Salah Mejri finishes with 17 points against OKC

Salah Mejri scored 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting against the Thunder.

On a night when Rick Carlisle gave four starters the night off for rest and the fifth to rest a sore Achilles, the coach left the door open for his backups and low-minute guys to stand out with their play. Nights like those are the times when players have the chance to make their case for more playing time, or perhaps to even crack the rotation.

Salah Mejri stood out.

The 7-foot-2 center was arguably the best player for the Mavericks last night, to the degree that at times he was dominating the game at both ends of the floor. And while the prevailing headline from Mejri’s electric emergence onto the NBA scene might read “Mejri outscores Russell Westbrook by 17 points,” there are much more important takes to come away with from that game. The Thunder certainly rolled last night, but Mejri lit up the sky himself to the tune of 17 points, nine rebounds, an assist, and a block.

What made the Tunisian’s performance so impressive — and what has induced a fair amount of optimism about his future potential role with this team — is he looked like a pro. Often when rookies or inexperienced players receive their first major dose of playing time in this league, they’ll flash talent here or there but generally they look almost out of place. The speed of the NBA game is too fast, and the rhythm is often lost among wide-eyed first-timers. That didn’t appear to be the case for Mejri in Oklahoma City; although he scored the first 17 points of his career last night, he’s played basketball at a high level in Spain for years, so he’s not exactly new to concepts like the spread pick-and-roll played at an extremely fast pace. The Spanish ACB is widely considered the second-best top-tier basketball league in the world. Mejri is the most seasoned rookie on the circuit.

There aren’t many plays a big man can make in this league that will show up on a highlight reel. There’s nothing too terribly about rolling sharply to the rim and making yourself a target the whole way. But subtle things like that — rolling, screening, helping on defense — stand out to coaches and help teams win games. Young players are overflowing with talent, but it takes years to add the finer, more nuanced elements to their game, and ultimately that’s what turns players from good to great, from athletes to basketball players. (MinnPost has a terrific Q&A with Wolves head coach Sam Mitchell on this exact topic.)

For a coach like Carlisle, who historically has hesitated to give some young players minutes while they’re in the “figuring things out” stage, those subtle successes must stand out on film. Those are the plays that are going to earn a guy more minutes. Mejri made several of them last night.

He made himself a target

A big man’s job in the pick-and-roll is first to set a good screen for his teammate, which means not only making contact with the defender but also giving his buddy a driving lane to the basket. That job can change depending on how the defense chooses to cover the play. What doesn’t change, however, is the roll. For the play to work best, a center must get downhill and make himself a target as he approaches the basket. That signifies to the guard that the big man is ready for a pass, and it forces the defense to respect him at risk of giving up an easy dunk.

The term “make yourself a target” can best be understood by watching Jason Witten play football. He’s always in a position to make a catch, even when he’s covered. Making yourself a target is about doing whatever you have to in order to get open, and then watching for and expecting the ball once it’s thrown your way.

Make Himself a Target

During this play, Mejri actually slipped the screen, noticing that the Thunder were going to double-team Barea off the pick. He immediately cuts to the rim but is making eye contact with Barea the entire time, making himself ready for the pass at any moment. Too often bigs might take their eye off the ball until they’re ready to catch and shoot, but Mejri made it known that he was ready to go whenever Barea was. The Puerto Rican delivered a pass to the Tunisian, and Mejri threw down one of the more vicious dunks we’ve seen all season.

Here’s another example.

Make Himself a Target w Touch

Barea dribbles away from the screen while Mejri cuts to the rim, again looking for the pass the entire time. He makes the catch and goes up for a finger roll, all in one motion, finishing with a nice touch. We take it for granted when veterans make plays like that, but keep in mind Mejri made these plays in the same game in which he scored his first NBA points.

His scoring ability and touch weren’t in question when Dallas signed him, though. Mejri was 57 of 71 from the field coming off cuts and playing in the pick-and-roll last season with Real Madrid, per Synergy Sports. He and Madrid’s Sergio Rodriguez were a daunting tandem in Europe as the club captured three trophies last season by winning the Spanish league, the Copa del Rey, and the Euroleague all in one season — the first Madrid team to do that in more than 40 years.

He’s got plenty of skill for a big man

European basketball is all about ball movement and making the right play. In many ways, the NBA game we see today is based on the way teams in Spain and Italy have played for decades. Having played with Real Madrid for so long, Mejri possesses the touch and passing skills that many other NBA centers might not be able to replicate.

This is a very strong play.

Cut and Pass to Powell

After beating his own man down the floor, Mejri makes a catch at the elbow and finds himself in an unexpectedly large amount of open space. Instead of panicking or taking even an instant to think about what to do next, he immediately takes one power dribble to gather himself, draws the defense in, and slips a nice pass through the double-team to a wide-open Dwight Powell for a layup.

This isn’t an exaggeration: Most 7-foot-2 guys we’ve seen play in NBA history would have hesitated or traveled in that kind of spot, if not pulled up for an awkward 16-footer from the elbow. Heck, most guys that size rarely ever touch the ball more than 5-8 feet away from the bucket, and they’re rarely ever put in position to make a play like that one. That especially goes for rookies, although at 29 Mejri isn’t a rookie in the conventional sense, but that’s the whole point.

It might have been a lopsided game in terms of the score, but Mejri was still guarded by Serge Ibaka, one of the league’s elite defenders, and Steven Adams, who’s no slouch himself. The Mavs center made plays on both of them. Moving forward, I wonder if we’ll see him receive more minutes. He’s competing at a very difficult position on the roster, though, as Zaza Pachulia is putting up incredible numbers and JaVale McGee has been productive as well since making his own Mavs debut a couple months ago. It will be interesting to see what happens with the rotation in the future, but if Mejri plays anywhere close to this level in the coming weeks and months, it’s going to be awfully hard to go away from him.

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