Raptors leave Kyle Lowry’s understudy role in an open race

TORONTO, ON - MAY 05: Kyle Lowry
TORONTO, ON - MAY 05: Kyle Lowry /

What once seemed like an obvious decision in favour of Delon Wright backing up Kyle Lowry for the Raptors, has been muddied by Fred VanVleet’s play in summer league.

When Masai Ujiri traded Cory Joseph to the Indiana Pacers, a point guard vacuum opened up in the Raptors rotation. Back up point isn’t a glamour position, but it’s crucial.

Luckily, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright are the candidates to be Kyle Lowry‘s understudy. And what once seemed like an obvious decision, in favour of Wright taking up Joseph’s mantle, has been muddied by VanVleet’s play in summer league.

The old summer league adage goes as follows; you don’t know who’ll be good in the NBA, but you know who can’t play. And man can VanVleet play.

If you squint real hard, Vanvleet looked like Lowry in summer league. He led the Raptors with an averaging of 18.8 points and five assists, while shooting 55 percent from the floor in his four appearances.

It looked like he had everything Lowry has, minus the 3 ball. In fact, he’s a reluctant jump shooter even though he shot 37 percent from deep last season, taking less than one a game. Drives to the basket are how VanVleet made his way so far, and he continues to feed around the rim.

VanVleet, although only 6 foot tall (really he’s only 5 foot 11, but we’ll give it to him), has a knack for finishing at the rim. Mostly working off the pick and roll or open floor, he’s able to use his speed and change of direction to lambaste those defending him on his way to the rim.

VanVleet makes the pass too, although reluctantly. He’s demonstrated vision (and chemistry) in the two-man game with Jakob Poeltl all summer long.

In fact, VanVleet worked with Pascal Siakam and Poeltl  (both of whom are back ups this year) in extended stretches for the entirety of summer league, while Wright is on vacation. There’s been no clear-cut indication as to who Dwane Casey wants as the back up point guard and that extra chemistry could be an advantage on the court and in the coaches’ eyes, when looking for point guard minutes.

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Obviously, it’s easy to say this is just summer league and VanVleet is crushing scrubs, but someone needs to help put points on the board now that both Joseph and Patrick Patterson are gone. If VanVleet can bring that scoring to the big stage, he could circumvent Wright.

Early on, Wright was the obvious choice to become Lowry’s understudy, just by seniority. He spent the majority of the 2016-17 campaign injured and when he returned, he was readily placed behind CoJo in the lineup. But when Lowry had a stretch of injury after the All-Star break, we got to see what Wright actually looks like in significant role.

Wright isn’t a scorer… at all. He only put up 5.6 points per game last year. He relies on his passing by using his Hawk Eye.

Wright isn’t LeBron level or even Lonzo Ball level, but he’s at least a Mike Conley level passer. Along with his contemporaries on the Raptors, he does most of his damage in the half court through the screen and roll, or solo drive and kicks. And boy does he kick it.

Wright is a pass-first point guard, something the Raptors haven’t seen in this prosperous era of basketball. And the problem with that is, Wright’s passing sometimes comes to a point of over-passing.

It may just be in his nature to pass so frequently, or it’s possible he’s hesitant to go up and finish over people. When you see guards hitting the deck trying and succeeding to make outrageous layups, it skews your perception of what really is normal. Regardless, Wright naturally has the vision and mindset of the offensive culture reset Ujiri and fans have wanted for years now.

There have been complaints from former Raptors, that there was a lack of trust on offence and the isolation play style was to blame. Wright is the perfect player to mitigate that – he doesn’t need to dominate the ball to make his decisions.

Much like the late Patterson, he’s a wise ball mover within the team. Smart swing passes thinking a pass ahead are usually out of his hands in milliseconds.

Too bad DeMarre Carroll will never be around to see it.

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Also, at 6 foot 5 with a 6 foot 7 wing span, Wright provides a defensive benefit Casey never fully experienced until now. Wright can reasonably dance through three positions for at least short periods of time, without looking too fragile.

Casey loves to play guards, which meant CoJo and Lowry playing alongside each other. Which also mean playing two dudes who are 6 foot tall.

CoJo could guard 2’s in a pinch due to his tenacity but with Powell sometimes playing small forward off the bench, that left the Raptors playing three guys 6 foot 4 or smaller. Playing VanVleet would only lead to the same problem.

Enter Wright, with the coveted switchability that’s championed throughout the league today. Wright alongside Lowry (and Norman Powell) makes for a hyper active, switchable defence.

With his height advantage coupled with his length, Wright is able to completely engulf point guards of a smaller stature, while still contesting larger ones. Which means a lot of ball denial, deflections and steals.

Deflections aren’t listed in the boxscore, but they bring a palpable irritation to the Raptors defence. Quick reflexes combined with keen knowledge of passing angles, is what makes a stellar off-ball defender and Wright possesses the attributes.

Not allowing your defender to get the ball almost equals stopping them from getting a good look, with the ball in their hands. And when you can intercept the pass, it’s all the better.

Especially when guarding point guards, Wright shuts off the flow of the offence before it can get started. Wide receivers wasting precious time dancing at the line of scrimmage to escape a jam destroys plays, especially when you’re the number one option.

The same logic is ascribed to basketball.  Six seconds trying to get the ball into your hands stagnating the offence, could have been six seconds spent finding an open man for a bucket.

Next: Stephen Jackson rips DeMarre Carroll for his comments

Both point guards have been by coach Casey in seasons passed so we know they can play, but to what extent? There has always been a safety net behind them if they fail: A large lead, inexperience at the NBA level, or filling in for an injury have all been safety blanks these young guards could hide underneath.

But now the team is relying on one of them to produce. Both players have their benefits in very different ways. Now, it’s up to these young guards to prove they belong in the rotation.