VICTORIA — The trading of Canadian point guard Cory Joseph to the Indiana Pacers this past summer could go down as the pivotal moment in Delon Wright's career.
The 25-year-old, who'd spent the better part of the past two seasons buried deep down the rotation, admitted he was a "little shocked" when Joseph was shipped to Indy. But a proverbial door had swung wide open, and determination quickly replaced shock.
"I just had to look at myself in the mirror and say: They have faith in you now, and it's time to get ready," Wright said.
Shoulder surgery sidelined Wright for the first four months of last season, but his performance down the stretch — including a 21-game stint as Joseph's backup when starter Kyle Lowry was recovering from hand surgery — earned applause from coach Dwane Casey.
Two days into Raptors' training camp at the University of Victoria, Wright is playing a key role.
"(The departure of Joseph) puts the laser right on Delon's chest," Casey said. "It puts the lens right on him. It's his time. He's a versatile young man. He's got length, he's got size. He's worked on his three-point shot. He's one of our better passers, and that is an NBA skill that's overlooked.
"But we're looking for big things out of Delon. . . the opportunity is there for him."
After injuring his shoulder in the summer of 2016, Wright relished his first full off-season to train since joining the NBA. The University of Utah product worked out in his hometown of Los Angeles with teammate Norm Powell. The two arrived as rookies together after the 2015 draft — the Raptors took Wright 20th, 26 spots ahead of Powell. The two also did a handful of workouts with Toronto's DeMar DeRozan, along with Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade, the newest member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Working with Westbrook, Wright said, was particularly insightful.
"(It was) a one-on-one type of thing. Russ, when me and Norm I wouldn't say did something wrong but if it was something (Westbrook) thought we should change, he'd stop us and coach us," Wright said. "I think that really helped. DeMar, also. And also getting to see how they prepare for a year. Just little things."
Wright has formed a strong bond with the 24-year-old Powell, who's also clawed his way up the Raptors' rotation — and potentially into a starter's role this season.
"He's helped a lot," Wright said of Powell. "Being a second-round pick, he didn't come in and be bitter about that. He came in and has been working hard. He's been pushing me. I see him working every day and it inspires me to work hard, too."
Even before the departure of Joseph, Wright said he was looking to move up from the No. 3 spot.
"I was just going to compete and let the chips fall where they may," he said. "I just knew it was going to be a different year, different approach for me."
With the backup spot virtually his for the taking, the young player views it as opportunity rather than pressure.
"I just think it's my third year and that time was going to come soon," he said. "I think it's me being prepared and ready to take on that role."
With Wright, Powell, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, virtually half the Raptors' rotation will feature players with less than three years in the league.
"You've got to realize there's an opportunity to take advantage of," DeRozan said of the youth movement. "There's no more excuses, no more playing that 'young card,' you've got to go out there and play extremely hard. You've got the youth, that freshness in your legs and everything, it's on us to put that knowledge into their brains during training camp and pre-season, so when we get started they understand what it takes."
DeRozan pointed out that this group has an advantage that he didn't as a young player. They've been part of a winning Raptors team.
"I remember my first couple of years, I didn't make it to the playoffs, so I didn't know what it was like," said DeRozan, who's going into his ninth season with Toronto. "So everything, I had to learn later in my career."
Lowry said he's also looking forward to imparting some wisdom in the team's young players, particularly Wright and fellow point guard Fred VanVleet.
Lowry, who's more about tenacity than finesse, sees VanVleet, with his comparable build, developing into a similar sort of player. The rangy Wright, on the other hand, is "completely different than I am. He's long, lanky, he uses his athleticism," Lowry said. "He has a different pace."
"I want both of them to be successful, I believe both will be good. I want to help them as much as I can. Whatever that takes, whatever that means, I want to do it because I really respect those kids and I really like them and I think that they will be a big part of what we do and we'll need them."
Both backup guards will see some game action when the Raptors host an open scrimmage at the University of Victoria on Thursday night. They'll practice once more Friday before departing for Honolulu for a pair of pre-season games against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press