The Big Lebowski was supposed to be great. The Coen Brothers were two years removed from Fargo, a critically acclaimed gritty and funny drama complete with murder and snow and accents. And with Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink and Raising Arizona in their rearview as well, they were starting to be known as superstar movie creators. But then The Big Lebowski flopped. It made very little money in the box office, as critics panned it without understanding what made it funny or meaningful.
Still, that didn’t stop the movie. It eventually found its audience, and it has continued finding its audience for 25 years. It is now beloved. It just took longer than people might have expected.
Gradey Dick, too, was supposed to be great. The lottery pick and movement shooter seemed like he’d be exactly what the Raptors needed. He was a star in Kansas, after all. But then a poor Summer League turned into a poor preseason turned into a poor start of season turned into a poor G-League showing. It looked like he didn’t belong in the NBA, or maybe even the G League.
Until he did.
The Toronto Raptors brought Dick back to the big club in the middle of January, and his first breakout came the night the Raptors traded away Pascal Siakam. He scored six points in a blowout win over the Miami Heat, adding four assists and two steals. Toronto brought him along slowly, generally asking him to cut less and play stationary more — simplify things: stand, catch, shoot. It worked.
It started clicking after that. He started throwing lobs in transition, out of the pick and roll. He’d curl around pindowns and attack the paint, finishing outside the rim for layups. He hit triples of all varieties, including one outrageous sidestep, up and under, swing-his-release-to-the-other-side triple against the Houston Rockets. He’s been shooting 40 percent from deep since re-entering the lineup.
By the time the Raptors faced the Houston Rockets on Feb. 9, Dick was the first player off Toronto’s bench. Against the Cleveland Cavaliers the next night, he fit into sets that were much more complex than simple stationary shooting. In the first quarter on an out-of-bounds set, he set a back screen before sprinting around a Kelly Olynyk screen to catch in the corner and drill a fading movement 3-pointer. Later, after a few more triples, when the Cavaliers started running him off the line, he threw in a circus reverse layup with a proper windmill gather on one side that ended on the other. He sprinted into a handoff with Olynyk, and with Scottie Barnes after, and both times drew both defenders to give the screener an easy layup on the keeper play. Dick is a shooter first, of course, but the orbiting components of his skill-set all serve to complement the shooting.
He’s not a defensive stopper, but his give-a-fuck level is off the charts. He tries to take a charge or two every game, and they’re from positions of strength — not bailouts after getting beat. He moves his feet well and is always rotating to the right spot. He tries to play physically, but he can get called for a lot of fouls. Teams have been targeting him in the pick and roll, using his man as the screener, and he fights. The Raptors have used him as a switcher at times, particularly late clock, but he hasn’t given up the easiest shots there. He’s also hedged well and forced some negative dribbles at times. He absorbs steals. He’s far from a positive defender yet, but it’s easy to see how he can become one once he settles into the league.
Add it all up, and Dick has been surprisingly vital for Toronto. He hasn’t missed a game since Jan. 20, so let’s use that as a cutoff for some on/off data; since Jan. 20, Dick has had the third-highest on-court net rating on the Raptors. He’s only played just over 200 minutes in that stretch, so it’s not the largest of samples, but it is meaningful. Having movement shooters is important!
And even though Dick isn’t the highest volume shooter on the Raptors, he has been an important one. He is much bigger than Gary Trent jr., and shots that can’t come for Trent, or turn into sidesteps, can be open and clean up-and-downs for Dick. And unlike someone like Immanuel Quickley — who is a better movement shooter — Dick really has little else on his plate. He never forces it when he doesn’t have an immediate play, unlike some other shooters on the team. On the other hand, Quickley has completely changed his role in Toronto, and he has so many jobs, which means his minutes have pros and cons at times. Dick has one job, and he’s done it well. That can lead to a great on-court net rating, especially in so few minutes, when he’s protected from poor matchups. And stacking movement shooters, with both Dick and Quickley, can have lots of benefits. The sample size is poor, but it could mean something that among two-man lineups, Dick and Quickley are Toronto’s best pairing since Jan. 20.
Dick’s on-court offensive rating has been good, but his on-court defensive rating has been the second-best among rotation players, just below Barnes. Having players who always work, despite limitations, is beneficial. Sure, opponents are attacking him, and he does foul too much. But his effort, footwork, and hands have more than compensated, at least during this stretch.
It’s also important to note that Dick has had the second-worst off-court rating (meaning, the team has been at its worst with Barnes on the bench, with Dick following that). Again: movement shooters are important. And Dick has been an important component of the team’s success, so much so that the Raptors have missed him when he’s not in the game.
None of those numbers necessarily mean anything beyond the simplest takeaways: Dick has belonged, and Toronto has needed his skills. This is what Dick was supposed to be when the Raptors drafted him; this is the vision. HIs success has come in the varied ways it was supposed to. It just took a little longer than the Raptors or Dick might have expected.
He has been a terrific movement shooter, drilling his triples off of cuts and sidesteps and motion. But he has been much more. He has driven, passed, screened, cut, and offered oodles of value in his minutes. And even though he has clear defensive weaknesses, the Raptors have been better with him on the floor on that end, not worse.
It’s not hard to see Dick being a successful contributor for a long time to come. The means by which he has succeeded during the last month are evergreen means of contribution. And nothing he’s done has been fluky, or outside of his skills. He’s done it for a month. He can do it for a decade. And given what his weaknesses are — lack of strength, lack of awareness of what to always do with the ball in his hands, fouling — it’s more likely than not that he’s going to get much, much better as he addresses them. This is the exact player that should succeed, long term, alongside a star like Barnes.
Dick is finally the long-term building block Toronto drafted him to be. It just took a little longer than they wanted.