I still notice myself getting rushed in different situations because I’m not used to them yet. But I feel like every single game I pick up on new stuff, I get more comfortable out there. —Toronto's center Jakob Poeltl
SALT LAKE CITY — When addressing the media Thursday afternoon in advance of his team’s game Friday night against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Arena, Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey used a number of superlatives to describe guard Delon Wright and center Jakob Poeltl.
Offering effusive praise for Wright’s defensive ability and Poeltl’s basketball IQ while calling the former University of Utah stars “beautiful kids” might have been overstatements for a pair of players who come off the bench, but it speaks to the jump in production the two have given the Raptors through their first seven games of the 2017-2018 season.
In his third season with Toronto since being selected 20th overall in the 2015 NBA draft, Wright has become Casey’s primary backup point guard behind All-Star Kyle Lowry after the Raptors traded the steady Cory Joseph to the Indiana Pacers over the summer in exchange for former Jazzman C.J. Miles.
Poeltl is in his second season after getting chosen with the ninth pick of the 2016 draft and is replacing frontcourt players such as Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker, who are now with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, respectively.
A stat-sheet stuffer during his career with the Runnin’ Utes, the 6-foot-5, 190-pound Wright is averaging 8.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and three assists in 24.1 minutes per game thus far, while Poeltl has posted averages of eight points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 19.3 minutes per contest.
While that great future is starting to come into view, it didn’t appear quite as bright before this season began. Wright appeared in just 54 games total his first two years in the Association (a good chunk of that because of injury), while Poeltl played in 54 games his rookie year as Toronto made it to the second round of the playoffs.
“It helped them to understand patience, understand how hard the grind is,” Casey said of the duo not playing a whole lot before this year. “I think a lot of times we expect young players to come into the NBA and just pick everything up, but they don’t understand the grind part — how hard you have to work to earn it, to keep your minutes, to keep your position on the team, to get better. It’s a grind.”
Casey acknowledged it can be a challenge to give young players enough game experience to develop while still trying to win (the Raptors are 4-3 thus far), but said Wright and Poeltl both belong in the NBA.
“Mentally, they’re NBA ready,” he said, giving particular credit to Runnin’ Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak for how he developed them. “It’s just some speed of the game situations, some things they haven’t experienced before that get them every once in a while, but it probably won’t get them very many times overall.”
Poeltl echoed Casey on that note, saying he feels much more in control on the court now than he did last season, but said there’s still room for improvement.
“I still notice myself getting rushed in different situations because I’m not used to them yet,” he said, “but I feel like every single game I pick up on new stuff, I get more comfortable out there.”
While Poeltl’s lesson on patience is primarily based on what’s happening to him on the floor, Wright’s has been largely rooted in the fact he hasn’t been able to play much.
“The first few years were tough because I had to sit and watch and I wanted to play, but now it’s time for me to step up and prove why they picked me,” he said, adding that the months between last season and this one was the first time since he entered the league that he’s had a real offseason “I think it’s just time for me to step into my own.”
While both said having the bond of being former Runnin’ Utes has worn off a good bit over time, it’s still fun when they return to the Beehive State.
Said Poeltl: “It’s really cool to know that we both, plus (Los Angeles Lakers rookie) Kyle (Kuzma), all had a good time during college, had some success here and that we all made it to the next level and are enjoying some success here now, too.”