They really understood what it takes to play at that level. They weren’t just doing what you asked them to do, but going beyond that, with time in the gym and studying film. It’s been fun to see things come together for them. —Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, on Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl
In NBA circles they’ve become known as The Bench Mob, a nickname earned by the Toronto Raptor reserve players. Augmented by two former University of Utah players, they are the best bench in the NBA this season on the best team in the Eastern Conference.
You might not have known any of this to watch them drop Game 1 of their second-round playoff series to the Cleveland Cavaliers last night. The Raptors have been knocked out of the playoffs the last two years by the Cavs, but this year was figured to be a different story, at least partly because of their deep bench, which features two local collegians — Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl.
Wright has been the team’s fourth leading scorer in the playoffs, at 10 points per game. In the first-round series against the Washington Wizards, he had two 18-point games. After the second of those games, the Wizards’ Kelly Oubre told the Washington Post, “The next game is a different story. We’re back home. Just like Delon doesn’t play well anywhere else other than at home. You can chalk it up as the same story.”
You know you’ve arrived when your opponents single you out after a game. Wright scored only four points in the next game, but the Raptors won easily to close out the series. In that game, the Bench Mob outscored the entire Washington team in the fourth quarter and totaled 34 points, seven assists and six steals. The Bench Mob has averaged 41.3 points, 17.5 rebounds, 9.4 assist and 3.9 assists this season. Ten players play at least 18 minutes per game.
Wright, in his third season, ranks fifth on the team in minutes played (20.8) and sixth in scoring (8.6), but in the playoffs his minutes have jumped to 24.8. Poeltl, in his second season, has averaged 18.6 minutes and 6.9 points.
“(Toronto’s) bench is one of the strongest in the NBA,” says Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “And both Delon and Jakob a big part in it.”
During the regular season, Krystkowiak is rarely able to watch his former players, but during the playoffs “it becomes a priority. I put things on hold to do it. I love to watch them play on TV. I’m hoping to catch a game or two live. It’s pretty special to watch a couple of your guys and it’s fun to see them do some damage.”
Krystkowiak was able to sign both players at Utah only because of unusual circumstances and because the U. goes to great lengths to find players others missed. In 2014, Ute assistant Andy Hill flew to Macedonia and watched a whopping 38 games in an under-18 tournament to see if he could uncover an undiscovered talent. He found the 7-foot Poeltl. By the time other schools discovered him, it was too late. Poeltl was won over by Krystkowiak’s willingness to fly 6,000 miles to recruit him — twice. That’s 24,000 miles of round-trip travel. Few other coaches were willing to do that even once. On the second trip, Krystkowiak didn’t even stay 24 hours, but his appearance made an impression.
“If a kid is going to leave his homeland and come that many miles, it’s important that you are willing to do that,” says Krystkowiak. “It’s important to make that statement.”
When Poeltl joined the Utes in 2014, Wright was already on the roster. He was a brilliant high school player in the Los Angeles area, but academic deficiencies forced him to sign with San Francisco Community College, and two years later Utah signed him. Utah had had two losing seasons to that point. With Wright, the Utes won 21 games in 2013-14, and a year later, with three future NBA first-round draft picks on the roster, the Utes won 26 games and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16.
Wright was named first-team All-Pac-12 as a junior and senior and won the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard. He was the 20th pick of the 2015 draft.
“He makes people around him better,” says Krystkowiak. “You don’t have to be a genius to know he makes you a lot better coach. He was instrumental in us winning a lot of games.”
Wright’s older brother, Dorell, was the 19th pick of the 2006 draft (drafted straight out of high school). He played nearly a dozen seasons in the NBA, setting franchise records for 3-point shooting while with the Miami Heat. That connection helped Delon hone his game.
“He was playing in the gym with Dorell and other NBA players in the summer,” says Krystkowiak. “That’s one of the best ways to reach your potential.”
Poeltl had no such advantages. He is believed to be the first Austrian-born athlete to play in the NBA. His parents were volleyball players (they played on the national team). Notwithstanding, he quickly became a force. He won the Newell Big Man Award and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award and was Pac-12 Player of the Year. Like Wright, he played just two seasons before declaring for the NBA draft. He was the ninth player chosen in the 2016 draft (a year later, Kyle Kuzma would be the 27th player taken in the draft, giving the Utes a first-round pick for three straight seasons).
“(Delon and Jakob) are two fantastic kids,” says Krystkowiak. “They really understood what it takes to play at that level. They weren’t just doing what you asked them to do, but going beyond that, with time in the gym and studying film. It’s been fun to see things come together for them.”