For the Dallas Mavericks, one of the first calls in free agency was to restricted free agent Delon Wright. The 26-year-old Wright had just been traded to Memphis in February as the key piece in a deal sending Marc Gasol to Toronto. After a stellar end to the season, Wright hit restricted free agency with all signs pointing toward Wright staying with the young core in Memphis.
Then Dallas came calling.
The Mavericks worked together with Memphis on a sign-and-trade that would send Wright to Dallas in exchange for two second-round picks and the rights to Satnam Singh. Dallas got a starting point guard to go alongside Luka Doncic in the back court, one they’d targeted from the beginning. So why was the 26-year-old Wright one of Dallas’ first calls in free agency?
The obvious answer is the defense. One of the first things ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said when reporting on the trade was that “Wright is 6-foot-5, elite size for a point guard, and he can defend multiple positions.” The Mavericks have been searching for a top-flight backcourt defender and Wright gives them exactly that. He can guard spots 1-3 in the lineup and will take on the toughest point guard assignments as the league is littered with stars at that position. Defensively, it was a perfect fit.
But it wasn’t just the defense that made Wright a match here.
Wright was drafted 20th overall in the 2015 NBA Draft by Toronto, where he would join a Raptors team that already had Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph at the point guard spots. Two summers later, the Raptors traded Joseph to the Indiana Pacers, thus opening up a key backcourt spot for Wright off the bench. He took advantage of the opportunity in the 2017-18 season.
Wright was fifth on the team in minutes per game at 20.8 and was a key rotational piece off the bench for a Raptors squad that finished first in the Eastern Conference with 59 wins. Wright put up career highs in points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage. He also shot 36 percent from beyond the arc and 41 percent on unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunities. It was the best statistical season of his young career and it contributed to the best record in the Eastern Conference.
His role in Dallas could look similar to his role in Toronto. Not because he’ll come off the bench or play just 20 minutes (both of which will probably change in Dallas), but because he didn’t play his traditional primary ball-handler role off the bench with the Raptors. Wright shared the backcourt with Fred VanVleet and formed one of the best bench guard pairings in the league.
Of the 783 minutes played together in the 2017-18 season, Wright and VanVleet had a net rating of +13.9. Of all the two-man lineups in the league that season, this was the ninth-best two-man lineup net rating in the NBA. Wright even played alongside Kyle Lowry for 373 minutes that season and had a +3.4 net rating while on the floor with him. Bottom line: Wright isn’t a typical backup point guard who’s used to being the primary ball-handler and needs to run the offense when he’s on the floor. In fact, you could make a case that he’s best when he’s sharing the ball handling duties alongside another primary ball-handler.
Enter Luka Doncic.
Although this piece is about Delon Wright fitting in offensively with the Mavericks, you can also point toward a certain Doncic stat that shows even the rookie of the year is at his best when playing with another ball-handler alongside of him. Of the players Doncic played over 200 minutes with last season, his highest two-man lineup net rating was playing alongside J.J. Barea in the back court with a net rating of +15.4.
Now, Wright gives Doncic and the Mavs the best of both worlds. Going back to the beginning of last season, Doncic was surrounded by the defense of Wesley Matthews and the secondary playmaking of Dennis Smith Jr. With the addition of Wright, it gives the Mavs somewhat of a combination of those two players at the point guard spot to go alongside Doncic. Essentially, the same type of role that Wright played alongside VanVleet in Toronto, he will now replicate in Rick Carlisle’s system alongside Doncic in the starting unit.
One of the obvious questions for Wright on offense is his outside shot. A career 33 percent shooter from the outside, Wright shot 36 percent from 3 his last year in college at Utah and 36 percent from three during his 2017-18 season in Toronto. Last year, he finished the season shooting 29 percent from deep. But as always, context matters. Before the midseason trade to Memphis, Wright averaged 1.8 3s per game at a 33 percent clip. It was during his 26-game stint with the Grizzlies that he shot just 25 percent from beyond the arc on a career-high three attempts per game. What changed? The biggest difference was his role in the offense.
Wright went to Memphis and was thrust into a primary-ball handler role. Of the two five-man lineups that Wright played over 50 minutes with in Memphis, Wright was the lone ball-handler and primary shot creator. In 49 games in Toronto prior to the trade last season, Wright had 42 possessions in which he attempted a jump shot off the dribble. In just 26 games with Memphis after the trade, Wright had 37 possessions in which he took a jump shot off the dribble, just five less possessions in 23 fewer games. Wright went from being a complementary ball-handler alongside VanVleet in Toronto to a primary ball-handler in Memphis. More minutes and more shots on a team headed toward a high lottery pick doesn’t always result in the best shooting percentages, but he was still very productive during that time.
The highlight of his time in Memphis obviously came at the end of the season when Wright closed out the season recording three triple-doubles in his last four games, two of which came against the Mavericks. In the April 5 game in Dallas, Wright put up 26 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds on 10-of-19 shooting in the 10-point win over the Mavs. An up-close preview for his future team.
Back to Wright’s shooting, his catch-and-shoot numbers is the area in which Wright must excel this season if he wants to hit his true potential. In his 26 games in Memphis, Wright scored at 1.34 points per possession on 29 unguarded catch-and-shoot possessions. During Wright’s 2017-18 season in Toronto, Wright was in the 70th percentile in catch-and-shoot attempts (guarded and unguarded) scoring at a rate of 1.12 PPP. While we still have to see exactly what the Doncic and Porzingis pairing will bring, one certainty is that players around them will get catch-and-shoot opportunities. And unguarded catch and shoot opportunities is exactly what Wright needs.
A question thrown out about every addition to every team is whether that player can play in the playoffs or not. Here, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, Wright shows that he can be an outside threat as he knocks down the shot after the defense collapses on Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam. Now, imagine how many of these attempts he will get playing alongside Doncic and Porzingis.
On a side note regarding shooting, Wright is also an 80 percent career free throw shooter and shot 86 percent from the line in Toronto before being traded to Memphis last season. Wright’s dribble penetration and ability to get into the paint consistently with his herky-jerky style of offense should create ample opportunities to get to the line even more often in Dallas.
Another area on the offensive side of the ball that Wright can take advantage of in Dallas is in transition. While Wright was above-average in transition opportunities last season, he excelled in transition during his 2017-18 Toronto campaign when he came off the bench with VanVleet. Of players with at least 100 transition possessions that season, Wright scored at a rate of 1.25 PPP, which was top 20 in the league. Using his 6-foot-5 frame, Wright has the unique ability to crash the boards and get out in transition at the same time without having to find another person to bring the ball up the court. Combine that with a Mavericks team that wants to get faster this season and you have a recipe that could produce something special.
Bottom line: The stage is set for Wright to take the next step offensively in Dallas. He heads back to a similar, dual ball-handling situation in Dallas with a fast-paced duo that will create catch-and-shoot and transition opportunities. Much will be made about the defensive possibilities that the 27-year-old Wright will bring, but playing in Carlisle’s dual ball-handling system alongside Doncic could be the key to unlocking the rest of Wright’s offensive potential.
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