It’s not surprising for a player to make an NBA team as an undrafted free agent.
It’s not even that outlandish to see a player earn a spot in the playing rotation. A fair number of players have done that. They may not earn the paychecks that those players taken in the draft get, but if a team is convinced a player can help it win, they will get that player on the court, drafted or not.
But only a few, rare athletes end up being recognized as one of the best undrafted players in the NBA. Especially over the last 20 years, when scouting has gotten so good that teams zero in on their draft targets and the players who aren’t selected in the two-round draft typically face long odds just to make a team.
Looking back, what must teams be thinking now when they see J.J. Barea and know they could have had him anywhere in the 2006 draft?
It’s not a reach to say Barea would have been a lottery pick if teams knew then what they know now.
Since 2000, only six undrafted players have been in 800 or more NBA games. Barea is one of them. Only five have scored 7,000 points or more. Barea is one of them. Only two undrafted players since 2000 have 3,000 or more assists. Barea is one of them (with Jose Calderon).
Barea has played all 13 seasons since he came into the league in 2006. Among players taken in the top 10 of that year’s draft, Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas, Shelden Williams, Brandon Roy, Patrick O’Bryant and Mouhamed Sene never made it past eight seasons in the league.
Barea is proof that there still is no NBA scouting tool to measure heart and toughness. Some players simply have more of those invaluable attributes than others. Barea has boatloads of both.
What he also had until earlier this season was mostly a career of good health. Maybe that’s why the final three months of the 2018-19 season didn’t seem quite so much fun for Maverick fans.
Yes, celebrating Dirk Nowitzki trumped everything and was a joy to watch unfold. But having Barea on the court with Dirk at the end could have made it even more special.
Barea had his season cut short by a torn Achilles injury that happened on Jan. 11 at Minnesota, the only other NBA team he’s played for besides the Mavericks, by the way.
At the time, he had 16 points, seven assists and four rebounds in that game, which was typical of the kind of production he was having on a regular basis this season.
That was Barea’s 38th and final game of the season. He ended up averaging 10.9 points and 5.6 assists per game.
It was one of his most productive seasons in his 13th year and at age 34.
In fact, in the past five seasons with the Mavericks, Barea has averaged 10.2 points, 4.8 assists and shot 35.4 percent from 3-point range.
Before the injury, Barea was asked how many of Nowitzki’s 31,000-plus points he assisted on.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But probably half of my assists have gone to him.”
It says something that Barea was listed by Maverick coaches as one of only a handful of players on the roster who could be relied upon to create his own shots. And make them with a fair amount of regularity.
In the pick-and-roll or simply penetrating and taking whatever the defense was giving, Barea, Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson and Tim Hardaway Jr. were probably the Mavericks’ most effective playmakers.
All of which makes it even harder to believe he did not get drafted.
Going over the 2006 draft, it appears that only seven players stand out as clear choices ahead of Barea: LaMarcus Aldridge (2nd), Rudy Gay (8th), J.J. Redick (11th), Thabo Sefolosha (13th), Rajon Rondo (21st), Kyle Lowry (24th) and Paul Millsap (47th).
You can wear out a barstool quibbling about others: top pick Andre Bargnani, No. 6 Roy, No. 7 Randy Foye, No. 35 P.J. Tucker and a few others.
But there is little doubt that Barea would be a top-15 pick. He’s won a title with the 2011 Mavericks. He’s been a starter. He’s come off the bench and he’s survived 13 seasons against bigger, stronger players.
None of them surpassed Barea in the heart department.
For that reason, nobody would doubt that he will come back strong from the Achilles tear he suffered in January. He’s a free agent-to-be. And while nothing in life or in free agency is guaranteed, both he and the Mavericks expect his career to continue in 2019-20.
It just wouldn’t seem right any other way.