TULSA, Okla. – Bouncing around like he was 15, not 35, J.J. Barea didn’t look anything like an NBA graybeard who had surgery to repair a ruptured right Achilles tendon in January.
He took 3-pointers, made his first one, and darted through traffic like he always does during the Mavericks’ open scrimmage on Sunday, to the great delight of nearly 9,000 fans that showed up for the first look at this season’s team. It is less than nine months since he suffered the injury that coach Rick Carlisle called “gut-wrenching” for the entire organization.
It’s an injury that can be devastating for any athlete but particularly so for an older player.
And yet, there he was, running circles around defenders and meshing perfectly with teammates.
“I’m feeling better than I thought I was going to,” Barea said Monday as the Mavericks left for Tuesday’s preseason opener in Tulsa against the Oklahoma City Thunder. “I still got a way to go. But the more I play, the more I move, it gets better.”
Barea did not make the trip that will go on to Detroit Wednesday after Tuesday’s game against the Thunder. He said the blueprint for his rehab has been in place and the Mavericks will not deviate from it.
“I’m playing Friday (in the exhibition home opener), playing Monday, and then we’ll go from there,” he said. “I’m just not doing this trip because I wasn’t going to play much and I might as well be here working out.”
Those workouts are way more extensive than typical offseason routines. Barea, who guesstimates that he is 85-90 percent of his usual self, credits a small army of medical, training and strength professionals for getting him through a recovery process that at times has been very tedious.
“We have the best,” coach Rick Carlisle said of the Mavericks’ medical team. “We have great doctors, a great training staff. We have a great strength and conditioning staff. Everybody plays a part when a guy like J.J. is able to do what he did on Sunday.
“It’s pretty remarkable. But you have a guy with a history of being a good healer. And also a guy who’s very conscientious about rehab and very positive about it.”
The team that has worked tirelessly on Barea includes just about everybody on the Mavericks medical squad. But Barea singled out one person.
“The head of the snake was Jeremy,” he said, referring to Jeremy Holsopple, the Mavericks’ athletic performance director. “Jeremy made a good plan and we’ve stuck with it. I’ve been on it forever.”
Holsopple said it helps to have a willing patient in rehab like Barea. He said the team brought in experts to look at Barea’s Achilles and they were impressed with how fast the healing process was going.
“J.J.’s been great,” Holsopple said. “He’s worked hard and a lot of people have helped get him to where he is now.”
Not that the entire process has been smooth. Barea is the first to admit that there were times when he wasn’t sure he’d ever feel like his normal self again.
“There were some days when I was like, geez … but then there were some days where I was like, I can do this,” he said. “And then after like five months, the doctor said, you’re good to go. You’re healed. Go work out. And the good thing about this injury is you feel it getting better. I talked to Wes (former Maverick Wesley Matthews, who had the same injury) and he said: every day, you can walk a little bit better, you can run a little bit better, you can jump a little bit better.”
Barea has had no serious setbacks. That he is not on the preseason-opening trip should not be construed as a downer.
But he knows he’s not exactly where he needs to be yet, either.
“I could play, but I’m not at my top-top,” he said. “That’s going to take awhile anyway. I just got to keep playing and get there.”
So what’s delaying him getting that last 10 or 15 percent?
‘Just trying to get a little quicker,” he said. “I’m still fast. I can still get in the lane. And I know it’s going to keep getting better.
“But on defense, my reaction time I think is going to take a little time. On offense, I know where I’m going. On defense, I have to react. I got to work on my reaction time and I should be good to go.”
Barea, by the way, said he had no problems with the NBA’s new, stricter guidelines for measuring players. Ever since he came into the NBA, he’s been listed at 6-foot, even though it was a running joke around the team that he was not that tall.
Sure enough, when the new measurements came out last week, he came in at 5-10.
“I kind of knew that,” he said. “I was scared I was going to be 5-9. So 5-10 was good.”
Barea is the Mavericks’ elder statesman now that Dirk Nowitzki is retired, although he quickly reminds anybody who brings that up that “I feel young, though.”
Even so, as a player who hopes to someday become a coach, Barea knows that this Mavericks team has plenty of opportunities to prove itself with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis ready to pair up as the foundation pieces of what the Mavericks hope will be a long run of contending for bigger and better things.
“They got a great opportunity to do something great, take this city and put it on their shoulders,” Barea said. “If they help each other out – if Luka helps KP and KP helps Luka – they could be amazing together.
“And they’re going the right direction. What I see is great. This year is going to tell a lot. It’s going to be a great year for them to move forward. I definitely see it. And I think they’re smart enough to know this. So we just got to help them out as much as we can.”