Learning with the Legends: Jalen Jones, Kyle Collinsworth, and Johnathan Motley

With the inception of two-way contracts, NBA teams’ relationships with their G League affiliates are becoming more important than ever. The Mavericks have one distinct advantage over most of their competitors because of how close the Texas Legends are — just a 20-minute drive up the Tollway.

But they have other legs up, too. For starters, Donnie Nelson has been intimately involved in the goings-on in Frisco for years, providing the Mavs a chance to give long, hard looks at players on other teams, and their own, with relative ease. Any time a player from the NBA squad is sent to Frisco, a Mavs contingent of up to half a dozen follows close behind, taking in the game and monitoring the progress of whoever’s on assignment.

Their biggest secret weapon: Legends head coach Bob MacKinnon, whose players have earned more NBA call-ups than any other coach in league history. Talk to any player who goes through that program and they’ll have nothing but good things to say about him. MacKinnon has bought into the Mavs’ system as well, and now the Legends run virtually the same offense as Rick Carlisle’s Mavericks, making the leap from the G League to the NBA easier for players who spend most of their time in Frisco. All of this adds up to make it easier to gather information about a player they’re interested in — like Jalen Jones, for example.

“You can answer questions about how he works every day, and what are is work habits?” MacKinnon told Mavs.com. “Is he a good teammate? Is he a guy that you can trust? And I think those are things that are important in the Mavs organization. That’s the intel that we’re here for.”

The clubs’ increasingly strong connection has paid off in a few different ways this season. With the signing of Jones, the Mavericks have now awarded two-way contracts to four different players this season. The other currently working under that agreement is rookie Johnathan Motley, who routinely puts up video-game numbers for the Legends and will soon likely force his way into the NBA. Antonius Cleveland and Kyle Collinsworth also played on two-way deals. An injury cut Cleveland’s time short, but I wouldn’t forget about him just yet. Carlisle said on Wednesday night that Collinsworth, meanwhile, will likely soon be back with the Mavericks potentially via a 10-day contract.

Mavs.com caught up with both Jones and MacKinnon after a team practice in Toronto during the G League Showcase, an annual event that gives top G League players a chance to perform in front of dozens of NBA scouts — Yogi Ferrell, for example, scored 27 points and handed out nine assists in his final showcase performance, and agreed to a 10-day contract with the Mavericks less than a week later. This is the time of year when 10-days and call-ups really come into play, but the Mavericks are already ahead of the curve thanks in part to MacKinnon and the Legends.

Jalen Jones is ready for his chance

Jones spent his rookie season with the Maine Red Claws, earning a spot on the All-D-League Third Team after averaging 21.0 points and 9.0 boards per game. At 6-foot-7 with a strong frame, a 6-foot-11 wingspan, and a monstrous 8-foot-9 standing reach, Jones is a sturdily built wing who seems like a smooth fit in today’s switch-heavy NBA.

“He’s got the size, he’s got the wingspan, and the athleticism to play in and out,” MacKinnon said. “You can play switch with him, where he can switch onto bigger players and play them for a possession, and then switch onto smaller players and use his foot speed to stay in front. He gives you the luxury on defense of playing multiple roles.”

That’s proven to be a very important — but unfortunately elusive — commodity for the Mavericks this season. Dorian Finney-Smith met that criteria as a rookie in 2016-17, but injuries have sidelined him for most of this season. Then Cleveland’s injury cut his time with the team shorter than he’d earned, leaving Harrison Barnes as the only active player on the roster taller than 6-foot-4 and shorter than 6-foot-10. In a league loaded with wings, the Mavericks need as much help in that area as they can get. That’s where Jones can help immediately, having played in a switchy defense last season with Maine.

“Sometimes I would even play center, and next thing you know I’m switching onto a point guard,” Jones told Mavs.com. “I think my defensive abilities have come a long way since coming out of college. I know I can guard 1-5. That’s what I kind of hang my hat on, and I know that’s what it’s gonna take for me to stick around in the NBA.”

Jones graduated from Kimball High School in Dallas in 2011 before playing his first two collegiate seasons at SMU and then two more at Texas A&M. He now joins Johnathan Motley among Mavs with extreme local ties. (Motley played high school ball in Houston before playing college hoops at Baylor.)

“I never thought about playing in high school, and actually going to college and being able to play in the NBA in the same city. That’s crazy,” Jones said. “It’s neat htat my family and my friends get the chance to see me at the highest level. It’s gonna be an honor to play.”

Much like it was with Collinsworth, Jones is developing his 3-point stroke. After hitting 34.5 percent as a rookie last season, he hit 33.3 percent through five games with the Legends before being called up by the New Orleans Pelicans. He made his only attempt with the club in four games. It’s a shot he knows he must develop in order to earn a full-time job with an NBA team given the importance on that shot right now, especially among wing players; it’s practically a prerequisite.

“You’ve got to be ready to shoot it on a drive-and-kick, and whenever you’re open, you’ve gotta be able to knock it down,” Jones said.

The 24-year-old appeared in four games with the Pelicans, most recently logging nine minutes in a game on Dec. 11, before being waived and immediately claimed off waivers by the Mavericks. During that time, albeit brief, Jones said he learned how to be a pro and what it takes to succeed as a young player.

“I got the chance to be around veterans and superstars, guys like AD, Boogie, Rondo, Tony Allen,” Jones said. “They taught me the ins and outs of things, how you’ve gotta carry yourself as a pro, and also you’ve got to learn how to play a role with the guys who can score the ball very well. If you’re playing with the Pelicans you’re not gonna touch the ball too many times, so you’ve gotta do the other little things to try to help the team win. That’s kind of what I hang my hat on. I’m not gonna be the guy out there scoring 20, 30 points. I would love to, but that’s not gonna be my role. You just try to find ways to do the little things to help the team win, and that’s what I learned to do.”

MacKinnon believes his future is bright.

“He’s just now learning how to play out on the perimeter,” the coach said. “His whole career has been as an inside player, and he’s learning now how to play on the perimeter in the pro game. He’s got the kind of potential that he’s gonna grow by leaps and bounds.”

“If I get called up, I’ll definitely be ready,” Jones said. “I’m just ready for the opportunity and ready to showcase what I can do. I’ll definitely be prepared for whatever’s thrown at me.”

Kyle Collinsworth might not be gone long

To make room for Jones, the Mavs had to release Kyle Collinsworth from his two-way contract. However, in basically the same breath as when he announced Jones’ addition, Rick Carlisle told reporters Collinsworth could soon be back on a 10-day contract.

Collinsworth stuffed the stat sheet in his second season with the Legends before joining the Mavericks, averaging 11.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.7 steals per game. He increased his 3-point percentage from 29.3 as a rookie to 39.4 percent in his second season, as well. MacKinnon doesn’t expect he’ll be in the G League much longer, if at all.

“I thought he played terrific in the opportunity he got, and he took advantage of those opportunities to show people that he’s an NBA player,” MacKinnon said. “And there’s no question in my mind that he’s an NBA player. Just by the fact that Rick said that the other day shows you that the Mavs do have him in their plans. It’s no surprise to me: Kyle Collinsworth is an NBA player.”

Johnathan Motley is a monster

So, too, is Johnathan Motley, it appears. The rookie is averaging 21.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game in 18 games with the Legends. In the first game of the showcase, he put up 24 points, 14 rebounds, six steals, five assists, and three blocks. In other words, he’s good.

“Not only the numbers that he’s putting up, but he’s getting better at things that don’t show up on the stat sheet: his pick-and-roll defense, his understanding of where to be, weakside help situations, and being able to be more vocal on the court,” MacKinnon said. “Those are things that young players generally don’t come into the game with, and he’s getting better and better at it. We’ve been extremely happy with his progress, and hopefully the Mavs are, too.”

Motley, who went somehow went undrafted last summer primarily to a knee injury that appears to be ancient history at this point, spent a couple weeks with the Mavs in December. That means he’s got somewhere around 30 days left to spend with the NBA squad before it’s decision time regarding his contract. While the G League season is ongoing, a two-way player can only spend up to 45 days with the NBA team. I would expect to see him with the Mavericks again at some point this season, although they don’t want to use all his days right now or else he won’t be able to appear with the Mavs again until after the G League season ends in late-March.