far — and perhaps even more so if you’ve seen what the trio of Raptors traded away at the deadline have been up to in Memphis.

Delon Wright

The Grizzlies orchestrated a big comeback win at home against the potent Trail Blazers on Tuesday night, overcoming a 22-7 beginning to the first quarter to win 120-111.

Memphis was led by their best player, Mike Conley, who dropped a career-best 40 points, but not far behind was Delon Wright, who came off the bench to tie a career-high with 25 points in the win.

Wright has seen his playing time increase with Memphis, which you’d expect, and so far he’s making the most of his new opportunity. Prior to Tuesday’s win, Wright posted an impressive line in a narrow loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, registering 17 points, eight boards, six assists, two steals, and a block in 30+ minutes of action.

Overall, his stats won’t blow you away — in nine games with Memphis, Wright is averaging 11 points, five rebounds, and 3.2 steals per game while his three-point percentage has plummeted to 22 per cent in that span — but he’s playing with more assertion and consistency than during most of his Raptors’ tenure.

During his time in T.O., we all knew Wright had big-time talent; his ability to get to the rim and create off the dribble was legitimately awesome. But relegated to third-string point guard, it was always going to be difficult for him to see the court on a nightly basis. So much of success in the NBA comes down to opportunity and taking advantage of it, and Wright simply wasn’t going to get that opportunity with the Raptors.

The chip on his shoulder he’s currently playing with is both sizeable and obvious. As he commented on this Instagram post (h/t Reddit), “I’m not no 11th man.”

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Jonas Valanciunas

Another homegrown Raptor and former Toronto draft pick, Valanciunas never struggled with finding that opportunity like Wright did. But he was placed into a timeshare with Serge Ibaka this season, albeit one that seemed to benefit both the team and the player. Valanciunas, in reduced minutes, was able to highlight his strengths in short spurts, owning the low-post, and since joining the Grizzlies has only continued that trend — but now with significantly more playing time.

In eight appearances with Memphis, the Lithuanian big man and former fifth-overall pick has posted five double-doubles. His minutes are up from 18 with Toronto to 25.5 minutes per game while carrying a bigger scoring load. As a member of the Grizzlies, Valanciunas is averaging 18.3 points 9.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting a scorching 60 per cent from the field.

While Wright is playing well with more responsibility, it’s even less surprising that Valanciunas would thrive with a bigger role on a team still displaying remnants of the Grit n’ Grind era.

C.J. Miles

No Raptor, perhaps Wright aside, needed a bigger change of scenery than C.J. Miles. It was clear in his body language, and in his inability to shake his seemingly never-ending slump.

The veteran sharp-shooter had gone cold practically all season for Toronto, and despite more bounce in his step entering the 2018-19 campaign, the added quickness did nothing to help his game.

Miles’ numbers don’t tell the story of his early returns with the Grizzlies — his per-36 minute scoring is actually slightly down from when he was with the Raptors — but in just over 22 minutes per game off the bench, he’s providing a meaningful spark for Memphis. Miles has reached double-digit scoring in five of his nine games with the Grizzlies. He had seven such games in 40 appearances with Toronto this season.

His shooting averages have risen, barely, but Miles is making plays on both ends of the floor that are helping Memphis stay competitive in games that — given their work-in-progress roster — they shouldn’t be.

None of the former Raptors — here’s where we mention that another notable Toronto draftee, Bruno Caboclo, has also been getting court time with Memphis this season — are going to transform the Grizzlies into a contender. Their rebuild still has a very long way to go, and it remains to be seen what role, if any, they will play once Memphis is back to being a perennial playoff team.

Yes, the club has a losing record since the trade that sent Gasol to the Raptors, but they’ve now won three of their last five, and are playing with more life than they have all season.

The Raptors, 7-3 since the trade, are banking on their deadline acquisition to help the team take another leap in the playoffs, but here’s betting that, despite trading away the most accomplished player in the deal, the Grizzlies are very happy with their return.

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