Many NBA players keep in touch with their college coaches even when they make it to the Association. For Dorian Finney-Smith, however, chatting with the man who coached him at the D-I level would mean fraternizing with a conference rival.

Finney-Smith was a four-year player at the University of Florida, where he played two seasons under Billy Donovan, and spent an additional year with him while he sat out due to transfer rules. Donovan now coaches the Oklahoma City Thunder, who the Mavs beat 104-89 on Sunday night at American Airlines Center.

The rookie still has fond memories of his time with Donovan, who became OKC’s head coach before last season.

“He would be at the gym all night,” Finney-Smith said. “He cared about his players. While he was there, we had a real strong relationship that’s still strong to this day, and he’s somebody I look up to as a mentor and a leader.”

Finney-Smith averaged 10.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game during the two seasons he played with Donovan. During his sophomore season in Florida in 2013-14, the Gators went 36-3 and advanced to the Final Four.

Donovan had nothing but positive things to say about his former player, who’s now become a key contributor to a Mavs team looking to make a turnaround in the Western Conference after a slow start to the season. The Thunder coach said he spoke with Finney-Smith before last summer’s NBA Draft, telling him if he does at the NBA level what he did in college, he’d fit in right away.

“I just told him, ‘You just need to defend, and be who you are,'” Donovan reflected. “Because of his length, his size, and athleticism, any coach is gonna see the value he brings, because he’s a winner. That’s what he is: a winner.”

Finney-Smith has earned high praise from his coaches and teammates this season for his energy and ability on the defensive end. His first real crack at NBA minutes came in an early-November game against Milwaukee, and the Mavs rookie gave Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo all he could handle on that end of the floor. Dallas won 84-75, and Finney-Smith immediately became a full-time starter until Dirk Nowitzki returned from injury in December.

While his energy earned him a job, Finney-Smith admitted he wasn’t always as aggressive and dynamic on the defensive end until Donovan brought it out of him.

“I was always the kid who walked in yawning, just moving in slow-motion,” he said of his early days at Florida. “I really didn’t know what playing hard was until I started playing with him. I give a lot of credit to him today. That’s the reason why I’m here.”

He brings more to the table than just defense, of course. Donovan considers Finney-Smith a “terrific” rebounder, and as his 3-point shooting has become more consistent throughout his first NBA season, Finney-Smith has added a pull-up jumper and dribble-drive to attack close-outs. On top of that, he always seems to make the right play; he’s got a very solid basketball IQ for a player his age.

Those qualities made a strong impression on the Mavs coaching staff during the camp leading up to Summer League, and before the team flew to Las Vegas, Dallas signed the undrafted rookie to a contract. Donovan views this as a perfect situation for his former player.

“He knows how to compete, he knows how to play, he knows how to make people around him better,” Donovan said. “And he’s always gonna be unselfish and do what’s best for the team. So I’m happy he’s here with Rick, and (Mavs assistant coach) Larry Shyatt was with me at Florida, so I’m happy he’s in a good situation, because he’s a great kid.”

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