Last summer Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri brought in more offensive talent and a not ready for prime time rookie in 18-year-old Bruno Caboclo. This time Ujiri seems to be looking for defense-oriented players and more NBA ready rookies like his 23-year-old first round draft pick Delon Wright and even possibly Norman Powell.
Wright was a two-time All PAC-12 Conference First Team and Pac-12 All-Defensive Team choice over his junior and senior seasons in Utah and won the Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of the Year Award. The Cousy Award is named after the Celtics six-time NBA champion Bob Cousy and since Jameer Nelson was the first recipient in 2004, every winner has gone on to play in the NBA with at least some measure of success. Of note, college seniors have won the award six times. Greivis Vasquez, who Wright appears to be replacing in Toronto, won in 2010.
One of the big factors in Wright’s college success has been the influence and opportunities coming from his older brother Dorell who has spent the past 11 seasons in the NBA. Dorell Wright won an NBA Championship with Miami in his second season and has played on four NBA teams over his career.
“He is a little older than your normal 19 or 20-year-old coming in today, but that’s good,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “He’s a kid that’s been around the NBA, knows the NBA, talked about the NBA with his brother.
“Rookies are rookies and some rookies are younger than others and he is a rookie coming in, but I don’t think he is going to be overwhelmed. Even if he was 19 or 20, he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the NBA just because of his relationship with his brother. He has grown up around the NBA. He has been to numerous NBA games, worked out with NBA players, so he is not going to come in shell-shocked to go against (NBA) guys in practice.”
That experience and influence showed in his college game and was confirmed during predraft workouts. Wright is ahead of most NBA rookies.
“Everything was easy for him,” Casey said. “He doesn’t get speed up against pressure. Watching games or even in the workouts, we saw enough to know what we saw in the tapes was real as far as he doesn’t get sped up or get excited in double-teams. In pick-and-rolls, he doesn’t get excited when a guy jumps up to show. He makes the easy pass. That was something that we noticed and it is going to help a lot.
“Everyone we talked to loved him as a player, loved him as a teammate and that’s huge. Chemistry is an important thing that you look for.”
With the Raptors slipping defensively last season, Ujiri went back to his original line of thought and drafted Casey players that fit how his head coach likes to play. While Wright has upside potential on offense, his defense likely transfers to the NBA almost right away.
“Defending, (Wright) takes so much pride in it, he loves it,” Ujiri said. “He is also a good passer. We interviewed tons of his teammates and they loved playing with him. He gets them the ball in the right place, that’s character, he’s such a great kid. He has got good size. It was attractive for us.”
“Even a couple of NBA players tweeted and congratulated him because they know him. He plays a lot of ball in L.A. in the summer with all these guys. He’s a (basketball) junkie and you want these kind of guys.”
Perhaps it should no longer come as a surprise, but Wright even knows the Raptors DeMar DeRozan (is there anyone DeMar doesn’t know?) and he talked to him after the draft, DeRozan promising to look after him when he gets to Toronto.
“I’d say the first year of high school,” Wright explained. “We had a spring league at my school and (DeRozan’s) team would come play our varsity team, so I was always watching,” Wright said. “One of my friends, he actually knew DeMar so we got introduced like that and for the past three summers we played in the Drew league against each other and we met like that again.”
While the Drew league isn’t the NBA, it does feature a mix of professional and amateur players and is a great place for a college player to have their eyes opened about the skills players have at the next level.
“It’s fun for a guy like me because I was trying to make a name for myself,” Wright said. “I was playing with my brother and just playing against talent that was better than me at the time. It was real fun. I used that really to test my skills and try to prove that I could play on a par with them.”
Wright didn’t have to go back for his senior season at Utah. He could have come out early and he would have been a first round draft pick. However, when he told his parents he wanted to leave school, his Dad, brother and coaches all jump on him to stay and graduate and it was a very proud father at the ACC telling everyone his son had gotten his degree. Even Delon seems happy with the decision to stay after the fact.
“Actually to be honest, I told my coach I was leaving,” Wright confirmed. “He was out of town and he said wait, before you submit your papers, let’s have a meeting. We talked for about two hours, me and our assistant coach. He told me the pros and cons of making that decision and I believed him that I could come back and have a better year. My parents and my brother told me to come back too. I didn’t want to go against all those decisions. I wanted to come back and get my degree.
“I wasn’t ready to go to the NBA last year. This year, I was more prepared. I know what I have to do to get better, work on my body. I know what teams wanted from me, so I think my senior year really helped me.”
One way or another Casey is going to have to find minutes for the Raptors 2015 first round draft pick. He’ll probably have some rookie jitters early on, but with this kid, they shouldn’t last long. Wright, like Vasquez before him, isn’t afraid of what’s ahead of him and has the confidence necessary to have some success as a rookie and unlike Vasquez, this kid should earn minutes at the defensive end of the court. In Casey’s world that should count for a lot.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.
Raptors Athletic Scorer And Defender Norman Powell
“My toughness and defense, that’s something that translates to the NBA really well and my athleticism, I am able to get up into guys and create on the break and finish at the rim and at the free throw line. Athleticism and defense are things you can go on from day one and compete.”