When Kyle Lowry went sprawling to the floor after going up for a board against Brooklyn on Monday, many Raptors fans saw the season flash before their eyes. Then Lowry had to be carried off the floor, and it looked like the Raptors might have to plan for a long-term absence. He is now day-to-day, but a potentially gimpy Lowry still means an opportunity for the Raptors’ next point guard in line to assert himself.
Delon Wright’s first go-round as the starting point guard against Miami was a bit of a mixed bag. Wright managed 13 points (including a big late three) on 5-of-9 shooting, adding 7 boards and 4 assists. But the whole game was a slog for the Raptors offense, and as the primary distributor in place of Lowry, some of that has to fall on Wright. He played big minutes at the very end of the game, but was notably absent for much of the fourth as the Raptors made an (admittedly arduous) run. But even in this so-so performance, Wright managed to show flashes of a player who can be a difference-maker for the Raptors.
Despite struggling against Miami and, recently, in general, the Raptors’ bench still ranks third in the NBA by Net Rating (+6.4 through Tuesday). But while the unit may have a high, already-established floor, many NBA commentators don’t see a future star in their midst. Based on the eye test, it does seem unlikely that any of them will make an All-Star team anytime soon, as each one has notable weaknesses (range for Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam, size for Fred VanVleet, strength for Lucas Nogueira, etc). But if there’s one player in the Raptors usual bench rotation who tantalizes with his potential to become the full package, it’s Wright. If Delon can bring together his size, playmaking, outside shooting, defense, and maybe even a splash of rebounding, he has a chance to make the Raptors an entirely different team come playoff time.
The game last Wednesday in Chicago showed what Delon can be when he’s at his best — bombing threes, spreading the floor, and making plays. There’s no question that he can get in the lane for layups. At six-foot-five, he can slide over and defend bigger wings and we’ve all seen what happens when he pokes balls away for fast-break opportunities. There’s a reason why Dwane Casey likes to switch to three point guard sets in crunch time, and it’s because the top four guards are the best passers on the team. Wright’s rebounding numbers per-36 aren’t spectacular, but as an oversized guard/wing, he trails only the bigs and Lowry on a per-36 minute basis. Basically, he doesn’t kill you on the boards if your bigs are doing their job.
Through the early stages of his career, the one knock on Wright has been his inability to consistently shoot threes. In this new-look offense though, the tide may be beginning to turn. Wright’s sitting at around 35 percent on the year and for his career, which is unremarkable. But if we take out a horrendous 2-of-19 stretch to start the season, that number becomes a whole lot prettier. Since November 1, he’s stroking it at an elite-level 48.6 percent. That stretch includes time before and after his shoulder injury — which is good in the sense that it reveals the injury didn’t do much long-term damage to his shooting stroke, but also means that number comes in a small sample size of just 37 attempts. That number is low because of the time missed due to injury, but it’s also low because of Delon’s other problem with the three-ball — his unwillingness as of yet to shoot in bulk. He’s averaging just 2.1 attempts for this year, and that’s already almost double what he attempted last year. To become a true 3-point threat he needs to be consistently shooting 4-5 threes a game, if not more.
The bulk of Wright’s minutes this season have come with various iterations of the bench unit, but he has played 87 minutes with the big three (Ibaka, Lowry, DeRozan). That lineup is +34 in those minutes, which, outside of the starting five, is the best four-man plus-minus that includes all three stars. The short-term plan will be for Wright to slide into Lowry’s place for the games that he misses, but there’s an argument to be made that he should play major minutes with the big guys even after Lowry’s return. And especially if he can continue to develop his outside shot and maintain a decent long-term long-distance percentage, he can change the way the Raptors do business down the stretch.
In Monday’s late collapse in Brooklyn, we saw what can happen to the Raptors in tight games as they clutch up and feed the ball to DeRozan for late-game isos. Twice in that game, quarters ended on DeRozan misses, and the shot at the end of regulation was taken in stifling double-coverage. As much as DeRozan may be proving with each passing day that he is an elite scorer, the league as a whole is moving away from Kobe-ball. The loss to the Warriors in October was an example of what happens when a one-dimensional boxer meets one who’s the class of the division. The Warriors stuffed Lowry and DeRozan on three successive plays while Curry and Durant reeled off an 10-0 run to close the game out. The Raptors were like a puncher who kept going in with the heavy right, but had no jab. DeRozan may be the best scorer on the team, but at some point game theory — and specifically the value of surprising your opponent — has to come into play. Up against the best of the best, they needed to find another weapon.
If Delon can use these extended minutes to expand his playmaking, shoot more threes and — perhaps most importantly — earn the long-term trust of the starting unit, he can become that weapon. A closing lineup where every Raptor is dangerous with the ball in his hands and a threat from three-point range has a chance to hang with the best offensive units in the league. Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka, a new-and-improved Wright, and C.J. Miles/OG Anunoby can be that unit. It might not rebound at all, but the Raps’ late-game lineups already don’t, and with DeRozan’s improvement with the three, that suddenly starts to look like a modern NBA unit that can threaten offensively from any spot on the floor.