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Player Preview 2017-18: Tracking Delon Wright’s ascent with the Raptors

As Wright enters his third year in the league, the question remains: Is he ready for a bigger role with the Raptors?

NBA: Preseason-Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Clippers Hugh Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

It’s unfair to compare the careers of Delon Wright and Norman Powell to this point, even though it inevitably happens. They were both drafted in 2015, they are both “older” than most prospects — Norm is now 24, while Delon is 25 — and they both occupy similar positions on the Raptors. But Norm’s rookie season offered him a breakout opportunity, while Delon toiled largely in 905-induced obscurity. Their sophomore seasons diverged as well, with Norm filling various spots for the Raps, all but demanding more minutes, and saving the team in the playoffs; while Delon recouped from a shoulder injury and only found emergency minutes late in the season after Kyle Lowry went down with injury.

Now we arrive in year three. Norm and Delon still have plenty to prove, and expectations are higher for both of them. But Norm’s identity and role on the Raptors feels far more assured. (And the recent $42 million max extension he got explains where Toronto is at with him.) Wright, meanwhile, heads into this season as the new lead back-up to the all-important Kyle Lowry, as a potential off-ball presence and wing foil, and as a largely untested player off the Raptors bench who will be tasked with guiding the other largely untested players off the Raptors bench. Do we know if this is going to work yet? Not exactly.

That’s not to say there have not been signs of Wright’s skill and talent. In 16.5 minutes per game last season (spread across 27 regular season games), Wright averaged 5.6 points, 2.1 assists, 1.8 rebounds, and 1.0 steals, while shooting 42 percent from the floor (and 33 percent from 3). Not exactly eye-popping, but Wright would still manage to produce a couple of surprising moments per game in most of his appearances. For all the times Delon looked like overwhelmed second year player he was, there were those moments of sneak-in-from-behind blocks, or tricky offensive rebounds, or slip-and-slide Euro-step drives, that always managed to catch opposing teams (and us) off guard. It was in these moments Wright hinted at something greater — even if that something remained rather amorphous.

When the Raptors traded Cory Joseph this past off-season, they did so with the knowledge of that something too, that vision of what Wright could grow into given time. The two guards are different players — Joseph a more pesky defender and line-driver to the basket; Delon a rangy and more probing two-way mystery. Toronto knew they had other holes in their lineup (hence the CoJo trade for C.J. Miles to begin with), and they knew they had Wright on hand to fill a range of back court concepts — from lead ball handler to off-ball threat, to, perhaps, a spot small forward. For his part, Wright said he was a bit shocked to hear of the Joseph trade, but he also knew what it meant for him — the time for all of it was now. And with Fred VanVleet labouring to also stake a claim in the Raptors back court, the pressure — along with everything else — continues to mount.

We know what we’d like Wright to do in his third season: become a good spot-up shooter, take and make a higher percentage of three-pointers, play with an assertive confidence akin to that of his teammate Norm (there’s that comp again), leverage his height and agility into a do-it-all back court magician. Wright has shown flashes, but this is, admittedly, a tall order. One or two of these things from Wright in 2017-18 would be nice, three would be huge for Toronto, all four would be a dream come true.

It feels somewhat likely we’re overrating Wright’s ceiling as a player. He is 25 after all, an age at which the concrete begins to set on a player’s identity. (See: Jonas Valanciunas.) The wondrous things he can do now, he’ll surely continue to do into his prime athletic years. But the things he cannot do, may not improve that much. I suspect we’ll find ourselves yelling at Wright to shoot more when he’s open, or to drive a mote more fearlessly into whatever pressure he faces. This is what happens when a team, player, and fanbase find themselves committed to each other for years with only the thinnest of returns on the incipient potential. We all want to believe there will be more. I think there will be more. Will it be enough? We’ll find out.