One of the realities of sports writing is that one can only possess so much data in their head at once before they have to really hit the research to complete a piece. That research takes many forms - old notes, statistics, reading fellow sportswriters - but nothing replaces actually sitting down and watching games.
With all of the hubbub that swept up the Raptors' world in recent days, just trying to keep up with the latest developments took an abnormal amount of attention. So when Antoine Wright and Devan George got thrown into the mega-deal between Toronto, Orlando, Dallas and Memphis, I relied on stats without context and memory to assess where they might slide into the Raptors' plans.
Once the dust settled, though, I could go back to the tape (so to speak, since I archive my games on DVD) to get a better look at both players. While George is a familiar personage from his years with the Lakers, his body has begun to betray him so his status with the club depends on his ability to keep himself healthy. If he can maintain, his size (6'8") and defence would be a welcome asset deep on the bench at small forward. Antoine Wright, on the other hand, proved upon review to be a revelation. Truly, he's a guy that could completely reassemble the rest of Toronto's off-season plans.
First, a primer: Wright was one of the many forgotten picks from the 2005 draft class that saw very few players even nab a qualifying offer. Men like him, Channing Frye, Ike Diogu, Fran Vazquez, Yaroslav Korolev, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Joey Graham made up a fairly unremarkable group of players taken between Chris Paul and Danny Granger on draft night. They became men lost amongst the other cogs of the NBA machine and many have been forgotten about since.
Wright, though, could be close to clawing his way out of that distinction. When he came into the league out of Texas A&M, he was sold as a deadly spot-up shooter meant to fortify a New Jersey club in need of that attribute. His shot, however, never developed the level of consistency needed to belong to a sharpshooter in the NBA and the Nets declined to even pick the fourth-year option on his contract. He was an expiring contract salary throw-in in the Jason Kidd megadeal last season and looked to be headed for a one-way ticket out of the league.
However, sometimes dire circumstances encourage forced alternatives.
In lieu of perfecting a shooting masterstroke, Wright sought other options that could help him stick in the league. He committed his above-average size for a shooting guard (6'7") and his quality foot speed to becoming an asset on the defensive end of the floor. He learned how to stick to perimeter players to disrupt their penetration. He learned how to steer the players he couldn't stop towards waiting help defence. He learned how to rotate in help defence situations and in doing all of that he became an asset for his new team, the Dallas Mavericks. He was such an asset, in fact, that the team inked him to a new two-year deal when his contract expired last summer.
Last year Wright became a prominent member of Dallas' rotation. While guys like J.J. Barea and Brandon Bass got all the attention as role players for the club, it was Wright who was starting games as the team's stopper on the perimeter. When the second round of the Playoffs rolled around it was Wright, not Jason Kidd, who was entrusted with slowing Chauncey Billups out of the gate. Typically, it wasn't until Wright was switched onto Carmelo Anthony later in games that Billups began to operate unencumbered. He was by far the most effective defender Dallas had to throw at Denver's top perimeter players and he got real minutes in a crowded wing rotation to prove it. While he's not quite of the caliber of guys like Shane Battier or Ron Artest, he is certainly better equipped than former Raptor Anthony Parker to matchup against the opposition's better wing talent. With all of the questions regarding the wing depth this team needs to sort through, a big answer may have been dropped in their laps last Thursday.
Put it this way: If Antoine Wright isn't starting for this club at shooting guard on opening night it would be a serious oversight on the part of the Raptors' brass.
What Wright brings to the table are exactly the attributes this team needs at that spot. Since they decided to swap Shawn Marion for Hedo Turkoglu, they need a guy that they can stick on opposing wings to stop them from burning the club with penetration (a huge issue for the team a year ago). Wright can guard all but the biggest and burliest of perimeter players (he had his trouble denying position to Carmelo Anthony in the aforementioned series, for instance) and he does so without needing touches to stay focused on that task.
As for his jumper, it's still not pretty. The positive, though, is that Wright has developed a very reliable around-the-basket game to compensate, and he has become much more prone to turning down long jumpers in favor of putting the ball on the floor and getting to the hoop. He's a player more than willing to sublimate his role offensively to more talented teammates, but he isn't a guy who will shy away from taking the right shots presented by the defence. The biggest difference in having him in the fold offensively is that on perimeter rotations he's more apt to drive the ball from the corner pocket rather than take three-pointers. In a lineup with Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon and Hedo Turkoglu, his lack of three-point shooting won't be missed if he can bring what he brought in Dallas at the defensive end of the floor.
Another positive Wright brings to the Raptors is his ability to guard point guards, combined with his respectable handle, which will help second-unit lineups immensely this coming season. Hedo Turkoglu is very Lamar Odom-esque in his tendency to fade out of games when the ball isn't in his hands. While Jose Calderon will be charged with handling the primary playmaking duties for the first unit, any combination that allows Hedo to take over that role for the second unit is a boon for the club. With Wright the Raptors could bring in DeRozan for Calderon, allow Antoine to guard the opposing ‘one' and let Hedo be the man who creates plays on offence. There is no let up in that configuration and the size the Raptors would field on the perimeter could actually cause problems for teams trying to guard them. This keeps Hedo involved, gets DeRozan minutes, and keeps the team's best perimeter defender on the floor.
Still, why should any of this refocus the club's vision towards free agency in the coming weeks? Well, for the longest time the Raptors have mentally committed to bringing Carlos Delfino back into the fold. While doing so wouldn't pose any problems for this lineup, one wonders if it's really the best use of the team's remaining finances. Wright is a far superior defender than Delfino, and he doesn't force his offence when he touches the ball (a must for a starting five with so many offensive hands to feed). In fact, last season Wright actually had a higher field goal percentage (.415) than Delfino did in his last NBA season with Toronto (.397). While Delfino could still be used as a scorer off of the bench, that role could also be filled by far more capable options in free agency. The Raptors have been known to have interest in Denver's Linas Kleiza, a scoring big man who can play both forward slots, which is helpful for a team with minimal frontcourt scoring in the second unit. The club could afford to throw a few more pennies Kleiza's way in an attempt to prevent Denver from matching the deal if they were to decide not to bring Delfino back to town. While there is nothing stopping them from signing both (the team still has Delfino's Bird rights and the full mid-level exception to use on players like Kleiza), Bryan Colangelo has spoken of wanting to maintain some fiscal flexibility in case the luxury tax threshold drops as precipitously as some are predicting next summer. Sticking to adding players on a purely ‘need' basis would seem to qualify as a solution to that worry.
It's funny how sometimes, in a rush to get a deal done, the ideal player falls to a team just to round out the financial considerations. It happened to the Lakers with Shannon Brown, it happened to Phoenix with Boris Diaw and now the Raptors may have found it in Wright. In fact, the Raptors would have been hard-pressed to find a more appropriate starting shooting guard on the open market than Wright - especially for the price - since all it cost them was Kris Humphries. Is Wright the absolute best-case scenario as a player for this team? No, of course not. However, he's a solid fit for a team in dire need of role players who specialize in defence and could be poised to breakout as this year's Dahntay Jones if the Raptors can make some noise in the Eastern Conference standings. After spending three days watching tape on Wright, I'm convinced. Now all he has to do is convince someone that actually matters.