For many people in Dallas, the name Maxi Kleber was introduced to them last fall when the Dallas Mavericks signed a 26-year-old big man from the same hometown of Dirk Nowitzki.
Fans took to YouTube in search of anything on the newest German. They found an athletic, shot-blocking big that was coming into his own for Bayern Munich. But while fans acquainted themselves to the new training camp player, the Mavs front office was looking forward to finally seeing Kleber in NBA action.
Because until that point, the Mavs had been tracking Kleber overseas since 2007 when Maxi was 16 years old.
As Kleber improved over his early years in Germany and Spain, he found himself on the outside looking in as injuries during EuroCamp derailed his NBA momentum. If not for his injuries, members of the Mavs front office believe Kleber would have been drafted five or six years ago.
But Kleber continued on his professional career in Spain before returning to Germany to play for Bayern Munich in 2015. And through all of his stops, the Mavericks still kept their tabs on the big man.
“I kept following his game and knew he was very athletic and could be a solid two-way player,” Tony Ronzone, the director of player personnel for the Dallas Mavericks said.
In 37 Basketball Bundesliga (BBL) games for Bayern Munich two years ago, he averaged 8.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.2 blocks en route to being named a BBL All-Star, All-BBL Second Team and BBL Most Effective Player.
In 17 EuroCup games for Bayern Munich in 2016-17, Kleber averaged 9.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists while being named All-EuroCup Second Team.
After his impressive EuroCup, it was finally time to come to the NBA as the Dallas Mavericks signed him on July 13, 2017. It was his chance to compete in an NBA training camp for a spot on an official NBA roster. Not only did Kleber make the final team, but also would appear in 72 games his rookie season and start in 36 of them. He averaged just over 16 minutes a game and proved to be a reliable big in Carlisle’s system.
Now, 12 games into his second season, Kleber is a staple off the bench for a Mavs team that is trying to climb back up the proverbial mountain. Kleber, alongside Dwight Powell, has formed a high-energy big man combination that anchors the second unit.
“We have great chemistry and a lot of energy guys,” Kleber said of the second unit. “We have to continue that. When we come in we can’t back down.”
Of the Mavs’ two-man lineups that have played over 100 minutes together this season, Kleber is in four of the top five two-man combinations by net rating. Kleber and Wesley Matthews top the list with a +16.1 net rating on 117 minutes together.
The Mavericks also have six five-man lineups that have played at least 25 minutes together on the season. Only three of those five-man lineups have a positive net rating this season and Maxi Kleber is in two of them. A lineup of Brunson-Barea-Matthews-Powell-Kleber leads the way for the Mavs at a +26.8 net rating according to NBA.com.
For Kleber in particular, it all starts with his shot. Dating back to last training camp, the adjustment from Europe to the NBA was the talk around Kleber with the focus on the three-point line. With the shift taking place in the league where big men need to be able to shoot from the outside, Kleber had to reconstruct his shot to adjust to the farther out three point line.
A member of the Mavs front office acknowledged that adjusting to the new 3-point line and even the NBA ball usually takes a great deal of time. Even going as far as taking over a year to completely adjust. For the first time in multiple years, Kleber finally got an offseason where he was healthy for a change. It was a chance to focus solely on his body and in particular his new shot that he worked diligently on developing all throughout his rookie season.
“The last years I didn’t have much time in the summer time to work on my game because it was always doing rehab,” Kleber said. “This was a big summer for me to have the chance for the first time to really work on something.”
Kleber also got valuable playing time with the German national team as qualification windows were open and they played four games. Playing alongside Oklahoma City guard Dennis Schroder, Kleber helped lead Germany to victories in all four games in which he described it as a big moment for the national team.
The time over the summer paid off for Kleber early on in the NBA season as well. Over the first four games of the season, Kleber shot 8 of 13 from behind the arc for a scorching 61 percent. Kleber also shot 61 percent from the field and was a +9 over those four games when the Mavs went 2-2.
Even though Kleber has at times been in a shooting slump, he still spends time after practice getting up reps with his new shot.
“I think I have gotten better. I still feel I have to get as many reps as I can,” Kleber said. “After practice I have to get extra shots up and get used to my new shot because it is a new process. I am way more confident with it and I will keep shooting it.”
And to keep shooting it is exactly what the Mavs and Rick Carlisle want.
“Developing his shooting range to now well behind the three-point line is a big game-changer,” Carlisle said of Kleber’s new outside shot. “It opens up more driving possibilities. The ability to shoot the three now is virtually a required skill if you play the 1-4. And he can play the five, which he hasn’t played much, but he is certainly able.”
With the 5-man in Carlisle’s system being more of a roll man, Kleber has spent more time at the 4 this season. Kleber says that he is comfortable at each position and that he likes them both. But no matter the position or role he has in the offense, Kleber’s defense is arguably the storyline around his impressive start to the season.
Focusing on his ability to block shots, Kleber is averaging 1.4 blocks a game on only 18 minutes a night. That is 2.7 blocks per 36 minutes — the highest on the team. To give even more perspective, Kleber has played in 170 fewer minutes than DeAndre Jordan but has blocked as many shots.
His determination and skill on the defensive end has also placed him as one of the best shot blockers in the league. Of the top 25 players in total blocks in the league, Kleber is one of three players with fewer than 200 total minutes of play.
“This kid shows leadership and is a complete team player who is very unselfish,” Ronzone said. “His defensive ability with quick jumps stands out quickly. His ability to block shots and contest is a huge plus for us.”
Kleber is also in the 64thpercentile in defending pick and rolls as the big defender and in the 66thpercentile in defending isolation plays (minimum of 10 possessions) according to Synergy.
“Maxi has developed into a premier, really underrated defender,” Dallas Mavericks proprietor Mark Cuban said of Kleber. “He has come a long way and can go even further.”
When I asked Kleber about the pride he takes in his defense, he made it clear that it was a personal thing. “If you take every matchup personal you have a certain edge to it,” Kleber said.
From J.J. Barea to Dorian Finney-Smith, the Mavericks have proved in recent history that you can find valuable pieces to your franchise in the undrafted pool. Is Maxi Kleber the next Maverick in line to hold such title?
“I’m so happy for him and his continued improvement as he’s shown around our league that he’s a NBA player that will be part of our league for a long time,” Ronzone added about Kleber.
Maxi Kleber was 26 years old when he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Mavericks making it 10 years that the Mavericks kept an eye on him overseas. Now, after a remade outside shot and a nonstop motor on the defensive end, Kleber is in the midst of his second season where he continues to show he belongs in the league for a long time.