Three years ago, on the night of the 2016 NBA Draft, Dorian Finney-Smith was angry and disappointed. He had just finished his third year at the University of Florida and was awaiting his name to be called and his dream to be fulfilled. But it never happened. Finney-Smith went undrafted.
Then Rick Carlisle came calling.
The Mavericks had been tracking him for years, even before his college days as Finney-Smith grew up just miles away from the Portsmouth Invitational, an annual high school basketball tournament which always attracts NBA executives. Finney-Smith played his freshman season at Virginia Tech before playing his final three years at the University of Florida. It was there that the idea of Finney-Smith wearing a Mavericks jersey became an idea.
“We loved him at Florida and was always targeting him,” Tony Ronzone, the Mavs’ director of player personnel said. With a strong recommendation from the scouting department, Carlisle made the call and invited Finney-Smith to camp.
“I was a little nervous because they had already paid [Jonathan] Gibson,” Finney-Smith said. “I thought I would be in the G-League. But I just played hard and they loved the way I played.”
“He had to prove himself and he did just that,” Ronzone added.
Finney-Smith would impress so much in camp that he would not only make the team, but he would be named a starter just six games into his rookie season. With an early injury to Dirk Nowitzki, Carlisle elected to go with the undrafted Finney-Smith in the starting lineup over Justin Anderson, the 21st overall pick just the year before. He would start in 35 of his 81 games played that rookie season. So much for the G League right?
Over the next three seasons, Finney-Smith would gradually improve his scoring and rebounding averages every year while also increasing his field goal and 3-point percentages. “He’s one of those guys who loves to be in the gym so it is no surprise that he has improved,” Dwight Powell said as he praised Finney-Smith’s development.
“He’s versatile and can guard multiple positions,” Powell added. “He’s a fighter and competitor that gives us energy. He can rebound well from his position, especially offensively, creating havoc on the glass.”
As one of the veterans on the team and one of the only players who have been on the team since Finney-Smith was brought into camp, J.J. Barea praised the confidence that Finney-Smith has now in his fourth year in the league. “He became an NBA player,” Barea said. “Now he is in shape and can shoot it. We all knew he could play defense and rebound. Now he has a little confidence and he’s helping us a lot.”
Each of the last three summers, the idea of Finney-Smith improving his jump shot has been something I believe every blogger in Dallas has written about. And this season looks to be another year that he’s become more accurate. “You can always be a better shooter,” Finney-Smith said of his constant work on his shot. “Everybody in here is confident in my shooting and I am too. I am going to keep letting them fly.”
Finney-Smith is shooting more 3s per game than ever before and is now shooting them at a 34 percent clip — an improvement to his 29 perecent rate during his rookie season. “Luka is always telling me to shoot it,” Finney-Smith said. “It feels good knowing that he trusts me.”
Saying that is one thing, but seeing it in action is another. In a recent game in which Finney-Smith was shooting it well offensively, Doncic came down the court and called a play specifically to get Finney-Smith a shot at the top of the key. Of course, Finney-Smith drained the shot to help increase the lead, but it was the trust that Doncic had in him that increased his confidence.
For Mark Cuban, Finney-Smith’s hoops savvy stands out as being much different in year four compared to year one. “Doe Doe’s basketball IQ has taken dramatic leaps forward,” Cuban said. “Seeing the game and knowing what to do has become a big positive when he is on the court.”
For a franchise looking to find future pieces for the post-Dirk era, Finney-Smith was slowly establishing himself as a piece to the puzzle. A piece that some people outside of Dallas questioned would be around when Finney-Smith hit free agency this past summer. But the Mavs had no intention on letting Finney-Smith walk. They brought him to camp after being undrafted. They invested into Dorian. But more importantly, they believed in Dorian. And they proved that by signing Finney-Smith to a multi-year deal this past summer.
It was the Spurs’ fifth loss in a row and the Mavs second win in a row at home. With familiar faces like Duncan and Nowitzki no longer suiting up, it was the new star in Dallas that stole the show. Luka Doncic scored a career-high 42 points and recorded another triple-double as the Mavs held on for a seven-point win. Rick Carlisle finished his post-game media session and reporters for both teams flocked to the Mavs’ locker room in an effort to claim their standing position around Doncic’s locker. Kristaps Porzingis walked in after a shower and made a joke about the number of media waiting. It was Luka’s night.
But Doncic wasn’t the only one with a career night. Dorian Finney-Smith scored 22 points and was the second-leading scorer on the team behind Doncic. It was a career high for him and there were zero reporters around his locker. The spotlight was and is on Luka from a media standpoint. But from a team perspective, they all recognized the importance of Dorian Finney-Smith.
“Tonight, he was unbelievable,” Porzingis said of Finney-Smith. “But even the nights he doesn’t score he does a lot of things for us. His offensive rebounding. He always guards the best guy on the opposite team. Great teammate. Speaks up and is loud on defense. He brings that energy and intensity every night. You always want to play with a guy like that.”
Dorian loves being THAT guy too. He takes pride in guarding the opposing team’s best defender. From LeBron James to James Harden, Finney-Smith loves the challenge of taking on that assignment each night from the opening tip. Rick Carlisle goes as far as saying that Finney-Smith can “guard any position on the floor effectively.” Every player on the team has a piece of paper inside their locker with three personalized words on a triangle describing him and his role. Finney-Smith’s words read: versatile, hard-nosed and talker.
Except his has an extra label, too: PIT BULL. And every great team needs a pit bull on their team.
The DeShawn Stevensons and Bruce Bowens of the world — the guys who don’t care about doing the dirty work or what their stats look like on any night. “Tonight, I got shots but the next night I might not. I might just guard and rebound,” Finney-Smith said after the win over San Antonio. “I really just want to win and I will do whatever it takes to win.”
When talking with the Ronzone, one name came to mind for him when thinking back to players that remind him of the impact and role that Finney-Smith has on this Mavs team.
Ronzone served in the scouting department and front office during the Pistons championship runs with Wallace in the middle in the early-2000s. He saw firsthand the impact that Wallace had on a Pistons team that had Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups leading the way in scoring. Ronzone said that like Wallace, Finney-Smith does all of the little things to help the team and never complains about his role. In fact, he embraces the role, similar to Wallace on those Pistons teams.
Most teams in a rebuild are on a constant search for the next generational talent that will pop out on the local billboards and be the star of the team. You find that player and then you find them a running mate of some sort. And once you have that star core intact, you then look for the supporting pieces that complement the cornerstones. But Dallas found its pit bull before Doncic and Porzingis ever arrived. Now that they’re here, fitting Finney-Smith in alongside of them has been seamless.
The three-man lineup of Doncic, Porzingis, and Finney-Smith have a net rating of +3.5 in 296 minutes together on the court. This is 100 minutes more together than the second-most played together three-man lineup on the Mavs. For a team that is built on fluidity in the starting unit and 10 different starters so far this season, only Porzingis, Doncic and Finney-Smith have logged double-digit starts. Carlisle and the coaching staff obviously believe in this trio and the 11-6 record suggests that it’s working.
On top of that, there have been only four two-man lineups for the Mavs that have logged over 280 minutes together. Of those four, both the Finney-Smith-Doncic and Finney-Smith-Porzingis pairings have the highest net ratings.
When you try to come at Finney-Smith with stats or praise to show his impact on the team, he almost always deflects to the team first. It was the “team” that got him open shots. It was the “team” that gives him his confidence. It was the “team” that is doing well on defense, not just him. Heck, he even credited Subway for the pre-game meal before his career high scoring night.
“I just do what they ask,” Finney-Smith said. “I love to compete so I just try to bring that edge to the first unit.”
Rick Carlisle, who has constantly referred to Finney-Smith as a lottery pick in the 2016 draft if they held a re-draft today, says it’s not just his ability to fit alongside Doncic and Porzingis, but that he is a player that can fit alongside anybody. And this is why the quiet Finney-Smith is so invaluable to the Mavericks moving forward.
When you’re having the conversation about the keys to the Mavericks being successful this season, the conversation starts with Luka Doncic. But the pairing of Finney-Smith alongside Doncic isn’t far down the list in that conversation. Doncic summed it up best when describing Finney-Smith’s impact on the team.
“He plays amazing defense and offense. That is how he is every game,” Doncic said. “He is an amazing defender. He can rebound and shoot. He is all over the court helping us. He is one of the keys to this team.”
The Mavericks found their young duo of the future, but they also found their pit bull to complement their duo in Dorian Finney-Smith.