The Mavs climb back up

Exit Interview Highlights

Check out what the players, Rick Carlisle, and Donnie Nelson had to say at exit interviews!

Mount Everest is 29,029 feet tall, the tallest mountain in the world.

Sitting on the border of Tibet and Nepal, Mount Everest is the ultimate accomplishment for people in the climbing and hiking world.

From spending thousands of dollars to months of preparation, the sacrifice humans make from around the world to accomplish the feat is unfathomable for some. According to a recent New York Times article, six people died trying to climb the mountain in 2017, a common number according to the article.

As for people who spend the money and make the sacrifices to attempt the months-long climb, roughly half of them actually complete it.

In 2011, the Dallas Mavericks completed their own climb up the mountain.

After 30 seasons as a franchise and 12 of them with Dirk Nowitzki, it was time to finally summit the mountain. The Mavericks won their first NBA championship after beating the Miami Heat in 2011.

All of the sacrifice, dedication and hard work had paid off. The Mavericks were kings of the basketball world.

But just like climbing Mount Everest, you eventually have to come back down. It’s inevitable, and never easy. And the Dallas Mavericks did just that.

“Being here 10 years, I knew there was going to be a point where things would take a downturn,” Rick Carlisle said at his exit interview. “It is almost impossible to stay really good forever. Unfortunately, at times, you have to get really bad to get really good again .”

Over the past two seasons, Dallas lost a combined 107 games, capping off the 2017-18 season with just 24 wins. It was just the eighth time in franchise history the club has finished with 25 or less wins.

“Difficult year for all of us. Coaches, players, fans, ownership, management,” Donnie Nelson said at exit interviews on Wednesday . “We do not want to go back to what we just experienced. That is unanimous from the top on down.”

Over the first month of the season, the Mavericks got off to a 2-14 start after an injury to Seth Curry in the preseason. That start put the Mavericks in a hole they could never climb back out of.

“When you have starts like that to the season it is going to be a grind after that,” J.J. Barea said. “A lot of young kids that played a lot of minutes that I think will be great for next year. But for this year, it was tough.”

The season was capped off with a 27-point loss to the Phoenix Suns and a final team meeting the next day that set the tone for the offseason. As each player took his turn speaking to the media during exit interviews, Wesley Matthews loved the demeanor from the meeting.

“Pissed off” is how he liked to describe it.

The message was simple: They have to get better as a team and it starts with each and every one of them.

But even though the total of losses is the most since the 1997-98 season, this isn’t rock bottom. This isn’t the beginning of the rebuild. This isn’t the beginning of the climb back up the mountain.

One of the first steps in the journey to climb Mount Everest is the 10-14 day hike to the Everest Base Camp which sits roughly 17,500 feet up the mountain. It is here that climbers spend time — sometimes weeks — adjusting to the altitude and preparing for the eventual climb to the summit.

The Mavericks are at base camp.

“Ironically, 20 years ago when we first got here to build this thing it started with a point guard,” Nelson said. “Started with Michael Finley, which is our modern day Harrison Barnes. And it started with a floppy-headed German that ended up being pretty good.” The excitement of the future with this year’s draft, Dennis Smith, Harrison, young building blocks. As well as Dwight Powell and some of our other young players, is an exciting part of the franchise moving forward.”

Michael Finley arrived in Dallas via a trade during his second season in the league at 23 years old. Steve Nash came to Dallas a couple of years later in a trade while entering his third year in the league at 24 years old.

On the same day the Mavericks traded for Nash, they made a draft day trade landing a German kid named Dirk Nowitzki.

Dallas had its new big three.

“The good news is we have been through the drill before. We know how it is done,” Nelson said. “We are doing it the same way we built this team 20 years ago when Mark first came in. He had Fin, his leadership piece. He had a young Steve Nash that was just coming into his own. He had Dirk. Those were the three guys we built this franchise around. We have two or three of those pieces. Hopefully in this year’s draft we get a third piece. All of them, whether they are free agents, will have that same DNA that Dirk is going to pass down.”

In fact, it started before Dirk, Fin and Nash. It has been in the DNA of the franchise since the beginning in 1980.

“When you go through retooling and rebuilding situations it is done with the right people, the right character people,” Nelson said. “I think ever since Don Carter launched this franchise back in 1980, it was done with Rolando Blackman, Brad Davis and Derek Harper. Then Dirk and Michael Finley carried the baton. That is what we are committed to. Committed to the right people in that locker room that will take this franchise to the next phase.”

It is the transitioning to the next stage in the franchise that can sometimes be the hardest part. But if you have the right people leading you through the process, then it makes it that much easier for the people behind them to succeed.

What better companion to have than Dirk Nowitzki to guide this young core to the next phase of the franchise?

“If you are going with a team like I have for so long, if that is what it takes, that is what it takes,” Nowitzki said on embracing the rebuild last spring. “At the end of the day, I can’t imagine myself in a different uniform. That is why I made that decision. Whatever comes, if we are rebuilding then I’m the face of that. If we are championship, then I’m here for that. I just identified myself with the organization so long, with the fan base, with the city, that no matter what the team or the franchise is going through, I’m right there to push it through.”

Now, after appearing in 77 games during his 20th season in the league, Dirk Nowitzki plans on being back for his 21st season in Dallas. Nelson became emotional when talking about Nowitzki’s decision to return to Dallas for another season.

“What he does for this city and this organization is unique and special, to embrace it in a period of rebuilding,” Nelson said. “For him to step up again for this city and this franchise is inspirational to everyone. That is the kind of leadership and character that Harrison Barnes has in his DNA. And Wesley Matthews and J.J. Barea. Those are the things that are special and unique about this team.”

Chemistry and character in the locker room is the key to everything.

“I think if there is a common theme in what we see, it is character. Character has been there all year long in this locker room and it starts with Dirk,” Nelson said. “I can tell you that the chemistry and character in that locker room is as good as it has ever been.”

Dennis Smith Jr. was asked about his rookie season with Nowitzki this year and chose to praise the work ethic from the veteran. Even giving recent examples of seeing Nowitzki after his ankle surgery in the weight room getting in a workout with his medical boot on.

That is the character and work ethic that is contagious.

And that is beyond just the veterans. Dennis Smith Jr. and Harrison Barnes have taken on bigger roles as leaders and fit exactly the kind of character Dallas is building their roster around.

“We know we have that in some of our young players like Dennis Smith Jr. as the quarterback and a first year guy that was thrown into a difficult situation. Harrison Barnes that is young, but another leader in our locker room carrying that baton through this rebuilding phase,” Nelson said.

With multiple players hitting free agency, a heap of cap space and three draft picks, the possibilities are endless for Dallas this summer. But none is more important than the team’s first round pick that will be somewhere in the top six on draft night.

Nelson, Carlisle and the organization realize the importance of this pick and the potential it has to land the third piece to the puzzle.

“It really helps when you have three or more young guys like back in the day with Dirk, Nash and Fin,” Nelson said. “To have three guys to go through those wars together. It is honestly fun to see those situations manifest themselves and those guys get better.”

How close are the Mavericks to being back in the playoffs?

“I think we are close,” Barea said . “We are a lot closer than we were a couple of years ago. With a couple of free agents we could get and with the young guys experience they had this year and the guys coming back. I think we will be fine.”

“There weren’t but just a handful of games we were completely out of it,” Matthews added. “We just lost the games we shouldn’t have lost. There were games that we had and games we let go.”

Indeed, the Mavs were in their fair share of close games in 2017-18, and the young core will hopefully learn from those experiences. With a few tweaks, some luck on the health side and a successful summer, it’s not unrealistic to see the Mavericks back in the playoffs next season. At least that is the goal.

“This is an important summer for us. Our goal is to make a giant step towards the playoffs,” Mark Cuban said.

“We are very confident. This is a situation we are not used to,” Nelson said. “It is literally a fish out of water deal…our fans deserve better than this.”

As for a message to the loyal MFFLs, Nelson gives hope that there are brighter days to come.

“My message to the fans is this season will hopefully never happen again,” Nelson said. “We are extremely excited about the draft and free agency. Hang with us. There are brighter days to come. This is the way we did this thing back 20 years ago. It has to be done with chemistry and character. Hopefully you won’t have to be too patient. I know our owner isn’t.”

The Mavericks have already begun their climb back up the mountain as bringing in Harrison Barnes and drafting Dennis Smith Jr. got them to base camp. Now it is time to add the next piece and head towards the summit.

“We are not going to have this conversation next year,” Matthews said. “We want to get back to where this franchise should be, to where we as players feel we should be. That is in the playoffs. That is fighting and competing. A chance to bring hardware back here.”

As for how long it will be before the Mavericks taste the postseason again, Smith made it very clear that it is just around the corner.

“A year. I think we will get it next season,” Smith Jr. said.

Nerlens Noel on his road to recovery, potential return to Dallas

Top 5 plays of the week

Dorian Finney-Smith returns to action, Dwight Powell flies high, and Nerlens Noel gets it done at both ends in this week's top 5 plays!

“Courageous. Self-Righteous. Perseverant.”

When I asked Nerlens Noel to describe this past season in Dallas in a couple of words, those were the three words he landed on.

After heading to Dallas in a trade in February of 2017, Noel hit restricted free agency last summer. He came back to Dallas on a one-year qualifying offer that allowed him another season to prove to the league the special player he could be.

Fast-forward through a season of coming off the bench, seeing his role in the rotation vanquished and a Dec. 8 thumb surgery that sidelined him for nearly two months: Noel was finally ready to suit up again.

Noel was activated on Feb. 28, where he came off the bench and played 15 minutes against the Thunder. The time had finally come. The last time he logged minutes in a Mavericks jersey was on Nov. 22.

“The first day back was a lot of nerves,” Noel said. “I came back being antsy for a while trying to come back … just getting more comfortable as time went along. Having Dennis [Smith Jr.] and J.J. [Barea], great floor generals that help ease me into it as the game went along.”

For fans, it was a chance to see Noel on the court again. But for Noel, it was a reward for all of the time he spent off the court rehabbing a thumb injury that had been nagging him since the start of the season.

“The beginning of the year was difficult for everybody because of the schedule and so on and so forth,” Rick Carlisle said back in early February. “Some of his struggles turned out to probably be related to the fact that his thumb had a ligament tear, probably from day one.”

A thumb injury might sound minor compared to an ACL or other long-term injuries, but Noel explained how the recovery process was different than anything he had ever experienced. We probably all take our thumbs for granted and after the surgery, Noel learned how grueling life without one is.

“It was different. It was the most different type of recovery I have went through because it is just the thumb,” Noel said. “You have to be mindful just taking care of it day-to-day. You never know how much you use your thumb until you are not using it.”

Even though Noel shoots with his right hand, the injury was difficult because he views his left hand as his dominant hand.

“Just staying patient in the cast I had,” he said. “Not being able to do anything with my left hand which I feel is my dominant hand. Just easing it back and getting more used to it on the court. Doing more work with the medicine ball, the basketball feels like a feather come game time.”

Two of the guys he credits as crucial to his development and recovery this season are assistant coaches Jamahl Mosley and Melvin Hunt.

“Mose is more of my workout dude and staying on me on things I need to work on around the rim,” he said. “Staying in shape and staying on me about that. Coach Mel for my mental and taking me aside and telling me to stay encouraged and keep going.”

But those aren’t the only pillars he credits for his development as a person and player this season. Noel’s former coach in Philadelphia, Brett Brown, has played a prominent role.

“Coach Brown has been in my corner. He has been in my corner since I left Philly and always checking in on me,” Noel said. “Making sure I was staying on the right things. Going back to my rookie year, he was the first coach I had in this league. He is a very genuine guy that has helped me out a lot.”

Noel was drafted by Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers with the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. He would appear in 171 games through three and a half seasons before being traded to Dallas.

For the past two months, Noel’s spent countless hours in the training facility working on not only his rehab, but simply putting in the work to become a better overall player. Work ethic is big for Noel and it was that work ethic that was in question throughout parts of the season. When we talked earlier in the year about outside voices questioning his effort, it didn’t bother Noel because he knows the work he puts into the game to be the best player he can be.

“I think you can make anything up. I know I work hard and I do what I got to do. I know the reason I am in the position I am in is because I worked hard,” Noel said earlier in the season.

“With injuries, I had the ACL injury, I had to work really hard to get back from that,” he said in December. “It isn’t really going to bother me. I’m not really worried if anybody feels sorry for me, but I’m just worried about myself and making sure I got to do what I got to do. I’m doing what I am doing even when I am not playing; I think that speaks to more mental work with hard work. I just keep my head down, keep pushing and get better and better.”

Dallas is now entering the final month of the season eliminated from playoff contention. For the Mavs, it’s a time to see what they have in Noel and their young core.

“That is what we are looking at,” Carlisle said. “We have a period of games here to look at it. As we go along we will have to tweak things and adjust things.”

Even for the veterans like Dirk Nowitzki, it’s nice to have another athletic body on the court that can grab rebounds and impact the game defensively.

“It is good to see Nerlens back and playing way above the rim with great blocks,” Nowitzki said. “Obviously his timing and his catching will get a lot better as he plays more. It is good to see him back and good to see athletes out there. We have definitely missed some of that.”

With the recent signing of Jameel Warney and counting the two-way players in Jalen Jones and Johnathan Motley, the Mavericks have a total of 13 players on the roster that are 26 years old or younger. Six of those players are 24 years old or younger. The only players on the roster that are over the age of 28 are Nowitzki, Barea, Wesley Matthews and Salah Mejri. As the Mavericks try to sort through who will be a member of their young core moving forward, Noel realizes it has the potential to be something special.

“I think this young core could be special. Take this past game against Denver, they were one of the hottest teams in the West. We just walked in there like they were just any other team,” Noel said.

The Mavericks beat the Nuggets 118-107 in the game behind 24 points from Yogi Ferrell, a double-double from Smith Jr. and a 14-rebound performance from Noel.

“We played our game and played hard. Everybody had fun,” Noel said. “Yogi was hooping like he can. Dennis was getting to the basket 11 assists and 18 points. I was able to get rebounds and change the game defensively. Dirk was hitting shots and HB. When guys are playing like that with such a young core you can only get better. Against a team like that, that is special.”

It is a new age of Mavericks basketball and the Mavericks want to see if Noel can be a part of that for the long run.

“I view these [last stretch of games] as some of the most enjoyable basketball games of my life,” Noel said. “Just taking the weight off your shoulders and playing ball especially turning the corner with the guys. Like Dennis and Yogi and J.J., just feeling my game. The game just becomes more fun. You can just naturally go out there and play and not really have to worry about anything, just having fun.”

How much more fun can you have when you get to play with one of your good friends who just happens to be the new star point guard on the team. Noel and Smith Jr., two of the youngest guys on the team, have gravitated toward each other as the year’s gone along. Out of all the topics we talked about for over 30 minutes after practice, nothing made him light up more than talking about his relationship with Junior. From their similar upbringings to bragging rights in NBA 2K, their relationship is blossoming off the court.

“Dennis and I have really grown together,” Noel said. “Even when I wasn’t playing we would still hangout and do a lot of things together. He is just a kid that pretty much comes from the same background that I do. Just from a different region.”

“We really relate on a lot of things in life and it really makes it that much easier to be yourself and be transparent with somebody and build that relationship,” Noel added.

But what about NBA 2K, who gets to talk the most smack when you’re on the sticks?

“We’re always going at it. I definitely beat him in 2K and Madden,” Noel said.

Noel went on to explain how Dennis plays with the best teams in the league while real players test their talent using any team in the league.

“He doesn’t like playing randoms though. He only likes the top-five teams. You have to test your skills with randoms.”

Video games are one thing, but actually playing on the court together is another.

“I think it brings a new dynamic with me and Dennis with the speed of the game,” Noel said after his first game back. “I know that is the way he likes to play and the way I like to play too for us to excel.”

Noel is anxious to build on the rapport the tandem has developed so far.

“Come out here and establish more chemistry game-by-game with Dennis … The more time I play and the games go along, I am going to get better with these guys and get back to where we were at before.”

On opening night, Noel had one of his best games in Dallas where he posted 16 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in 19 minutes of play. Getting back to that type of game shape will take some time.

“That game I was in great shape and I am in pretty good shape now. It is hard to get in game shape without playing games in the NBA. It’s all going to come,” Noel said.

As we shifted our conversation to the topic of his relationship with Rick Carlisle, it was a chance for Noel to speak directly on the subject after spending over a year with one of the game’s best.

“Our relationship is good,” Noel said.

“Coach Carlisle is a good guy and a family man. He definitely understands me like I understand him. We’ve never had any type of conflict because at the end of the day we really understand each other for the most part,” Noel expanded.

Noel joined the Mavericks at the trade deadline last season. He was immediately thrust into Carlisle’s system and had to learn everything on the fly. His relationship with Carlisle has come a long way since then.

“We have gotten closer,” Noel said. “When I first got here I wasn’t too sure what to expect. I knew he was a great coach. We slowly started communicating more and being more open about things. Even through the summer when I stayed here for a little bit after the season working with him and trying to grow.”

Noel’s last three coaches: John Calipari, Brett Brown, and Rick Carlisle.

What makes Carlisle different than the other two?

After praising them all as “exceptional coaches,” Noel talked about the ability they all have to challenge their players and push them when they need to.

“Carlisle definitely expresses himself maybe a little different. I think all coaches have that ability to turn up and yell at you when they need to. I think all three coaches have that ability to push you when they need to,” Noel said.

On what exactly separates Carlisle from the other two, Noel brings up the evident wit of Rick.

“Maybe his wit. All coaches are perfectionists, but Carlisle is really a perfectionist to a T,” Noel said. “Constantly on everything. He is really on top of everything to the X’s and O’s to how you walk and how you talk. Just everything surrounding you. It is definitely good to have a coach like that that wants you to be a perfectionist. It is really contagious.”

Nerlens Noel is somewhat of an enigma. One day he’s throwing down high-flying dunks and the next he’s doing an interview with Kevin Hart in a cold tub.

“I know Kevin from a little while back from when I was in Philly. He hollered and wanted me to come up and do it. It ended up being very funny and he is just a courageous guy who is off-the-wall funny. The movies he has done like Jumanji I just seen, it was great. We talked a lot about advice and life. Relationship advice especially,” Noel said.

The last month of the season is huge for Noel as he is set to hit free agency once again this summer for the second consecutive year. Except this time, he will be unrestricted and free to sign with the team of his choice.

When opening up about his upcoming summer, Noel wants to head into the offseason with a clear head.

“Definitely just an open mindset. Different type of free agency. Little more broad now,” Noel said in reference to being an unrestricted free agent.

“Once this summer ends I’ll be working harder than I’ve ever worked. Just growing in this league and being older. Getting the priorities right and evolving. My mindset has only grown stronger in what I really want in life and want from this game. Right when the season ends I will strictly be working on my game and staying to myself and just letting things play out.”

Money aside, what would be the draw to come back to Dallas and be a member of the Mavericks again?

“Obviously having a young core like this and having an experienced coach who knows how to put you in a position to succeed on the court especially one who is an X’s-and-O’s genius that can draw anything up,” Noel said.

“I know coach Carlisle. I think we think similar from that point of view in just basketball. Whether he knows it or not, I really respect how he goes about his day and manages things. That’s why I understand him a little more as time goes along. He just bounces things off me and I really challenge myself to succeed in those things.”

On if he can see himself in a Mavs jersey next season, Noel said he would definitely be open to it. “I can’t say I can’t. I will definitely be open. I am excited to see how the season ends and see what we can make happen,” Noel said.

The chapter on Noel’s 2017-18 season is coming to an end, but the next one is only beginning. Hopefully it will be in Dallas.

Only time will tell.

Harrison Barnes and Doug McDermott: Two kids from Ames, Iowa reunited again

It was the fall of 2006 when Harrison Barnes and Doug McDermott walked into Ames High School for their freshman year.

Doug was the new kid as his family had just moved to Ames while Harrison had grown up in Ames his entire life. Both freshmen walked through the front doors of high school at the bottom of the totem pole.

For Doug, it was straight to the freshmen basketball team. Playing varsity as an underclassman was unheard of at Ames High, especially with how strict their coach was. But for Harrison, it was a different story.

“Me and my friends were playing freshman ball and he was on varsity,” McDermott said. “I remember meeting him in summer workouts in middle school. I could always tell he was going to be a really good player.”

For Doug, it took a while.

“He didn’t make varsity until his junior year,” Barnes pointed out with a grin on his face.

McDermott would spend his first two years of high school growing physically and as a basketball player before joining Barnes on the varsity team. The team knew they could be good, but the run they went on over the next two years would go down in the Ames High history books.

“Once I matured and developed a little more I was able to join him on varsity and we won 53 straight,” McDermott said.

53 straight games and back-to-back state championships.

“Those are the prime years of Ames High basketball,” Barnes said.

Barnes and McDermott headlined the team, but they also had a couple of other guys that went on to play basketball at the next level.

“Our junior year we had a guy go to Yale and Iowa State,” Barnes said. “It’s rare that you see so many people from one specific location. A small cluster of players that go on to play at some type of level outside of high school. Whether it is community college, D-1, NBA. Now, to see where we are at now.”

“Iowa basketball is pretty competitive actually. Not a lot of close games obviously with us two but we had a team around us,” McDermott added.

While Doug took his natural position at the four, Barnes played the wing, ran the point and whatever else the coach asked of him. As Doug would say, it was his job to clean up Harrison’s misses and shoot a lot of threes.

“He played the point, he ran everything. I was kind of the garbage man and cleaned up his misses. Shot a lot of threes,” McDermott said with a grin.

Harrison wasn’t your normal high school basketball player.

The hype surrounding Harrison was sky-high in Ames and it reverberated throughout the state of Iowa, but it hit the national scale when he was ranked the No. 1 player in the country during his senior season in 2009.

This brought the circus to the small town of Ames, Iowa.

“It was a really special time because he was getting a lot of hype as the ESPN No, 1 recruit in Iowa which was really cool,” McDermott said. “Everywhere we went it was really cool. We were like rock stars because of Harrison. I think we all became better players playing in front of big crowds because we were used to it at a high school level.”

“Bill Self. Coach K. Billy Donovan. All coming to our gym,” McDermott added.

Only two players in school history made it to the NBA and neither of them had the national spotlight like Barnes did.

Even though they didn’t lose a game in two years and felt like “rock stars” due to Harrison’s publicity … when you boiled it all down, they were still just high school kids enjoying their teenage years.

On Fridays, football was king in Ames.

“Go to the football game. Watch some Little Cyclones,” McDermott said on what a Friday night in high school looked like.

“We just had a good group of friends around us. In Iowa you find a way to make it fun. Campfires. Bonfires. Tailgating for football games. After the basketball games going over to friend’s basement,” McDermott added.

Harrison echoed the same memories from high school, except Harrison needed a little help getting around as he never got his license in high school.

“I never had a license or a car,” Barnes said. “I grew up with a single-parent mom and we had one vehicle. It was always with her.”

So Doug became his “road dog” as Harrison liked to call it.

“Doug‘s dad was the head coach at Iowa State. He had the Grand Prix,” Barnes said as we both shared a laugh.

“We always had to drive him around everywhere,” McDermott said with a laugh. “Those were the good ole days and carpooling. That’s where you bond as teammates and young men.”

When McDermott arrived in Dallas last month, Barnes picked him up for a season ticket holder event and they both chuckled about the irony of Harrison giving Doug a ride.

Was Harrison really a nerd in high school?

“Nah I just took advanced classes that was all,” Barnes said with a smirk.

“He was a nerd, but a cool nerd,” McDermott added. “He could have played anywhere based on his grades. He was always in honor classes and we were always stuck in the normal classes.”

Doug admitted to making fun of him for being in all of the “smart classes,” but Harrison also took heat for being in band. Harrison spent two years in the marching band playing alto saxophone.

As for who got the girls in high school, Barnes says they all wanted Doug “McBuckets” McDermott.

“I had a girlfriend. He was Fabio man, people loved McBuckets man,” Barnes said with a laugh.

After their second straight state championship, it was time to go their separate ways. Harrison held a nationally televised press conference announcing his commitment to the University of North Carolina while Doug would make his way to Omaha, Nebraska to play for Creighton University.

They would remain close during their college years, but it wasn’t until March 18, 2012 that both of their roads converged into the same path once again.

The top-seeded Tar Heels were matched up against the No. 8 seed Bluejays in the Midwest region of the NCAA tournament.

For Barnes and the Tar Heels, it was the second game of a tournament run that seemed destined for a championship rematch against an Anthony Davis-led Kentucky team.

Barnes was flanked in the starting lineup by four other future NBA players: Kendall Marshall, John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Reggie Bullock.

McDermott averaged 22.9 points per game while leading Creighton to a 29-6 record. The Bluejays beat Alabama in the first round before matching up with Barnes and North Carolina.

“They had like six NBA players compared to our one,” McDermott said. They were a lot more athletic. It was fun going up against Harrison.”

North Carolina would knock off Creighton 87-73. Barnes finished with 17 points and five rebounds while McDermott finished with 20 points and nine rebounds. It was the injury news after the game that dominated the headlines, though.

In the second half, North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall was fouled hard on a drive to the basket. After the game, it was announced that he had broken his wrist and would miss the rest of the tournament.

As the starting point guard and all-time single season leader in assists in the ACC, Marshall was a piece that proved to be irreplaceable as UNC would go on to lose in the Elite Eight to Kansas.

“They tried to rough us up man. They ended Kendall’s collegiate career. It was tough. Wrecked everything,” Barnes said as he reminisced back to that moment.

Barnes would leave North Carolina after that year for the NBA. McDermott would stay at Creighton for another two years, going down as one of the best collegiate basketball players of all-time. In 2014, he would win the John R. Wooden award and the Naismith Player of the Year award.

Fast forward four years later and now the high school duo are teammates once again … this time in the NBA for the Dallas Mavericks.

They might be grown men now wearing different jerseys, but they both can’t help seeing flashes of their time together at Ames High.

“Just watching him and seeing how much better he has gotten. Seeing his mannerisms. Just the way Harrison runs, it still feels kind of the same which is really cool,” McDermott said.

“When he shoots it and is playing, I’m like I know this stuff and have seen it for years,” Barnes added.

Now that they’re on the same NBA team, friends and family back home have one game circled on their calendars: March 2, when the Mavericks travel to Chicago to face the Bulls.

Chicago is roughly 350 miles away from Ames, Iowa and the head coach of the Bulls is Fred Hoiberg. Hoiberg hails from Ames High himself and is one of the four players to make it to the NBA out of Ames High.

“The Chicago game is going to be nuts,” Barnes said. “Coach is on this vendetta to get Dick Gibbs to the game. He’s the very first guy from Ames High to go into the NBA. All four guys from Ames High.”

It’s safe to say Ames High will be well represented that night.

Until then, it’s catching up time for Harrison and Doug. Barnes says as soon as McDermott arrived in Dallas they instantly started reminiscing about their high school years in Ames. A team trainer refers to it as “Iowa talk” as the pair discuss names and places only an Ames native would know.

“When you are from that community, you know everybody,” McDermott said. “We had a lot of fun. Those final two years of high school were probably the funnest two years of my life.”

From the car rides and Friday night football games to their 53 straight wins and two state titles, the boys from Ames High are back together again.

This time, suiting up for the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA.

Dennis Smith Jr. ready to put on a show for the city of Dallas

2018 Slam Dunk Contest: Dennis Smith Jr.

Check out Dennis Smith Jr.'s best dunks so far this season ahead of the 2018 Slam Dunk Contest on February 16th at 7 PM CT, airing on TNT.

The first time Dennis Smith Jr. dunked was in the eighth grade.

When most eighth graders were worried about who they’re taking to the junior high dance, Dennis was in a gym having his friends throw him alley-oops until he finally caught one with two hands for his first dunk.

Six years later, Smith Jr. is one of four players competing at NBA All-Star weekend for the rights to be called slam dunk champion.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet. I am humbled by it,” Smith Jr. said as we chatted a day after he was officially named a participant.

On February 17, he’ll join Donovan Mitchell, Victor Oladipo and Larry Nance Jr. in the slam dunk contest as the headline event of All-Star Saturday night.

“It is great man. I think it will be really big for the city of Dallas,” Smith Jr. said. “I think it will be big for the organization. The last guy to do it was Michael Finley in 1997. I think it will be a show for our city.”

Finley, and his infamous cartwheel dunk, finished third that year in Cleveland. Tony Dumas gave it a go in 1995, but failed to make it out of the first round. Smith Jr. will be the third player in franchise history to compete in the event.

Even though this is Smith Jr.’s first time competing in an NBA dunk contest, it will technically be the third dunk contest he’s participated in. As for the first two that took place during his time in high school … he won them both.

The unprecedented leaping ability at such a young age became evident when Junior registered a 42-inch vertical his sophomore year. But for him, leaping was innate.

“It was natural. I wasn’t in the weight room or nothing crazy like that so I say it was natural,” Smith Jr. said.

It wasn’t until he tore his ACL in 2015 that he began really working on his legs due to the extensive rehab.

“I actually had to work on my legs and develop strength in my legs,” he said.

Almost two years after tearing his ACL, Smith Jr. would record his highest vertical to date during a pre-draft workout with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“48 inches … yeah, that is the highest ever,” Smith Jr. said when I asked him about that Lakers workout and his personal-best vertical.

The leaping ability has always been there, but the most underrated part of dunking is something that Smith Jr. never really had and it’s something he never will have either.

“Hand size. Unless I tell them, they don’t know, but I can’t palm the ball,” Smith Jr. said. “So people wonder how I dunk … I think that is the most underrated part of dunking.”

It doesn’t look like hand size is bothering him too much, though.

Mavs Rookie Flying High!

Dennis Smith Jr. is playing above the rim for the Dallas Mavericks this season.

Standing at 6-3, with a 48-inch vertical, Smith Jr. has always been the most explosive pound-for-pound player on the court. As we talked about the adrenaline that comes from dunking on an opposing player and the confidence that exudes from it, his initial response pointed right back to the impact it has on the team, not just himself.

“It gets the team going,” Smith Jr. said. “It can be a momentum shifter whenever you get a poster so I think there is a ton of adrenaline involved in that.”

On if there is someone in the league he would really like to dunk on, Dennis went with an answer that made us both laugh and one I didn’t see coming.

“Yeah, Dirk,” Dennis said as he laughed.

Growing up in the mid-2000’s in North Carolina, Smith Jr. just missed Michael Jordan’s glory days … but it was another North Carolina high schooler that’s his favorite dunker of all-time.

“Probably T-Mac,” Smith Jr. said when I asked him about his favorite high-flyer. “I like Jordan too though, but I only saw his highlights. I saw T-Mac’s live.”

As he mentioned Tracy McGrady as his favorite dunker, I instantly thought back to my personal favorite dunk contest in 2000 when Vince Carter stole the show in Oakland. As I reminisced with Dennis about my memories of that night, I asked him if he recalled that classic contest.

“I was three,” Smith Jr. said as we both shared a laugh. “But I’ve seen highlights of that. They’re running it on NBATV all the time. That was crazy.”

As for his personal favorite, Smith Jr. went with the recent battle between Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon in 2016.

My last question for Junior: If you could compete in a four-man dunk contest against any three dunkers in NBA history, who would you want to go against?

“Michael Jordan. Vince Carter and Nate Robinson … you got to show love for Nate. He was amazing,” Smith Jr. said.

Dennis on the dunk contest

Dennis Smith Jr. dishes on playing in the 2018 slam dunk contest and rising stars challenge.

Dennis might not be going up against Jordan or Carter in Los Angeles on the 17th, but the group of contestants surrounding him hold their own when it comes to throwing down.

Victor Oladipo was a contestant in 2015 when he came in second to Zach LaVine. As for Larry Nance Jr., it might be his first time participating, but the contest has history throughout his family. His father, Larry Nance, won the event in 1984 when he defeated Julius Erving. Donovan Mitchell, another explosive rookie, replaced Aaron Gordon after he was forced to withdraw due to injury.

Smith Jr. knows he will have to come prepared, so he’s formed a team to help get him ready for the event.

“I have some things up my sleeve. I have a nice little team working with me,” he said. “We have a couple of dunks that we know that I am fully capable of doing and they should be 50s.”

The brightest lights on the biggest stage will be shining down on Dennis Smith Jr. in Los Angeles Saturday, but for the 20-year-old young man, this is all just a dream come true coming from Fayetteville, North Carolina.

“You know where I am from man. I haven’t been to L.A. man outside of basketball,” Smith Jr. said as he thought about the magnitude of not only going to the event, but participating in it.

In fact, this is the first NBA All-Star weekend he’s ever attended. You couldn’t ask for a better stage to keep that undefeated streak alive.

Now go win that thing, Junior.

Pulling back the curtain on the creative process behind the City Edition jerseys

Only In Dallas

Dennis Smith Jr. debuts the new City Edition jersey!

“My first day with the Mavs was September 10, 2001. The day before 9/11,” Al Whitley said.

Whitley has been the Dallas Mavericks’ head equipment manager for the past 17 years.

“I grew up with Steve Nash, who is one of my childhood best friends,” Whitley said as we sat down to talk about his journey and role with the Mavericks. Whitley grew up with Nash in Canada and always dreamed of living in the United States.

After playing four years at Santa Clara University, Nash was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 1996. He was traded to Dallas in 1998 and would spend the next six seasons with the Mavericks.

“Through Steve, I was fortunate enough to meet Mark Cuban and we hit it off and became friends,” Whitley said. “[Cuban and I] were sitting around one day and he asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to live in the states and was willing to do anything, just give me a foot inside the door.

“17 years later, I have loved every minute of it and grateful for the opportunity.”

But as Mavs fans know, Nash’s time in Dallas would come to an end in 2004 when he returned to the Suns as a free agent. Would Whitley follow his best friend to Phoenix or stick around in Dallas and build on the foundation he established for himself?

“It wasn’t that hard because I had been down here for a couple of years and established my own life. The first thing you learn quickly in basketball is that it is a business,” Whitley said.

“He didn’t have to do it, but MC called me and was like, ‘I just wanted you to know that Steve is signing in Phoenix but I want you to stay in Dallas.’ That meant the world to me,” Whitley said.

Now, 14 years later, Whitley is a staple in the organization.

As the head equipment manager of an NBA team, one of your main responsibilities is to manage the team’s uniforms. With help from the players, Whitley picks which version and colors to wear for each game of the season.

This year, Nike has taken over the manufacturing of the NBA’s official apparel. Each team now has four jersey variants: The Icon, Association, Statement, and City editions.

The “Association Edition” is the traditional white jersey while the “Icon Edition” is the traditional blue jerseys for the Mavericks. The navy blue-based jerseys with the Dallas skyline in silver across the chest serves as the “Statement Edition.”

Today marks the official launch of the “City Edition.”

“When it gets on court, I think it is going to look clean and sharp and the guys are going to love it,” Whitley said.

The first and obvious observation of the new jerseys is the black base, a color Dallas has yet to use throughout the history of the franchise.

“Black was a no-brainer. The guys have wanted a black uniform for years. That was the base from the get-go … to fulfill what they wanted,” Whitley said.

“I like the black. It is the first time since I have been here that we are having a black uniform,” J.J. Barea said.

With the black base set, the attention then turned to the incorporation of the traditional Mavericks blue with a new “action green” as a nod to the old school green that was evident in the early days of the franchise.

“The royal blue obviously stays traditional with what we are wearing now. The action green came about with the old school green that people love, this is the new-age green,” Whitley said.

As for what all went into the decision for the new “action green,” Whitley says one of the main goals was to try and emulate the energy and uniqueness of the Dallas skyline.

“A couple of different factors. One was trying to bring the old school green back, but in a present-day form. Action green is a pretty popular color these days,” Whitley said. “We think that Dallas at nighttime has the best cityscape in America. The architecture, the way the buildings are silhouetted. One of the most prominent pieces of that downtown scape is the Bank of America building which is outlined in a green.”

J.J. Barea added that “it’s the new green.”

When designing a jersey such as this, you are bound to have obstacles along the way. I asked Whitley what his biggest roadblock was throughout the process.

“Putting the ‘DAL’ across the jersey was a new idea,” Whitley said. “We have done ‘Dallas,’ ‘Mavericks,’ and ‘Mavs.’ We wanted something different. ‘DFW’ was a preseason jersey years ago. We wanted to do something we have never done before.”

“Dallas is a big bold city, our owner is big and bold and we wanted to highlight that in the uniform,” Whitley said.

Nike’s official release adds, “Only in Dallas will you feel the energy the downtown skyline brings to its Dallasites. Marked by the neon glow on the letters, numbers and piping, the new Mavs City Edition Jersey reflects the swagger of the Big D and the vibrancy of Dallas nights.”

As for Mark Cuban, he says he deferred to the team when it came to input for the new designs.

“Despite my incredible fashion sense and ability to create global fashion trends, I deferred to our team for the jerseys,” Cuban said with a grin.

That “team” Cuban was referring to? Along with Whitley and Alison Panasik, the director of merchandising, the Mavericks put together a coalition of people across different departments to work together and provide input throughout the design process.

After Nike sent their representatives to scope out the city of Dallas, they went to work with the team the Mavericks put together to bring the new “City Edition” jerseys to life.

“January 26th we will debut it,” Whitley said. “We will wear it 15-18 times. Quite a bit over the second half of the season. Road and home.”

Even though the organization and team of designers are on board with the new design, they realize they can’t please everyone. For the people who aren’t happy with the new look, fear not, this “edition” will only be around for the rest of this season.

“It is a one-year uniform. These are not our permanent uniforms moving forward. It is supposed to be a fun play. Use out-of-the box colors we have never used before. Experiment a bit,” Whitley said. “We wanted to stay crisp and clean with a little pop to it. I don’t think we got too crazy. But I think on court, when the guys put it on, it’s going to look great.”

As for the next iteration of the “City Edition,” the design is already in place.

“They are planning for over a year in advance,” Whitley said. “We have already planned next year’s City Edition.”

So with 17 years under his belt with the Mavericks, what are his personal favorite and least favorite threads the team has worn over the years?

“My favorite is the old-school green. I love the cowboy hat. That is tied with the royal road, which we won the championship in. I am partial to that,” Whitley said.

“My least favorite is the garbage can ones. The actual grey is something we are probably going to re-visit in the future. That material and the way it came off obviously didn’t work,” Whitley said as we both shared a laugh.

In the NFL, a common tradition is players swapping jerseys after the game as a sign of respect. When I asked Whitley how many players ever request for Dirk Nowitzki’s jersey after games, he admits it happens all of the time.

“All the time. Nowadays, it’s almost every game. They ask him during the game and get back to me through their team,” Whitley said. “Just a show of respect he has around the league. It is the older guys, the Europeans, the younger guys, everybody asks for it.”

So the wait is finally over. Tonight you’ll see the Mavs don the first black jerseys in franchise history as they take the court against the Portland Trail Blazers in front of a raucous American Airlines Center crowd.

You may not be lucky enough to get a chance to swap jerseys with Dirk, but you can get your hands on all the limited edition “City” jerseys, apparel and merchandise at The Hangar and fan shops around the arena now.

From Tallulah to the NBA: Melvin Hunt’s journey as a coach

“I grew up in Tallulah, Louisiana,” Melvin Hunt said as we chatted earlier in the year for a story I did during Black History Month.

Louisiana was the place Hunt called home, but it was during his formative years that the Hunt family moved north to Flint, Michigan, where the economy was booming at the time. Before the economy took a turn for the worse in the ’80s, Hunt found himself moving back to Louisiana in eighth grade.

As Hunt says, “this was one of the best things to ever happen.”

Hunt would spend his high school years playing basketball and would be recruited nationally to play collegiate ball. After considering schools across the country, Hunt made his decision to attend Baylor University from 1987-91.

Little did he know that he would form relationships at Baylor that would shape the rest of his life.

Hunt would not only meet his future wife at Baylor, but would also establish a close friendship with two men that would go on to make their own mark in the league.

“Dennis Lindsey, the Utah Jazz general manager, was my roommate, and David Wesley, who is my best friend and does television for the Pelicans, was my other backcourt mate… All three of us are NBA guys off the same team out of Baylor,” Hunt said.

Lindsey graduated from Baylor in 1992 and found himself bouncing around the league before landing the general manager role in Utah in 2012.

Wesley spent 14 seasons in the NBA with the New Jersey Nets, Boston Celtics, Charlotte (and New Orleans) Hornets, Houston Rockets, and Cleveland Cavaliers. He was hired in 2012 as part of the broadcast team for the Hornets.

All three guys made up the same back court at Baylor and remain close friends to this day.

Hunt would test the waters of professional ball before heading to Grambling Sate University for graduate school. One of his jobs while back in Louisiana was actually as a middle school math teacher.

“I actually taught math back home in Louisiana for a short while: 7th and 8th grade mathematics… I have really been blessed to do a lot of different things,” Hunt said.

After not finding a job that he desired, Hunt would move back to Baylor to become an academic advisor for four years. During that time at Baylor, Hunt was a local referee while also helping coach an AAU team, a women’s team, and a 4th/5th grade team.

“I knew God was calling me to coach and to use it as a platform,” Hunt said.

Hunt and his family then came to an agreement. Coaching was Melvin’s calling and it was time for him to go all in. After re-connecting with some old friends, Hunt took a high school coaching job at Temple High School in Temple, Texas. He would spend a year there before taking a college coaching job outside of San Antonio that wouldn’t last very long.

Just a few months down the road, an old friend came calling by the name of Dennis Lindsey. Lindsey was working for the Houston Rockets at the time under Carroll Dawson, former Rockets GM. They had an opportunity for Melvin and he knew it was his shot.

“Next thing you know I am the assistant video coordinator for the Houston Rockets,” Hunt said.

Melvin would spend the next five years in Houston working under the great Rudy Tomjanovich.

“Working under Rudy Tomjanovich was the best guy ever for an entry-level guy,” Hunt said. “He wanted me to grow, not afraid to let me grow. He let all his employers touch everything. We were all cross-trained.”

From sitting in on free agent meetings to scouting players overseas, Hunt did it all during his time with the Rockets.

“I was in China when we drafted Yao Ming. I was always in China,” Hunt said about his scouting time in Houston. This was during the pre-Tracy McGrady days in Houston. “Steve Francis, (Cuttino) Mobley, Yao, Eddie Griffin, Maurice Taylor… we were the young upstart team,” Hunt said.

Jeff Van Gundy would eventually come in as the new coach of the Rockets and Hunt decided to follow Tomjanovich to Los Angeles to be a coach for the Lakers.

This is where Hunt’s relationship with Kobe Bryant took off and is still something special to him to this day.

“Kobe’s last trip to the Mavericks, we still talk obviously, but I have a great picture of he and I walking off the court and I am palming the back of his head. It is a great picture,” Hunt said.

Fast-forwarding through his time in Los Angeles for a year, Hunt would then head to Cleveland in 2005 to be an assistant for the Cavaliers for the next five years.

“At one point in time I was a trivia question. Who is the only coach in the league to coach LeBron and Kobe? It was me until Mike Brown got the Laker job,” Hunt said.

Kobe. LeBron. Dirk. Hunt could form a pretty mean all-time starting five of players he has coached.

“I had Hakeem, I had Barkley at the end of his career,” Hunt said. “I had Melo before we traded him in Denver. Melo and Chauncey Billups. I have put together like an NBA All-Star, like first team, second team, third team and it’s been hard. I had old Shaq in Cleveland.”

As Hunt mentioned his days in Denver with Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, we then transition into his time in Denver before coming to Dallas in 2015. Hunt was an assistant coach in Denver from 2010-2014, and would end up spending the last 23 games of the 2014-15 season serving as the interim head coach. Now, in his third year in Dallas, Hunt is preparing under Rick Carlisle to one day take the next step.

“Rick is putting the final schlacking on and polishing me off as a coach and a leader. It’s getting me ready for one day when it is my day to be a head coach,” Hunt said. “Right now, Rick treats me like a head coach. Everything he goes about with me he treats me like a head coach. When we make decisions in the game, ultimately we know he has the final say, but he comes to me just like I’m another head coach over there. He asks and listens. I give information and sometimes I call him out and he really listens. He knows I’m ready and prepared.”

In putting those final touches on Hunt, the relationship is unique because of their completely different personalities and coaching styles. For that, Hunt couldn’t be more grateful to learn in the areas he lacks.

“I can’t say how thankful I am working with Rick. We are so different but we get along really well and a big time respect,” Hunt said. “He has me have conversations with Mark (Cuban) like he has with Mark. The first time I had a conversation with Mark, being a good assistant coach, I went to Rick and was like, ‘You know Mark asked me about this and this’ because I work for Rick. Rick said ‘oh good, you need to talk to him more.'”

This was crazy to Hunt. Carlisle was suggesting Hunt meet with Cuban more so that he could go through every single aspect of what being a head coach looks like. So what exactly is it like coaching under Rick Carlisle?

“Rick is a modern-day renaissance man,” Hunt said. He went on to praise Carlisle’s intelligence, but also mentioned the personal side not everyone gets to see all of the time.

“We had one of greatest conversations as a staff talking basketball. Next thing you know, Rick was drawing up a schematic on the whiteboard of the farm he grew up on,” Hunt said.

For Carlisle and the team, there is nothing but love for the impact that Hunt has had on the staff.

“Melvin is a veteran assistant that is very well thought of,” Carlisle said. “He’s done a great job for us. He has been a head coach so he has that perspective. He has been a long-time assistant and a former player too. Those are things to contribute to his ability to communicate and be a real asset on the staff.”

As far as when the right time will be for Hunt to be a head coach, it’s not about his plans, but God’s, as Hunt’s Christian faith is the driving force in his life.

“The plan is whatever God has, but I know he has me on this road for a reason,” Hunt said. “You can be a head coach and be miserable. I’ve seen guys become a head coach and lose their families because they had to compromise who they were as men. I’m not going to take just any job. It has to be the right job for me, my situation and my family. I’m not thirsty. The right one will happen and it will be good.”

The “right one” might be in the cards for Hunt in the future. But for now, he will continue to be the fun, hard-working assistant coach that everyone in the organization looks forward to seeing everyday.

And for that, we couldn’t be more thankful to have Melvin Hunt as a Dallas Maverick.