Contrary to popular belief, Tyson Chandler’s departure from Dallas did not leave a gaping hole where a starting center should be. The Mavs may have lost a valuable contributor and an invaluable leader from their championship squad, but they retain Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi, a capable starter and reserve, respectively, to fill minutes in the middle. It’s certainly not an optimal arrangement, but considering the circumstances, Dallas is likely better off relying on their in-house bigs rather than re-signing Chandler to a team-stymying contract.
But even after giving Haywood and Mahinmi every benefit of the doubt, the Mavs were still in need of another utility big. With that need in mind, Donnie Nelson, Rick Carlisle, and Mark Cuban scanned the free agent market, considered the available possibilities, and…signed the unproven, 24-year-old Brandan Wright to a one-year deal for the league’s minimum salary. Wright may not be the free agent big man Mavs fans had in mind, but Carlisle clearly sees Wright’s potential as a reserve center.
But what, exactly does Carlisle see?
Wright is a difficult player to fully evaluate, for the simple reason that he hasn’t received all that much NBA playing time. Wright missed the entire 2009-2010 season with a shoulder injury, and has averaged just a shade under 13 minutes per game in 114 career games. If the dinkiness of that sample size isn’t enough to deter you from making any sweeping generalizations based on Wright’s numbers, also consider how poorly structure systems (in Golden State and New Jersey), a lack of a consistent role, and inconsistency due to injury and youth may have impacted Wright’s tangible performance. His numbers are hazy to say the least, and no statistical filter can offer us a clearer vision of the player Wright might be.
All we’re really left with is observable skill and tendency, with a mind to how playing with better teammates in a more structure system might improve his performance. Wright’s athleticism is his most easily accessible strength; no matter the context, it’s impossible to mask the quickness Wright shows when rolling to the basket, cutting through open space, or out on the break. He’s incredibly mobile, and that alone gives some reason to believe in his defensive potential. Wright doesn’t — and perhaps never will — have the bulk to battle opponents as a defender in the post, but if he can maneuver quickly through the paint and make the correct rotations, he could turn out to be a very valuable reserve defender.
Wright seems a way’s away from that point, but at present his quickness and length do well to mitigate his iffy decision making. Like so many other young players, Wright has shown a tendency to be duped; he’s a bit too willing to lunge toward a jab step or bite on a pump fake. Those things can obviously change, but only with playing time and repetition — the first of which could be difficult to come by for Wright. He’ll get opportunities for defensive improvement in practice, but in a shortened season with reduced practice time, he’ll need to do his homework.
Length alone makes Wright a fairly effective offensive rebounder, but his sloppy box-out technique limits his impact on the defensive glass. For the moment, Wright does a good chunk of his rebounding work out of position; he hustles in pursuit, utilizes his speed and leaping ability, and nabs the ball with his rangy arms. Thus far that’s been a reasonably effective approach, but it should be interesting to see how his board work improves with a bit more discipline.
Wright has a bit more polish on offense, where he seems to have a good understanding of court spacing and some decent post moves (including a decent lefty baby hook shot). That said, he currently lacks the means to fully utilize either. Wright may do a good job of floating into open space or making a cut along the baseline, but he doesn’t exactly have an array of consistent finishes. In the post, Wright can pivot and drop-step all he likes, but without a stronger base, he often fails to gain ground or create separation from his opponent. The footwork and mechanics are there, but a lack of size and strength drives the entire post sequence toward an inefficient end.
Still, considering the support structure that the Mavs are able to provide, Wright — especially on a one-year deal with minimal cost — is a smart gamble. Jason Kidd will make Wright’s life easy with lobs and bullet passes. Dirk Nowitzki will open up free lanes to the rim by drawing double teams. Assistant coach Monte Mathis will give Wright more defensive responsibilities than he’s ever had before, and hopefully push the 24-year-old a bit closer toward his potential. Wright will be surrounded by credible shooters, slashers, and playmakers on offense, and be embedded among the veterans of a sturdy system on defense. The framework is there to turn an intriguing athlete into a real player, but only if Wright gives due diligence to his new role and the accompanying charges.