When the Raptors got swept 4-0 to the lower seeded Washington Wizards in the 2014-15 playoffs, the identity of Dwane Casey's team had uncharacteristically changed from a "pound the rock" defensive mentality to a gun-slinging offense on the backs of their guards. Come June, the Raptors went about changing their philosophy. Defense was the name of the game.
They started by drafting defensively stout Delon Wright from Utah with the 20th overall pick, and followed that by picking dynamic wing defender Norman Powell in the 2nd round, 45th overall. Though Powell was seen as a deep rotation option all along, Delon Wright was pencilled into the rotation as the backup point guard, replacing Greivis Vasquez, who'd been traded, and Lou Williams, who wasn't offered a contract in free agency. When the Raptors signed hometown kid Cory Joseph to back up Kyle Lowry, though, it only further solidified GM Masai Ujiri's plan of controlling and owning the development of the Raptors' youth.
In essence, the Raptors 905 exists for players like Wright and Powell -- not yet needed or ready for NBA minutes, the organization can integrate them into a system and scheme in the D-League that the Raptors use in the NBA. This model is very similar to what teams like the Warriors and Spurs do with their D-League affiliates. When Ujiri announced this offseason that the Greater Toronto Area would become home to an NBA D-League Franchise, it represented the culmination of years of effort in altering the Raptors organization from the ground up. By the middle of the 2015-16 season, the Raptors would also add a brand new, state-of-the-art practice facility in their efforts to finally have a team and organization built for the massive market in which they exist.
Raptors assistant coach Jesse Mermuys was given the head coaching duties for the Raptors 905 after two impressive stints leading the Raptors' summer league outfits. In neighbouring Mississauga, he's been tasked with the continued development of Wright, Powell, Bruno Caboclo and Bebe Nogueira. With the Raptors only 45 minutes away, the Raptors' young guys have had plenty of opportunity to practice with the NBA squad one night and head back for a D-League game the next. Those are the benefits of Ujiri's vision at work.
Wright and Powell have both spent varying amounts of time in the D-League. They've been asked to play big minutes with the 905, and be ready on the bench for the Raptors. So far, progress is being made.
6'5 - 190 lbs, PG
Lowry and Joseph have been mostly healthy all year and have shouldered the load at point guard well together. Wright's spent almost the entire year getting playing time with the 905. He's played 17 games with the Raptors, most of those minutes coming in garbage time. The only game that he played more than 7 minutes was a 20 point blowout loss against the Detroit Pistons when Kyle Lowry was resting. In that game, Wright tallied 13 points, 6 assists and 3 rebounds, and showed plenty of the herky-jerky game that made him a favourite at Utah.
In the D-League however, he's shown himself to be one of the finest PGs going around at that level. He is averaging 18.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 6.8 assists, with shooting splits of 53-36-81. Wright's offense appears to be far ahead of his defense at this point, as he still is working through some troubles defending pick and rolls at the professional level.
Coach Mermuys said earlier this week, "We obviously want more out of him. The expectations are really really high, and I want him to lead us to wins." The Raptors 905, being an expansion franchise, have twice as many losses as wins this season, and Wright's gaudy numbers haven't translated to the standings yet.
On his experience in the D-League, Wright said, "It's helped me gain confidence down here. It's kind of the same game, just with different players. I'm ready [for the opportunity to play]. I've been sitting on the bench for 60 games [in the NBA]. When I get the chance, I'll be ready."
6'4 - 215 lbs, SG/SF
With the Raptors' starting SF, DeMarre Carroll, out for a large chunk of the year with a knee injury, Powell's had to spend most of the year with the Raptors as an emergency starter or defensive option on the wing. By virtue of good fortune (or bad, depending on your perspective), Powell's had much more of a chance to establish himself in the Raptors' rotation. He's played double-digit minutes on 10 separate occasions, with his three best scoring efforts coming in the past month. His best performance came against Portland on March 4, when he registered 10 points (even hit 2 threes) in 22 vital minutes, along with 6 rebounds.
Powell's certainly looked the more ready to contribute than Wright, especially because his defense is close to NBA quality already. He hasn't spent much time in the D-League, but has looked a step above the competition when he's gone down to get some minutes. In his most recent appearance last week, he tallied 36 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists, and looked every bit the NBA player he's shown himself to be.
Delon Wright and Norman Powell form one of the more interesting developmental projects in the NBA. Few teams have the liberty and proximity to leverage their D-League affiliate the way that the Raptors do. The next year or two will tell if the Raptors' projects in Bruno, Bebe, Powell, and Wright amount to anything meaningful in the NBA. Even if only one or two end up being solid options for future iterations of the Raptors, Ujiri's unique team-building strategy will have been fruitful.
If the flashes Powell's shown recently are anything to go by, the Raptors might be on to something. As Wright said of his teammate's successes, "We never know when our names will be called. We have to be ready no matter what, as young guys. We have to embrace the opportunity. I've seen him work hard and I'm happy for him."