DALLAS — Patiently awaiting the return of veteran Devin Harris from offseason toe surgery, the Dallas Mavericks turned to two untested rookies to man the backup duties at point guard behind starter Jose Calderon early in the season.
Starting the first four preseason games while Calderon battled through a nagging strained left hamstring, Gal Mekel would grow in confidence with each outing after capturing two Israeli MVP awards during his international career. But, after undergoing surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee on Jan. 17, Mekel would quickly have his time on the court come to an abrupt end.
First-round draft pick Shane Larkin, however, took a while just to get onto the court after fracturing his right ankle in the final practice before the Mavericks’ summer-league squad headed to Las Vegas last July. Still, according to Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, both young guards found a way to become key contributors in Year 1 before falling out of the rotation when Harris returned to the lineup to help the team during its playoff run.
“It’s challenging with our young guys,” Carlisle explained during the season. “I thought both guys did some good things, but experience is so valuable and so important down the stretch.”
Playing in 31 games this season, including one start in place of an injured Calderon, Mekel averaged 2.4 points and 2.0 assists. His 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame also made Mekel, 26, an above-average defender. And despite shooting just 34.9 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from beyond the three-point arc, Mekel’s management of the Dallas offense seemed to grow with each game.
“It’s my first season in the NBA and I’m trying to learn and adjust to many things,” Mekel said. “I’m happy that I’ve shown progress in every game, and it was good for me to get in the game with the first unit in the first few games. I was thrown into the deep end right away and I think that helped me. I feel more comfortable now, and I’m learning and adjusting every day and making improvements in my game.”
“[Mekel] has gotten better and better, and he’s one of our best defenders at either of the two guard spots,” Carlisle added. “You know, I like where he’s at right now. … With his improvements and the solid aspects of his game, I like the way he’s playing.”
Meanwhile, after hearing news of Mekel’s surgery, the 5-foot-11 Larkin showcased why he was taken with the 18th pick in last June’s draft during a season-high 18-point outing against the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 17, dishing out five assists to boot in his 27 minutes of action as the Mavs captured a 110-107 road win.
Appearing in 48 games this season, Larkin averaged just 2.8 points and 1.5 assists in 10.2 minutes an outing off the bench. The former Miami standout also struggled with his shooting at the next level, connecting on just 38.0 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from three-point range. Still, after carving out a niche for himself with his energy and speed in relief of Calderon and 2-guard Monta Ellis, Larkin sees a role that he can play next season to help the Mavs in the backcourt.
“Coach [Carlisle] has made it an emphasis to me that we need another guy that can get in the lane and create for others,” Larkin explained. “Jose is a great point guard. He gets us in our offense and is a great shooter, and he is very smart with the basketball and doesn’t turn it over. But he’s not the quickest guy getting in the lane and creating for others. Monta really is the only guy we have that breaks down his defender and gets in the lane and makes plays at the rim, so I think I can bring that aspect to the team or be another player that can do that.”
“We need speed on this team,” Carlisle added in regard to Larkin’s addition to the backcourt. “We need playmaking ability, we need lane penetration, we need defense and we need scoring, and I think [Larkin] can help us in all those areas. The fact that he’s not that tall is something that he has to turn into an advantage for him. You know, [this season] is the beginning of a long road and a long journey, and there are things that we need him to get better at. He has great quickness, and I need to help him understand more efficient and useful ways to use it. And one of those ways is to find ways to penetrate the lane.”
Larkin and Mekel will now try to refine their skills when they lead the Mavs’ summer-league squad, which will compete in Las Vegas from July 11-21. And after seeing what both were able to do during their first season, Carlisle will be looking on with watchful eyes as the two young guards continue to develop this summer.