Toronto Raptors: Young backcourt boasts a star in the making

Since Masai Ujiri arrived, the Raptors have balanced competing and acquiring quality youth at the same time. These two ideas will meet this season.


A budding backcourt duo

Third-year guard Norman Powell burst into the national spotlight in the spring of 2016 – April of that year to be exact. It was Game 5 of the Toronto’s first round matchup against the Indiana Pacers, a game in which the team needed to win and one which displayed Powell’s enormous potential. The 24-year-old has since become a lynchpin of success for the Raptors, functioning as the team’s de facto closer at different points last season, and he will enter this season looking to increase his productivity in the first extended opportunity of his career.

Backcourt mate Delon Wright will also receive his first chance at a consistent role off the bench thanks in part to the departure of Cory Joseph, who was previously the team’s primary backup point guard, and also due to the potential he has shown in the short amount of time he has been on the floor in his career.

The two players have essentially become the bedrock of the Raptors’ future – evidence of the team’s ability to both compete and build a young, successful NBA roster. What the Raptors will ultimately need from these two this upcoming season isn’t offensive production, however, but gritty, hard-nosed defense game after game.

While experience is currently not on their side, both players possess a natural ability to play excellent defense – if not now, then at some point in the future. Each of them comes with his own strengths and weaknesses however, and will focus on improving these abilities as the season plays on.

It’s Delon Wright’s time to step up

At 25-years-old, Wright brings the maturity needed to lead an extremely young bench unit comprised primarily of players on rookie scale contracts, even if he’s just as inexperienced. Between Powell and himself, Wright is the player who possesses the most defensive potential on the court for a number of reasons.

Standing 6’5” with a 6’7” wingspan, along with excellent foot speed and high-level instincts, Wright has the components that are essential in becoming a quality defensive specialist at point guard in the NBA. He’s proven to be a ball hawk despite limited playing time, racking up four blocks in a single game last season against the Wizards, as well as averaging a steal per game in just 16 minutes off the bench. What he will do with consistent time on the floor has Toronto fans salivating.

Along with his physical prowess compared to other players at his position, Wright is an extremely instinctual ball player on the defensive end. This innate ability is, for the most part, what helps him secure such numerous steals and blocks during a season. During his two years of Division I basketball at Utah, he posted a total of 155 steals over 68 games – a 2.3 per game average – as well as averaging more than a block per game as a point guard.

His hands quickly became the hallmark of his college career and helped earn him the 2015 Bob Cousy Award, given to the best collegiate point guard in the nation.

Norman Powell is a budding star

For as impressive as Wright can be on defense, Powell is just as impressive overall. Of everyone on the Raptors, it’s debatable that his future is the brightest of anyone. Yet, for all of his success, the rise from G League regular to rotation player in the NBA has been an arduous one. Powell entered the league with one above average skill set – defense – and several he needed to work on, namely his shooting ability.

As a result, Powell spent most of his rookie campaign in practice sessions launching hundreds of three pointers in order to become the 35% three-point shooter he is today. However, being serviceable on offense is a secondary need this season. Being a Swiss Army knife on defense is what will get him minutes in the rotation.

For as long as Wright is, Powell’s 6’4” frame and 6’10” wingspan put him in exclusive company as far as guards are concerned. This length gives him the ability to guard much bigger players, at a number of different positions on the floor. To illustrate, in a game between New York and Toronto last season, Powell was tasked with guarding Kristaps Porzingis – the Knicks’ 7’3” unicorn of a human being who, at the time, was leading a comeback thanks to his offensive output. Following his new assignment, Powell succeeded in shutting down Porzingis, and consequently the Knicks’ hopes for a victory.

It is ultimately Powell’s potential as a utility option on defense that will help Dwane Casey make up for the loss of both P. J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson – two defensive specialists that were essential in resurrecting the team’s defense after the All-Star break last season. Placing Powell and Wright on the floor together, along with center Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and eventually the team’s 2017 first round pick OG Anunoby, will create a potent lineup capable of replicating that defensive success.

The offense is already present on this Raptors team. These two players will help carry the load on what needs to be near flawless defensive execution should Toronto want to play in June this upcoming season.

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