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NBA PM: The Time Dirk Doubted Himself

Dirk Nowitzki is a legend these days, but he once seriously doubted he’d succeed in the NBA.

Moke Hamilton

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With 113 international players representing 41 countries, steadily, over the past 30 years, the NBA has come to feature the best and brightest stars from across the globe. But when it’s all said and done, Dirk Nowitzki just might be the greatest of them all.

With Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett having retired, it would appear that Nowitzki is the next 1990s-drafted superstar whose end is nigh. What’s more amazing to consider, though, is that—according to one of his former teammates—both Nowitzki and his father once had doubts about whether he truly belonged in the NBA.

“I can remember his rookie year, after his rookie year, his father and himself doubted that he could even survive in the NBA,” former Dallas Maverick Michael Finley told Basketball Insiders.

“With the way the game was played, how physical it was, he was doubting if he made a mistake to come over at such an early age,” Finley explained.

Finley, a 15-year NBA veteran who spent seven years as Nowitzki’s teammate in Dallas, was around from the very beginning. These days, the former All-Star and NBA champion is busy serving as an Assistant Vice President in the Mavericks front office. But having helped introduce Nowitzki to the rigors of the NBA, he has a unique perspective.

“[Dirk] has been doing something right,” Finley said with a smile when asked how the once-scrawny German kid managed to become the sixth-leading scorer in NBA history. “The longevity, staying as healthy as possible—all that combined with the talent to go with it, helps him and helps his case as being one of the best to ever play the game.”

As for his rookie year, Nowitzki was a little-known prospect who the Mavericks were able to acquire after completing a trade with the Milwaukee Bucks that resulted in the German teenager relocating to Dallas on a permanent basis.

The Bucks had eyes for Robert “Tractor” Traylor, a bruising power forward who was coming off of a highly-regarded three-year career at the University of Michigan. In theory, had the Bucks kept the pick, they could have ended up with the man who is arguably the greatest international basketball player of all-time. Still, at this point, it’s just as much water under the bridge as wondering how things would have been different if the Charlotte Hornets had managed to walk away from the 1996 draft with Kobe Bryant.

Like many European prospects before him, Nowitzki struggled to adapt to the faster pace and stronger players he faced in the NBA. In 20.4 minutes per game, he averaged just 8.2 points. He shot just 40 percent from the field, 20 percent from three-point territory and managed to commit 2.7 turnovers per 36 minutes.

Fortunately, his career didn’t end there.

Seeing his potential, Mark Cuban and his front office built around Nowitzki and quickly embarked upon the franchise’s golden age. Cuban recently called his Mavericks the “house that Dirk built,” but Finley thinks it was a mutually beneficial relationship.

“It helps that he’s been with one organization for the entirety of his career,” Finley said after pointing out that all successful players need stability and an organization that believes in them. “Like I said, combine that with the talent to go along with it, the work ethic, and a system that truly fits his game—that’s worked for him.”

This season, Nowitzki has only managed to appear in three games for the 2-9 Mavericks, as he has been limited by illness and a bout with a sore Achilles tendon. As the basketball world still recovers from the departures of Bryant, Duncan and Garnett, one can’t help but to want to see Nowitzki working up a sweat and drilling his patented one-foot jumpers without wondering just how much longer NBA fans will continue to be graced by his presence.

It’s been 19 long years, and during that time, Nowitzki has accomplished quite a bit. From the 13 All-Star selections to the 12 All-NBA team selections, the 2011 NBA Finals MVP, interestingly enough, once doubted whether he belonged.

“In hindsight, it actually helped him out to make him the player that he is today,” Finley said of those doubts. “But that was pretty funny. Looking back on it that, at one point, he doubted if he even belonged in this league… I don’t think he would change anything.”

On that, everyone can agree.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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