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NBA Daily: The Mavericks’ Unsung Heroes

If the Dallas Mavericks want to reach the postseason, they’ll need help from their underrated rotation pieces, both young and old, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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In the blink of an eye, the Dallas Mavericks became playoff contenders.

Given the moving parts of the already difficult-to-navigate Western Conference, it seemed like a tall order to take a 24-win team and elevate them within striking range of the top eight. But then they acquired wunderkind Luka Dončić on draft night, signed DeAndre Jordan and dragged back Dirk Nowitzki for another rodeo. Of course, having postseason aspirations are certainly different than actually achieving those lofty goals, but the Mavericks — now in the midst of their longest playoff drought since 1999-00 — have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

Dennis Smith Jr. is still leaping out of the building, Dončić looks ready-made to contribute and Harris Barnes — the team’s most expensive asset — didn’t make his season debut until last night. Still, the Mavericks’ record stands at a respectable 2-3: Without Barnes, without Nowitzki and with wins against some mid-level league talents. Yes, the headlines belong to the moneymakers, the former All-Stars and presumed future ones. And yet, part of the reason the Mavericks currently figure in the postseason conversation at all, and will continue to do so throughout the year, is in big part thanks to a cast of unsung heroes, both young and old.

This discussion must begin with Wes Matthews, an elite sharpshooter that’s taken control over the offense with Barnes and Nowitzki on the shelf. Through five games, Matthews is hoisting up a ridiculous 10.2 three-pointers per contest and knocking down 3.6 of them, tied for the eighth-best mark across the league. Ahead of him, naturally, are just the annually great: Stephen Curry (6.5), Kemba Walker (4.8), Khris Middleton (4.4), J.J. Redick (4), James Harden (3.8), Joe Ingles (3.8) and the surprising Blake Griffin (3.8). If the Mavericks can get a full season of volume shooting like this from deep out of Matthews, they’ll be in a great position come springtime. Mathews is on pace to set a career-high in points, perhaps unsustainable given the injuries so far, but nevertheless: He’s healthy and on a tear.

Although hovering a bit below his career average in three-point percentage (38.3), Matthews has been Dallas’ leader from beyond the arc in every season since he arrived in 2015 — that assuredly will not change anytime soon, either.

On tap next is the NBA’s twelfth-best assister — is it Smith Jr.? Maybe the savvy, instinctual Dončić? No, that honor belongs to J.J. Barea, the Mavericks’ long-time rotational mainstay. Even at the age of 34, Barea continues to terrorize second units with his controlled, but quick, playmaking abilities. The only players ahead of Barea (7.4) in the passing game at this point are all former All-Stars or highly-rated youngsters — Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry and Ben Simmons, to name a few — and this is in just 19 minutes off the bench, mind you. Simmons, still on a rookie deal, nearly doubles Barea’s current expiring contract ($3.7 million) and the rest of those names obviously dwarf the Puerto Rican’s paycheck as well.

With just four total turnovers on the season, Barea continues to grease the wheels with their regular ball-handlers indisposed at times. Barea tallied a career-high in both points (11.6) and assists (6.3) last season and it looks like he’s picked up right where he left off in April.

But Matthews and Barea aren’t the only underrated Mavericks members to post up on the early season leaderboards — that honor also belongs to Dwight Powell. In 2016, Dallas made the bold decision to re-sign Powell to the tune of four years and $37 million. For a player that had never averaged more than six points per game at that time, it was a head-scratcher by all accounts. Since then, the 27-year-old has improved in each successive season, topping out with a career-best 8.5 points and 5.6 rebounds over 21.2 minutes per game and 25 starts in 2017-18.

Despite his stature as a nearly-seven-foot behemoth, Powell has never been a particularly strong rebounder. But what he’s lacked in that department — and playing alongside Jordan will ease some of those concerns, surely — Powell makes up with his killer efficiencies. At 11.8 points in 15.6 minutes per game, not only does Powell take advantage of his modest playing time, but he’s stayed sizzling since the opening tip this month. In fact, his 77.8 percent rate ranks toward the peak of the entire NBA. If you dare to eliminate his one paltry attempt from deep every contest, which admittedly has never been his strong suit, Powell is sitting at 90.9 percent from two-point range as of now.

Whew — that’s pretty good, right?

Lastly, there’s Dorian Finney-Smith, the Mavericks’ defensive-minded small forward. After missing more than half of the 2017-18 season due to left knee quadriceps tendinitis, Finney-Smith made the most of his opportunity during Barnes’ early absence. Finney-Smith’s 32.3 minutes per game clocked in at third-most on the team before Friday. His ability to play strong, two-way basketball has made him a favorite of head coach Rick Carlisle. With so much offensive firepower already on the roster, Finney-Smith will never need to carry the load, leaving him to make disruptive defensive efforts and contribute within his role.

His improved preseason numbers — 8.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and a steal per game on 41.7 percent from three — have carried over in a positive way for Dallas, more or less thriving in the biggest role he’s ever had professionally. With Barnes back in the mix, Finney-Smith will likely cool off — but he’ll still feature as a key bench cog with the aforementioned Barea and Powell, plus Maxi Kleber, rookie Jalen Brunson and Nowitzki, as the latter transitions to the twilight of his career.

Ultimately, much has been made of Dallas’ weak 5-18 record in games decided by five points or less in 2017-18 and they went to great lengths to address those issues during the offseason. Adding Dončić and Jordan alone should tip those scales back toward normalcy, but there’s plenty of love to go around within this healthy, flexible rotation. The budding potential of their starters will have the Mavericks eying the postseason — but if the franchise wants to actually get there, they’ll need the efforts of their unsung heroes to continue long into the winter months.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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