Longread: Understanding Brandan Wright

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Getting to know the potential basketball impact of Brandan Wright, the player, and why it's a shame that we'll never really know Brandan Wright, the person.

I do not know Brandan Wright.

I know some things about Brandan Wright. For example, I know that he has braces (funnily enough) on his bottom teeth. I also know that, despite the endless "Musclewatch" clichés, Wright has actually gained a visible amount of muscle from the end of last season going into this season. I know that, disconcertingly, his arms actually look they extend down to his knees while he's walking around, and it really freaks me out.

I also know that he's a freakishly athletic offensive basketball force. A lot's been said about Wright this offseason, so I'll try to hold off from being repetitive: at this point, we all know that Dirk and Wright scored at a gaudy rate of 114.1 points per 100 possessions when they were on the court together -- a rate that would have led the league. We also know that Wright was in the top 20 in the league in the holistic (and flawed) general player measure, PER, and somehow he still flew under the league's radar.

What we might not have known before, or what you might not know at all if you haven't watched the preseason, is that Brandan Wright could legitimately be the difference between the Mavericks making a dangerous low-seed push in the playoffs, and them getting totally flattened this season.

Some notes about Brandan Wright's game that may seem obvious at first, but are really important: he's not a good post player, he's very good in transition, and he's really, really, really good at scoring as the roll man in Pick and Roll situations, on cuts, and off of offensive rebounds.

In post up situations, Wright only scored a really unfortunate 34 points per 100 possessions, per Synergy Sports. Seriously. It was that bad. At that rate, over the course of 100 possessions, Wright would only make 17 baskets.

On the other hand, per Synergy, Wright was the 30th best scorer in the entire league when rolling to the basket off of pick and rolls, and he shot 61% on those chances. He was the 20th best scorer on cuts, hitting a freakish 70% of his shots when catching the ball on his way to the rim, and he was the 6th most efficient scorer off of offensive rebounds out of everyone in the entire NBA (though it's worth noting that Wright is a below average offensive rebounder, even if he scores unbelievably well once he's gotten the board). In each situation, he logged 120, 134, and 140 points per 100 possessions, respectively.

Here's some other stuff that I know about Brandan Wright that's really great news, too: 62.2% of Wright's total possessions came in one of those 3 situations that he's really, really good at. Only 7% of Wright's possessions were post-ups. This, really, is the important part of all of this: Wright knows what he's good at, he's gotten very, very good at those things, and he's smart enough to basically avoid everything else.

I'm also fairly confident in asserting that Wright's reputation as a lackluster defender is overblown. Per 82games.com, Wright consistently managed to keep opposing players shooting at average to below average percentages (47% effective Field Goal %, which is just regular Field Goal percentage adjusted for 3pt% and FT%. Below 50% eFG is not great). Also, per Synergy, Wright kept opposing big men to a staggering 55 points per 100 possessions on 40 pick and roll plays -- impressive, despite an admittedly small sample size. In fact, the only category in which Wright's defense was questionable was his post defense, where he still kept opposing centers to only 93 points per 100 possessions on a statistically significant number of attempts (almost 100).

AND, as if all of this could get any better, his numbers only get better when he gets more minutes. There were almost 40 games where Wright saw significant minutes and he also scored at a pace equal to, or greater than, 1 point per possession. In comparison, there were less than ten games, given significant playing time, where he didn't. In games where he saw 10 minutes or less, Wright was much more likely to score poorly: the split for those games was much closer to 50/50.

It's worth noting, too, that as Wright gets more minutes, he's also more likely to be playing against starter units, instead of just bench groups, making the numbers that much more impressive.

I know that Wright has hurt his shoulder. This is concerning, if for no other reason than because the Mavericks need Wright. Calderon and Dirk will space the floor a lot, but not as much as it needs to be spaced for someone like Monta "have all the mid-range jumpers" Ellis. Having a guy who scores on 70% of his cuts to the basket, though, will make weakside help for Monta pretty rare, which is a necessary twist if the Mavericks' offense is ever going to outpace it's bad defense. The Mavericks need Wright.

I know all of this; or, at least, most of it. And certainly, some of my assumptions based off of the things I do know could be wrong. But most of this is stuff I know.

I still don't know Brandan Wright.

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In preparation for this article, I was granted an interview with Brandan Wright after one of the training camp practices (the results of which will follow this article tomorrow). I had already been planning to write the top half of this article for a while, and I was dutifully going about all my data gathering to ultimately argue, "hey, this might be kinda obvious, but Brandan Wright should probably start most games next season." I started thinking, though: to argue something about a player's role in the NBA, we have to know a lot about that guy. We simultaneously, however, know nothing about that person.

Does this lack of understanding not bother anyone else?

Those of us writers and fans who rely heavily on stats to describe some part of what's happening on the court often come back to the importance of context: the fact that Brandan Wright held ball handlers in Pick and Rolls to only 40 points scored per 100 possessions on 5 such plays is wayyyyyy less impressive than the fact that Tony Allen only allowed 61 points per 100 possessions in several hundred such situations.

Sample size alone is probably the most important part of this, but even then: in the 5 plays where Wright defended the ball handler, the defense was likely already pretty scrambled or Wright was defending a big man who was handling the ball around a screen. Getting a stop in either situation is either:

A) Not all Wright's own doing, in the case of scrambled defense,

or

B) Not even that impressive for the hyper-athletic Wright, in the case of a big man as the primary ball handler.

Tony Allen, on the other hand, defends the likes of Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul coming off of screens, and Allen still stopped them at an impossible rate. Context matters, and we get back to that a lot.

And yet, doesn't it seem like we're missing a pretty damn large big part of the general context when we don't know anything about who this player is?

I mean, what if Brandan Wright's first long-term relationship had been with a girl from Sacramento, and the relationship has been over for so long that he doesn't even think about it anymore but he still has some pretty positive associations with the city of Sacramento, though he can't really place where those feelings are coming from, and so whenever he flies in to play the Kings he's usually pretty happy and comfortable and he tends to do pretty solid against Sacto?

This is, of course, almost certainly wrong. But it's possible. It's just as possible as any other infinite number of things we could speculate about his personal life, which could all contribute in some important cumulative way to Wright's performance on the court.

I know all of this seemingly important, interesting stuff about him. But I still don't know Brandan Wright.

And then, shouldn't we care about who he is and what he feels simply because he's a fellow human being, and a person who we, as fans, seem to collectively respect and talk about a lot and in some way feel like we have a connection to, even if it's unreciprocated? We talk about these players as if they're simply an aggregate of their scorecard stats, or an aggregate of their on court talent. Shouldn't we at least do them the justice of acknowledging the fullness of their reality as people?

Shouldn't we get to know these players simply because we respect them, want to do right by them, and "doing right" probably involves at least a cursory understanding of who in the hell they are as people?

This is probably one of the more fundamental conflicts in basketball, if not in sports at large: we really do want to understand these players, and they really do want to be understood, but it just can't really happen.

Interestingly, this was not a conclusion I came to on my own: Brandan Wright helped me out.

I asked him whether it was frustrating that none of the media or fans really know him, or whether he feels like people should try and get to know him better, and he was fairly lucid on the matter:

Man, it all comes with the territory. It's just a part of being a professional athlete. You know, it's [the media's] job to speak how they wanna speak about you...I just think it's tough. People wanna get to know athletes, but they only really get to see the guy on the court or the guy who does a locker room interview and that's it...they just don't really know much about [a professional athlete's] life or anything.

In a way, this seems obvious, like a repetition of what I've been saying this whole time: lamenting how writers and fans don't get to know the player. It's not just that, though. There's an inevitability, here. Instead of saying, "yeah, I do wish people could get to know me better, I wish people thought about me, the person, as often as they do me, the player," he just said, "[fans] only get to see the guy on the court." He didn't even talk about wishes, only realities.

Essentially, there's a conflict of roles, here; a conflict that Wright is aware of and that I probably didn't give enough credo. We -- the fans and the media -- do only have real access to the player on the court and the player in the locker room. That's the only genuine part of a player's life that we're given, and for very good reason: anything else ultimately infringes on a player's privacy. Unfortunately, any attempt to get to truly understand a player simply from those sources that we're given will fail.

We've seen from the Dwight Howard saga and the billions of narrative surrounding Kobe and Dwight that the media "getting to know a player" isn't necessarily good for the media or the player. It just goes back to the conflict in roles: it's not necessarily in the media's interest to ever truly, honest to God, get to know a player. Relatedly, it's important to remember that the media has all the power over the player's image. Narratives are easier, more interesting, and they get read more. Stats and player breakdowns are more applicable to people who are watching the game, and they're also generally more fun for readers. Biographies about the player's lives, small honest exposés about who they are, are often less compelling and/or are more self-serving for the profilee than for the profiler (with some very good, obvious exceptions).

Wright seemed hopeful that, somewhere along the line, people might learn something about him that they could remember whenever they talked about him; hopeful for some small bridging of the gap between person and player ("That's why we do sitdowns like these," he told me, "to try to get closer"), but he mostly seemed content to accept that the conflicting roles between media and player will always force a separation between the player and the fan. Wright, unlike me, was aware that the structure that exists right now -- writing and reporting with all regard for the game, little for the player -- exists precisely because it has to, for the benefit of both parties.

That's sad, though.

It's sad that we have to abandon the idea of not just doing justice to Wright the player, but also to Wright the person. It's sad that we can care so much about how this player performs on a court without getting to apply the same diligence to the person behind the performance.

Not getting to understand another person is always sad, really. The same applies here.

At least, in this instance, we don't try to understand because it is truly and honestly better that way.

Mavsmoneyball_medium


So, here I am, back to my original argument: presuming that Brandan Wright can get healthy on a reasonable timetable (which is a pretty big presumption), he should be the regular starter for the Mavs.

We've mentioned before how atrocious the Mavericks' defense is going to be, and while Monta has been better than expected in preseason, it's still going to be very bad. None of the Monta-Jose-Dirk trio can get around screens at reasonable speed. In a mini-era where Horns, Double Screens, and Elevator Doors are extremely popular sets that all also happen to involve two or more screens, there's not enough help defense in the world for what will happen to the Mavericks on the defensive end of the floor.

The argument has been made before, and I'm going to make it again, that the defense is going to be so bad that it should probably just be eschewed in favor of ALL OFFENSE ALL THE TIME. If the Mavs are ever going to score at a greater rate than they allow buckets, they'll need Wright to play as many minutes as possible, period.

I think it would be great if we could keep him coming off the bench -Coach Rick Carlisle

There's good reason to believe that this won't happen. On the same day that I talked to Wright, Carlisle told me, "I think it would be great if we could keep [Wright] coming off the bench, cause I think he gives us a great dimension there." Adding this onto Wright's recent injury, it's hard to believe that he'll get the playing time that some of us are hoping and praying that he'll get.

We want him to play, though, because we watch him, and we look at his numbers, and we see that he's absurdly good. We see that he could definitely be a top-15 offensive center in the league with significant minutes. We see that he perfectly fills the holes in the paint and along the baseline in a way that occupies the space that the Mavericks need filled. We see him free the midrange for Dirk and especially Monta, and we've already seen a beautiful two-man game develop between him and basically everyone else. We see Wright score with a regularity and consistency that we haven't seen from a center since Tyson, and never before that.

Those things could be the difference between just a very good offense and a top-five offense. The Mavericks will need the latter, really, if they're going to compete for even a low playoff seed. The Rockets proved that last year, when they only made the 8th seed despite having the league's best offense, because they also had a bottom 10 defense. Given some of the reports coming out about how bad Monta's defense really was last year, and how bad Calderon's D looked at times in Eurobasket, we can expect an analogous situation for the Mavericks this next season. So, they'll need every bit of Wright's talent that they can get.

Either way, we will continue to see, we will continue to watch, and we will continue to hope that he performs up to his potential. We'll watch his career arc grow, eventually level out, and (hopefully many years from now) decline.

"Play well!" we'll continue to say, as we remain enthralled by the performance of a man whose life will only ever interact tangentially, briefly, and always firmly outside of our own.

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