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The Raptors are soaring, but what’s up with Delon Wright?

The Raptors fourth year guard has become more of a 3-and-D specialist this season for Toronto. But is that a change for the better?

NBA: Preseason-Melbourne United at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Whether Euro-stepping to the cup or dishing off to Big Jak for the yam, Delon Wright was a vital component of the Raptors’ vaunted bench mob last season. With Jakob Poeltl gone, Pascal Siakam promoted to the starting unit and C.J. Miles borderline unplayable, the bench mob has seen an overhaul this season and despite some recent improvement it barely resembles the throat-stomping unit of a season ago. Poeltl has been replaced by the more skilled, but less mobile Jonas Valanciunas; Siakam has been replaced by the less explosive OG Anunoby; the aging Miles has seen a hip injury rob him of his three-point shot and any chance he had to compete on defense; and VanVleet’s bet on himself has paid off handsomely with a new contract that might be costing him his edge. With their struggles from outside the arc, Fred VanVleet and Miles have become focal points of criticism, but in all of this Delon has become something of a forgotten man. And that’s part of the problem — why is he just so gosh-darn forgettable out there?

Almost a year ago, I wrote that Delon could be a difference-maker on all sides of the ball. Perhaps the language in that article was a bit strong (he’s more of a jack-of-all-trades than a difference-maker) but the underlying point that Wright could do a little bit of everything on the floor — make plays, rebound, make shots, and defend - still stands. But despite making threes at a career-best 45 percent clip so far this season, Wright is having a worse year across the board by almost any other metric. Compared to last year, Wright has played fewer minutes, shot the two worse, passed less, rebounded worse, and gotten fewer points off of turnovers.

Wright has never been a particularly high-usage player, but his usage has bottomed out this year, mainly due to a massive drop is assist percentage. It’s tempting to blame VanVleet, as he dribbles into three defenders under the rim, for stealing all of Wright’s possessions (and assist opportunities). There’s some validity to this, but VanVleet is not really finishing more possessions than he did a year ago — he just hasn’t been nearly as effective in doing so. In fact, VanVleet has dropped from the 68th percentile to the 31st percentile in points-per-shot-attempt, and his overall eFG% has dropped from 52.5% to 47.8%. Add the minutes Wright shares with Miles and his miserable 41.3 eFG%, and the problem becomes clearer for Delon.

So is Wright’s drop in assist percentage just due to VanVleet and Miles’ poor shooting this year? Not exactly. He’s also simply getting fewer touches. In four fewer minutes, Wright is making 21.5 passes and receiving 22.5, while last year he averaged 32.6 passes made and 34.5 passes received. The bench offense is not flowing as freely, which might have something to do with the lack of transition offense, the lack of chemistry, and the lack of Siakam.

Even though he’s touching the ball, driving, and distributing less, when Wright does close possessions with a shot, he doing it more effectively than ever — largely because of the spike in three-point percentage. A 3-and-D player who doesn’t get a lot of touches, doesn’t drive, and doesn’t distribute is more of a two-guard than a point, and that’s the role Delon has been asked to play this season next to VanVleet. Slightly more than half of his threes have been of the catch-and-shoot variety, and while he’s shooting 50% on those looks, he’s simply not taking enough of them to make an impact (1.8 threes per game — virtually tied with Siakam). With neither VanVleet or Miles looking like the players they were last season, the bench needs Delon’s driving and distributing to become the best version of itself.

Frankly, Wright isn’t a player you can build a team around. In his fourth NBA season, he’s established himself as more of a glue guy. Those types of players fit into good lineups and don’t give up too much in any one area — they’re good at everything but great at nothing. If the Raptors want to continue cultivating Delon as an off-ball guard who shoots from outside, I’d argue he fits in a lot better with the starters than the bench unit. Like most players on the team, Wright’s Net Rating surges when he’s paired with one of Lowry or Green, and between the playmaking of Lowry, Leonard and Siakam, a Starters + Wright lineup doesn’t demand much of the second guard. He could simply play good defense and wait in the corner to hit some 3s as a poor man’s Danny Green, freeing up Green to gun with the bench unit.

But the Raptors’ starting lineup is one of the most dynamic units in the entire league, and Green’s chemistry with Kawhi Leonard has been a big part of that. A simpler solution would be to re-embrace the ball movement offense of a season ago, with Wright to taking on a larger share of the bench play-making duties. Mixing Siakam back in with the bench mob would also help. We saw those things start to happen against the Sixers on Wednesday, and look how that turned out.

The Raptors are focused on the playoffs, and in that sense their bench struggles might be a blessing in disguise. While last year, the Raps’ best players were spread out over two units, this year they may be able to create dynamic lineups that integrate the two units more like a typical playoff team. Maybe in the post-season, when the time is right, we’ll see some Starters + Wright minutes. It’s a look that has worked before. For now though, the Raptors should make an effort to ensure Delon doesn’t become quite so forgotten.