Draft night is meant to be a celebration, and it would have been for Johnathan Motley had he not suffered an unlucky ending to a standout college career.
Motley tore his meniscus in his final collegiate game, a 70-50 loss to South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. Motley, a junior and consensus Second Team All-American, played through the pain, which reveals as much about his toughness as it does his determination.
But those traits will only take you so far in the cutthroat world of the draft, and as NBA teams prepared for full-fledged scouting season, his injured knee kept him off many clubs’ boards. At one time considered a potential first-round pick, the Karl Malone Award winner for the nation’s top power forward shockingly went undrafted on June 22.
But Dallas, just a few hours up the road from Motley’s hometown Houston, quickly came calling after the draft ended, and the two sides eventually agreed to the franchise’s first-ever two-way contract. Motley can spend up to 45 days with the NBA team during the regular season, and will play for the G League’s Texas Legends for the rest of 2017-18.
“It was tough, but you’ve got to take everything for what it is, and just find a way to bounce back,” Motley said of the draft process. “I’m thankful the Mavs signed me. I feel wanted here.”
It’s not hyperbolic to suggest Motley could have been a first-round player. He averaged 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game during his junior campaign at Baylor, and at about 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, he’s built almost perfectly to play center in the modern NBA, where rim-running, length, and rebounding have replaced post-up prowess and superhuman size as the most sought-after traits in big men. Motley possesses finishing ability around the rim and is very active on both ends, particularly on the glass.
Also working in his favor: He’s not jaded by his own level of ability. Motley understands that most players don’t come in as the focal point. He said Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle has stressed to him the importance of doing all the little things first to carve out a spot in this league, and the scoring can come later.
“You’ve got to start off where you get in,” he said. “It’s a league full of scorers. Yeah, I shouldered a lot of the scoring role at Baylor, but sometimes it’s a little different in the NBA. You’ve got to get adjusted to the game. The coaches got to have confidence in you, the staff has to have confidence in you, and that can take years of producing. If I produce over the years, maybe I can become a scorer like I was in college.”
The Mavs used the term “OKG” (“Our Kinda Guy”) to describe first-round draft pick Dennis Smith Jr., but the term also applies to Motley.
His re-acclamation with the game began earlier this month at the Orlando Pro Summer League, where he averaged a modest 7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game on just 39 percent shooting. That was his first game action since returning from injury, so he and the Mavericks both remained patient. During the championship game against Detroit, however, Motley received the chance at increased minutes after Jameel Warney, who’d been starting, left the team to head to Las Vegas. Motley went off for 18 points and 10 rebounds, and he hit the tournament-winning shot with less than one second to go in overtime.
Any doubts in his confidence level were instantly erased.
“You’ve just got to keep going,” he said. “Your opportunity’s gonna come, and you’ve just got to be able to produce when that time does come.”
The Houston native has picked up his level of play on both ends in Las Vegas, averaging 8 points on 63.6 percent shooting from the field. He ranks near the top in points per possession, and he’s averaging one rebound every four minutes, which is a solid rate for a center. His box-outs have opened up chances for Dennis Smith Jr. to pull down many of his rebounds, as well.
“He’s been really good. He’s another guy that does exactly what you ask him to do,” Mavs’ Vegas head coach Jamahl Mosley said of Motley’s overall summer performance. “He’s physical, he’s aggressive. His energy level is really good. He’s gotten better each and every single game. There’s been games he hasn’t played and there’s been games when he’s played short minutes, but he’s been fantastic in every role we’ve asked him to play.”
Much like in Orlando, Motley’s finest performance in Vegas has been his latest. In Thursday’s win against Sacramento, he scored 15 points and grabbed three rebounds in 17 minutes, as the Mavs won 83-76. He threw down a couple dunks and beat the buzzer with a halfcourt heave to end the first quarter, which in a night full of highlight-reel plays led to the loudest cheer from his No. 1 fan in the crowd: his mom. “She’s always out there supporting me, since I was little,” he said. “Every game. She came to every Baylor game. She’s a great supporter and she brings a lot of energy.”
The Mavericks certainly hope Motley can continue playing at this level heading into camp. His two-way contract — an agreement that’s new to the NBA this season — will make him the team’s “16th man.” No other team can sign him to an NBA contract, but if the Mavericks choose, they can sign him outright this season or wait until the summer to offer him a big-league deal. The young center views his upcoming time with the Texas Legends as an opportunity to improve, as he’ll be getting much more playing time in Frisco than he would in Dallas. “The more I can play, I think the better it will be for me,” he said.
Motley has the right approach to the game and his career, and he has the support of his organization. He said he’s “bought in” to everything the coaches and training staff have him doing, and that he’s feeling better physically every day, every game.
You wouldn’t know from watching him that Motley was robbed of one of the most special moments of his career: hearing his name called on draft night. On the contrary, when you watch him you see a player both comfortable and confident, who’s excited to be where he is. He might not have been drafted, but Motley plays with the joy and energy of a player who’s already realized his dream.