Nothing gets the heart racing for a fan base like having a rookie who provides boundless hope.
That’s what the Mavericks had in Luka Dončić when they drafted him. He immediately energized the franchise and MFFLs everywhere.
To an obvious lesser degree, Jaden Hardy is doing the same.
The Mavericks are in a different place now than they were in 2018 when Luka got his start. He restored hope to a team that had missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons, and would do so again in his rookie year. But the hope and the future were undeniable.
Now, they are an established playoff contender with hopes of someday adding a second championship banner (or more) in the rafters of American Airlines Center.
Hardy has had to work his way up the food chain in the NBA. It’s been a slow start to his professional career.
But he’s now starting to show that he may be a fixture in Dallas for years to come.
When you come into a game – even if it’s a blowout – and hit 10 points in two minutes like Hardy did against Phoenix on Monday, you quickly get attention.
“He’s been playing really, really good, amazing, bringing energy from the bench,” Dončić said. “He has a lot more confidence (than from training camp). It’s the best league in the world for basketball, but he’s shown he can play and he’s really helping us.
“He scored 10 points in two minutes. It was amazing. I think he has a really bright future.”
Then, in a funny moment, Luka was asked about whether Hardy deserves more playing time, to which he said: “I just work here, man. I don’t know when, but he’s obviously shown he can play. He can really play.”
Hardy has spent most of his time in the G-League with the Texas Legends in Frisco. And he has certainly passed the G-League eye test. He has dominated in that league, which he spent a season in last year with the Ignite team.
He wasn’t as productive last year. But this season, he’s averaged 29 points in nine games and hit 48 percent of his three-point tries. That’s a serious upgrade over his 17.7 points and 26.9 percent three-point shooting last season with the Ignite.
If he’d have done what he’s doing this season last year, he never would have lasted until the Mavericks could get him in the second round of the draft.
Then, Hardy got his feet wet in the summer league in Las Vegas and in training camp with the Mavericks.
He knew he was going to spend some time with the Legends.
“There’s a balancing act here of now and also the future,” coach Jason Kidd said. “You want them to have minutes in their rookie year.
“And we will. Even if we lose the lead in the second quarter because of something he did – it’s not an ‘I’ situation, it’s a ‘we.’ We’ll never blame anything on one person. But we got to give him some minutes and he deserves some minutes. But we got a lot of players ahead of him.”
That last sentence is telling. It’s why he spent the first month primarily in Frisco. But his success there is why he was recalled by the Mavericks on Nov. 28. He no doubt will spend more time with the G-League team, too.
But in his two games after the recall, he has scored 15 points in nine minutes. That included his 10-point, 2-minute, 25-second appearance at the end of the blowout win over Phoenix that had fans salivating.
“He got to play at the end and he played well, played the right way,” Kidd said. “Hopefully we can continue to put him in those situations that are a positive. There are things we can always teach – trying not to foul when you’re off ball. But he’s young, he’s going to make some mistakes, but it’s always good to have him on the floor late just to get him minutes.
“Right now, he’s killing it.”
It started in Frisco where, without the benefit of a structured college experience and at the tender age of 20, he’s learning to be a professional.
Anybody who has kids knows you can’t just assume that all of them are going to be responsible and show up on time and do the things they are supposed to do.
But Kidd said Hardy has checked all those boxes so far and it’s showing in the way he’s getting a chance – and producing.
Hardy has said he’s just trying to soak up as much as he can and learn what the NBA is all about. There’s no doubting his talent. But this league can be cutthroat and young players have to earn their way unless they come in like Luka or Trae Young or Anthony Davis or LeBron James.
Think about somebody like Portland’s Anfernee Simons. He was drafted 24th, 21 spots behind Luka in the 2018 draft. He averaged 3.8 points as a 19-year-old rookie, playing only 20 games.
This season, his fifth, he’s firing in 24.7 points and 4.5 assists per game.
Sometimes, it just takes some time.
And for those who want to see Hardy right now? At who’s expense would his playing time come? So far, even newcomer Kemba Walker hasn’t played for the Mavericks. And Josh Green is proving he’s capable of handling a solid rotation role.
This is what is known as paying your dues. And it happens in most professions.
“We have guys who all want to play,” Kidd said. “What he’s done in the G-League is what we were hoping he could do. And he’s going to continue to spend time there, and with us. But right now, for his playing time, unless you guys want me to play Luka less . . .?”
There’s an added value here, though, the Kidd wanted to emphasize.
“Hardy’s doing an incredible job and it shows we’re sitting in a good seat with young talent that’s coming,” he said. “And that’s actually a good seat to be in.”