One play can change everything.
When Las Vegas Summer League began, Delon Wright was out to prove, again, that he’s ready for a role at the NBA level. Tasked, alongside Norman Powell, with leading a summer squad thin on experience but deep on talent, Wright helped get the Raptors out to a 4-0 start, looking every bit as advanced as he had with Raptors 905 of the D-League last season. The message from Wright was clear, if a little quieter than the one Powell was sending: I’m a class above the D-League and Summer League, and I can help you now. That the message was being delivered from a frame that was noticeably thicker through the shoulders only helped drive it home.
As Wright worked to keep the Raptors steady at the offensive end in an elimination game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Vegas, disaster struck. Wright had dislocated his shoulder, and further testing revealed a tear of the labrum. From the Raptors’ perspective, how to proceed with the 24-year-old’s health was hardly a question.
“I could have played through it but career-wise, long-term, it’d be better to fix it now so I don’t have any issues with it later,” Wright told Raptors Republic on media day.
The surgery is going to cost Wright the start of his sophomore campaign, perhaps extending into the new year. He’s managed to progress to the point of doing non-contact work on the court, including shooting, a few steps from a return to game action. Once cleared, he’s expecting to do a rehabilitation stint with the 905 to get his conditioning back up to form – “Like baseball,” he explained – and his eyes lit up talking about a potential return to the court.
The injury may change plans for the Raptors in the short-term, opening up a hole in the third-string point guard position that may see Fred VanVleet crack the opening night roster. While Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph can carry substantial loads, the hope was that Wright was ready to help ease some of that burden this year, and the team may find it too risky to move forward with just two natural point guards for upwards of 20 games. That VanVleet has impressed on the court and won fans off of it only complicates Wright’s situation – rather than pushing for rotation minutes this year, he might be fighting for the third point guard role.
That’s something Wright isn’t focusing on while he works back to health, even if VanVleet is also threatening to elbow his way into the “dynamic duo” schtick that Wright and Powell have developed. His goals haven’t been altered, and in his mind, his progress won’t be, either.
“It changes the beginning of the year, obviously,” he said. “I think most importantly, as long as I’m able to contribute toward the end of the year, kind of give Kyle some rest, Cory some rest, be able to find some minutes between there, I think that it won’t really matter.”
The focus in the short-term is obviously on his health and his health alone. When he’s back, the lens will shift to look at the two biggest areas Wright was looking to improve upon in order to help carve out more time: Size and shooting.
Exceptionally long for a point guard, Wright was and continues to look to add size to help with his finishing on offense and his ability to help on shooting guards on the defensive end, opening up more options in two-point guard attacks (he even thinks he could play alongside VanVleet, if there’s a time at which the Raptors carry four point men). That VanVleet and Kyle Lowry are strong 3-point shooters makes those looks more realistic, too, and Wright possessing the most size in the group makes him a natural option to see run at the two. He won’t be able to play with Cory Joseph without suffocating the offense, though, unless one or both can improve their shooting – Joseph is flashing encouraging signs in camp, and it stands to reason that Wright will be putting an emphasis on his shot as he works through non-contact practice sessions.
It’s worth noting, too, that Wright appeared to take some strides as a shooter last year, albeit in small samples. His confidence coming over high ball screens and letting fly improved with additional reps with the 905, and he hit 23-of-63 (36.5 percent) on threes across the NBA and D-League. He showed improved finishing in the D-League, too, though there’s never really been any question about his ability to dominate on offense one level down.
It’s difficult to reasonably set expectations for Wright ahead of 2016-17. So much will depend on when he gets healthy and what the team does – and gets from – VanVleet. There’s a scenario in which Wright’s back in late December, continues to shoot well, and helps make life easier for Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and there’s another where he’s slower to get back and VanVleet has run with that same job. Even if Powell’s found a quick chemistry with VanVleet, he’s a believer in his former Pac-12 rival bouncing back.
“I was really excited by the growth of Delon,” Powell said during training camp. “The injury really set him back a little bit but he’s been positive about it, he’s been working, been rehabbing really hard, and he’s eager to get back on the court. So I don’t think there’s gonna be any setback for him once he’s healthy and cleared. He’s gonna do everything possible to get to where he was and grow from there.
“I’m really excited for the future for both of us if we both stay on the team. We’ll be a good dynamic duo like Kyle and DeMar. It’s a little fun thing me and him always talk about.”
Wright is ready for backup minutes in an NBA rotation, he’ll just need patience and opportunity to remind everyone.Follow @raptorsrepublic