This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
For weeks, the Toronto Raptors have been searching. Mired in perhaps their worst sustained stretch of play since The Rudy Gay Trade kicked off the best era of basketball in franchise history, the Raptors have spent all of 2017 so far grasping and clawing for any semblance of positivity, something to build on, anything at all to take the weight of an ugly losing skid off of their shoulders, and off of their brains.
Tuesday's acquisition of Serge Ibaka is meant to help in that regard. But after a grueling 24 hours of travel, physicals, goodbyes, and hellos, the Raptors opted to keep Ibaka out of the lineup Wednesday when they hosted the Charlotte Hornets. Patrick Patterson was kept out for just one more game, too, and the double-charged boost the Raptors so desperately need at the power forward position was effectively pushed back to Feb. 24.
The remaining Raptors, as has so often been the case lately, languished without them. A strong first quarter quickly devolved into shaky two-way basketball in the second, and separate Charlotte runs of 21-7 and 13-3 in the third appeared to solidify the Raptors' place at the All-Star break: They'd enter still sputtering, frustrated, and in need of the time off both physically and mentally.
They still had 12 minutes to search for a win, though, and for the second game in a row, head coach Dwane Casey got bizarre in trying to find an answer.
On Tuesday, Delon Wright made his long-awaited season debut and turned in 10 terrific minutes, nearly helping save another awful meeting with the Bulls by sparking a six-point turnaround. Wednesday, he found himself in the regular rotation, and Casey took his trust in the sophomore a step further, tasking the 6-foot-5 point guard with sliding over to small forward in a three-point guard lineup. Rookie Jakob Poeltl, a common but inconsistent spark plug himself, joined the three ball-handlers and DeMarre Carroll, forming a lineup that is closer to something Larry Krystkowiak is familiar with at Utah than the Raptors are in Toronto.
It's amazing what a shift in mentality and energy can do. For the second night in a row, Wright completely changed the tempo of the game, scattering the Charlotte defense with funky, amoebic drives and multi-tempo transition pushes, varying his speed and angles and generally keeping his man and the help defense guessing. Wright is not established to the point of defenses selling out to stop him, but some solid screens from Poeltl and the benefit of receiving passes from Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph meant that Wright was always attacking someone on their heels, and those someones had little answer.
First, Wright got to the line. Then he picked off a Kemba Walker pass and took it the length of the floor for a dunk. He set up a Joseph three, hit a difficult layup, then set up a Lowry three. Out of nowhere, a 15-0 run had erased Charlotte's stranglehold on the game almost entirely. As the Hornets continued to miss shots, the awkward Raptors fivesome surged, making it a 24-2 run and taking the lead. With 90 seconds to play, Wright ripped away a Nicolas Batum pass and went the distance to give the Raptors a five-point lead, effectively ending the game.
The final stat line may not jump out. Wright finished with 11 points and two assists in 28 minutes and now has a plus-17 rating over two appearances, during a pair of games in which the team was a minus-23 when he wasn't on the floor. It's not fair to assume Wednesday's fourth-quarter comeback will be any sort of turning point for the Raptors—it's just one game, and they still played poorly for the bulk of it—but Wright at least helped release an enormous weight off of the team. Heading into eight days off with a victory, however they came about it, is plainly preferable to going in with four straight losses, and the Raptors have Wright and Poeltl to thank for that.
Sidelined until January following offseason shoulder surgery, Wright's been waiting for this opportunity for some time. Last year, he spent his time in the D-League dominating, proving too savvy and advanced for that level. The torn labrum at Summer League came after showing more of the same there. In five rehab games in the D-League this year, he was borderline toying with opponents, reading the game at such a high level that he gave the impression he might be too advanced even for his teammates. But the Raptors employ Lowry and Joseph, and even Fred VanVleet had earned a look as the third point guard, and so Wright waited.
If Masai Ujiri and Jeff Weltman are done dealing—there's no indication they are—Wright might be done waiting. There's not a clear path to playing time, to be sure, but the ouster of Terrence Ross leaves the Raptors thin on the wings. Playing heavy minutes small like they did against Charlotte won't be necessary when Ibaka debuts (a Patterson-Ibaka frontcourt will probably be their most-frequent "small" lineup), but there will be nights when Casey needs a spark, Carroll needs a night off, or, if his struggles persist, Joseph's role needs to change.
With terrific height and length for the point guard position, Wright's a natural fit to help on the wing. The offseason injury limited a bit of his bulking up, but he's done a good job adding strength, and his defensive instincts help make him a little more versatile than his size might suggest. Offensively, Wright isn't a knock-down shooter yet, but he attacks off the catch with decisiveness, gets into the paint well, and the Raptors love having multiple ball-handlers on the floor to catch, attack, and kick back out.
It's not inconceivable that Wright is now considered part of the team's wing depth as much as he is their point guard depth. This isn't some single-game aberration, even if there's not a lot of NBA-level evidence yet: Wright is good, and has been showing so every time he gets the chance, at whatever level he's playing. The Raptors making a move to balance out their roster could change this and put Wright right back down the depth chart, of course. Maybe he's even made himself an attractive trade chip as a means to that end.
Whatever the case, Wright just helped give the Raptors the invaluable gift of relief ahead of eight days off. If things stay as they are coming out of that break, Wright may have also just played his way into semi-regular run as the team's new 10th man, taking up good friend Norman Powell's "why don't they get him more minutes" mantle.