by Matthew Snyder / @schnides14
The City College of San Francisco men’s basketball team had assembled on a fall day in 2011. It was time to pick jerseys for the upcoming season.
Rams head coach Justin Labagh sifted through the roster, beginning with the most senior members and working on down. The perennially popular digits, like No. 23, are usually snatched up quickly, and this occasion proved no different. Then, Labagh came to a spindly freshman named Delon Wright. “What number do you want?” Labagh remembers asking.
Wright looked up and said he didn’t care. He’d take anything.
The last number available was 55. Wright’s teammates began laughing—that’s a big man’s number, not one for a 6-5 guard, like Wright. “But he genuinely didn’t care,” Labagh says during a phone conversation, recalling the moment. “None of that stuff, like shoes or socks, bothered him. I don’t think he combed his hair his entire freshman year. His parents did a real good job keeping him grounded.”
Wright’s focus has been turned irrevocably toward his future for some time now. All the extraneous trappings that preoccupy so many college kids? Not for him. When Wright first visited CCSF in the summer of ’11, he was reeling from a difficult year at Rise Academy, a prep school in Philadelphia. He’d headed the prep school route in the first place after posting dismal grades as a freshman and sophomore at Leuzinger (CA) High. He didn’t graduate then, and he wouldn’t from Rise, either.
But you don’t need a GED to attend a California junior college; your prerogative is to obtain an Associate of Arts degree in order to continue on to a four-year institution. Labagh recalls that Wright was quiet during the trip to CCSF, which is near the southern border of the city. His older brother, Dorell, an NBA swingman then with the Golden State Warriors, did most of the talking.
Over the course of their conversation, Labagh, who’s enjoyed incredible success at CCSF, made Wright a promise—well, two, actually. He’d help the lanky guard get to the next level, a Division I program. He’d also help him get his grades right. “I told Delon on his visit, ‘70 percent of my job is navigating you through junior college. I know you can play, but nothing counts unless you graduate.’”
Labagh has a saying he invokes frequently: Put yourself in a position to be in a position. If you want to play at the highest collegiate level, if you want coaches to invest a scholarship in you, you have to hit the books. Wright signed on.
Throughout Wright’s freshman year, Labagh kept tabs and made sure he completed a certain amount of study hours. That forged better habits, which in turn fostered a burgeoning scholastic aptitude.
Then, Wright poured himself into strengthening his game. He’d head to the gym twice a week from 8 to 9 in the morning to put up shots with Brad Duggan, a longtime Rams coach whose name is emblazoned upon the CCSF home court. Teammates Quincy Smith and Joe Slocum, who now attend—and play for—Hawai’i and Alaska Fairbanks, respectively, would join him. “As a coach, you wonder if they’ll wear down, but they did that the whole season,” Labagh says. “It was their meditation. Sometimes, the lights in the gym wouldn’t even be fully on, but they’d put up game shots. They weren’t just messing around.”
Wright became a two-time California JuCo player of the year—despite averaging around 25 minutes per game for deep Rams teams. His stat-filling production was a coach’s dream, and he accomplished it with a smoothness that belied his years, like velvet sweeping across a court.
That’s what had immediately stuck out to Labagh, when he’d watched film of Wright at the prep level. The kid always found a way to make a play; he had that rare ability to impact a game without scoring.
There’s a big reason for this, Labagh says: Wright grew up playing in games alongside Dorell and other NBA talent. For the past two summers, he’s featured in the Drew League, a vaunted Los Angeles Pro-Am littered with some of the best names in the world. On a given night, Kobe Bryant might stop by to play. It’s a haven for top players from the L.A. area.
After testing his mettle against the best in the world, it’s hard to be fazed by much on the court. “Delon was allowed to play with Dorell, and the only reason was because he didn’t screw up. He learned to do things the other guys didn’t want to do; he learned to do the little things. Those guys don’t want you shooting threes every time down the court. They want you to take care of the ball, and maintain the flow. What Delon does, he can do at any level,” Labagh says.
When college coaches began calling Labagh about Wright, however, they expressed concern about his slight build. Would he be able to endure the physicality of the next level? When it comes to evaluating players, Labagh isn’t one for hyperbole—in fact, he says he’s probably known more for dissuading coaches rather than encouraging—but Wright proved an exception. Labagh considers him the best player he’s coached at CCSF.
“Nobody thought he was good enough,” Labagh says. “But my line to them always was, ‘I don’t know if he’ll be the type of guy, as a junior, who you’re running the last play of the game for, but he’ll get you to a point where there is a last play.’ Whether it’s a rebound, tip-in or a blocked shot—he’ll get you to that position. I don’t think too many players are great, but when it came to Delon, I said this is a total no-brainer.”
DeMarlo Slocum, an assistant on Larry Krystkowiak’s staff at the University of Utah, overcame his initial reticence about Wright’s strength. Slocum was familiar with Labagh and the CCSF program from his previous stops as an assistant coach, and he came to watch Wright play for the Rams. Krystkowiak followed soon after. After scouting Wright a couple times, they invited him out for a visit in late September 2012. A week later, Wright committed.
He’d consulted Dorell, who recalled Krystkowiak from the latter’s time as an NBA assistant. But mostly, Dorell gave his brother space to make his own decision.
Wright wanted to go to a school with a strong athletic tradition, and he loved the plan Krystkowiak had in place to vault Utah, the ’98 NCAA Tournament runner-up (and winner in ’44), back into the national conversation. On his visit to the Salt Lake City campus, he reconnected with Jarred DuBois, then a senior on the Runnin’ Utes. DuBois was a grad-year transfer from LMU who’d prepped at Westchester High, about eight miles from Leuzinger. Wright has called him a sibling figure. “I did my research, and Utah was the best fit for me,” Wright says.
It didn’t take long for him to make an impression on his new Utes teammates. “Playing with him through the summer, we knew we could be special,” says Jordan Loveridge, a 6-6 sophomore who leads the team in scoring at 16.6 points per game. “Delon can do a little bit of everything, and having guys like that helps the team so much. Whether it’s rebounding, getting steals or making shots, he’s always helping.”
Despite a strong finish to 2012-13, Utah flew under the radar this preseason (they were picked ninth in the Pac-12 preseason poll), as the spotlight fixed upon Arizona and the new coaches at the Los Angeles schools. Wright was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Which is fine by him. His first season at CCSF followed a Rams’ state championship, and Wright admits the team felt palpable pressure to lead a repeat. Sometimes, those expectations hamper more than they help.
Following a 23-7-5-4 performance for the Utes in a November 27 beat-down of Ball State—that’s 23 points, 7 assists, 5 steals and 4 rebounds—Wright was hitting 74.5 percent of his shots through the first six games and leading the nation in field-goal percentage.
He isn’t the beneficiary of easy tap-ins in the low post—after all, Wright serves as the primary ballhandler for this team. Krystkowiak has said that Wright’s gaudy accuracy results instead from smart shot selection and that buttery approach, which allows him to coast past perimeter defenders and get to the rim. There are also layups of the fast-break variety, often stemming from his 2.6 steals per game, which as of January 31 ranked seventh in the country.
Steals help open up his game, Wright says, invoking the adage that offense is often best when it stems from stringent defense. His rebounding is part of a team-wide approach toward dominating the glass. Both help keep him aggressive in the open court.
Wright’s shooting has dimmed somewhat since those halcyon November days…all the way down to 60.3 percent, which is still good enough for third at the conference level. Add that to his overall production—he leads Utah in minutes played, field goals, free-throw attempts (he’s also hitting 78 percent at the charity stripe), assists, blocks and steals, and he’s adapted quite well to the rigors of DI competition. He ranks second behind Loveridge in points (16.1) and rebounds (7.2).
His name is beginning to take hold, though it’s hardly changing his approach. If teammates hadn’t informed Wright of his Pac-12 Player of the Week award, bestowed for his feats against USC and UCLA in mid-January, he’d never have known it. When asked about it now, he responds, “It’s good for the program.”
After witnessing Wright pour in 22 points, 6 rebounds, 6 steals, 5 assists and 2 blocks a in an 84-66 win against the Trojans, USC’s Andy Enfield had his own take. “Delon Wright really put us in a bind,” the first-year coach told Utah’s official site, echoing a sentiment shared by many in the Pac-12’s coaching ranks.
The Utes are 14-6, and while they’ve struggled in Pac-12 play (3-5), all of their conference losses have come on the road. The other loss came at Boise State in December. Learning to win away from the Jon M. Huntsman Center will be the next progression for a team that counts six underclassmen, and just one senior, on its roster. Wright was one of four JuCo transfers to join this past summer. With an even split of home and road games before the Pac-12 tournament in March, the Utes will have the chance to make inroads in that regard.
Meanwhile, Wright has continued to flex his all-around game with metronomic regularity, including an impressive showing at No. 1 Arizona last Sunday (team-high 19 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and a block.) The Utes took an early 10-point lead, and hung around with the Wildcats before falling, 65-56.
While questions about his weight have largely evaporated in the wake of his accomplishments, uncertainty about Wright’s jump shot surfaced as a major talking point. There’s always something.
Wright worked painstakingly on his shot this past summer, and says that confidence is key (he’s currently 9-37, 24.3 percent, from three.) “He’s a calculated shooter,” says Labagh, who hasn’t forgotten his former player’s dedication in those early-morning sessions. “He’ll hit the open shot. His weight will be a factor, but that will come in time. Dorell is skinny, too.”
The ultimate thing that will distinguish Wright, says Labagh, is his basketball IQ, sharpened from so many years going toe to toe with NBA talent. But it extends beyond that—the depth of Wright’s perspective is tremendous, and uncommon.
In Wright’s sophomore year at CCSF, the Rams were undefeated heading into the state semifinals, where they suffered a heartbreaking loss to Chaffey College. Wright had a chance to win the game with a last-second three. When asked about that shot, he demurs, referring instead to the game in its entirety. He wasn’t nearly good enough, and that filled him with fire for this current campaign. Labagh says this is typical Delon.
“He’s smart enough to know it’s not about one shot,” Labagh says. “You’re not gonna catch him with that. He knows there were 20 other possessions that counted in that Chaffey game; it shouldn’t have come down to a final shot. That’s how he thinks, and that’s what separates him from other players.”
Wright will keep putting Utah into positions where they can win. It’s the adage of his former coach, come thrillingly to life.