On the Inside: Dirk Nowitzki

2016-17 Exit Interview: Dirk Nowitzki

Mavs F Dirk Nowitzki addresses the media for exit interviews.

Throughout the last several weeks, we have published end-of-season breakdowns for some of the key Mavericks as part of our “On the Inside” series. Imagine never having seen the players before, and this is the scouting report. Read all of them here.

This was an unusual season for Dirk Nowitzki.

He played at least 30 minutes in a game just once in 2016, and that was on opening night. He missed 24 of the team’s first 29 games with lingering Achilles soreness. That’s far from the norm; previously, Nowitzki had missed more than nine games just once through 18 seasons. In his absence, the team struggled. Dallas won just eight of its first 29 games, a hole which ultimately proved too steep to climb out of as the Mavs missed the playoffs for just the second time since 2000. Some might have thought his best days were too far behind him to ever see again, while others brought up the possibility of retirement.

But when he came back, the 38-year-old was productive for a player of any age despite playing out of position at center for much of the season. From his return on Dec. 23, Nowitzki led the Mavericks by scoring 19.7 points per 36 minutes, adding 8.9 boards, 2.1 assists, and a block. During his best stretch of the season — from March 5-21 — the German compiled per-game averages of 18.3 points and 7.6 rebounds on 52.4 percent shooting from the field and 45.0 percent from deep, good for a 59.5 effective field goal percentage.

That period came toward the end of the Mavs’ best stretch of the season; from Jan. 12-March 23, Dallas sported a 20-13 record. But by then, the club had already played 71 games and was essentially out of the playoff race. For Nowitzki, however, that run came right in what would normally be the meat of his season. That nine-game run in which he averaged 18 points and seven rebounds came in his 36th-44th appearances on the year. By the time he finally reached his peak form, the season was already winding down.

That doesn’t mean it was a lost season, statistically speaking. The 7-footer continued to put up numbers most other players will never come close to matching. For example, he shot above 37 percent from beyond the arc for the 13th season in his career, which ties for fourth-most ever. He averaged 19 points per 36 minutes for the 17th consecutive season, which ties Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone for second-most all-time behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was also his 13th season with a usage rate of 25 percent or higher and a turnover percentage of 10 percent or lower, which is a new NBA record. (He moved past some guy named Michael Jordan.)

He also reached the 30,000-point milestone, becoming just the sixth player in NBA history to do so. It might have been the coolest regular-season moment in Mavericks history, another once-in-a-lifetime achievement by a guy an entire generation of Dallas sports fans has grown up with.

Mavericks Celebrate Dirk’s Milestone

Mavericks fans and teammates surround Dirk Nowitzki as they celebrate him reaching 30,000 points for his career.

So even though Nowitzki’s injury basically delayed the start of what could have been a fine season, he still accomplished a fair amount individually. Within the context of the team, the big man once again had a positive impact on his teammates, virtually across the board. Nearly every player was better at everything when Dirk was on the floor, in what was a continuation of one of the most unique traits in NBA history: Nowitzki’s floor-bending effect on the opposing defense. That’s a quality that will never disappear, even if he plays until he’s 50.

Next season will be Dirk’s 20th as a pro, and he’ll tie Kobe Bryant (Lakers) for most seasons played for one franchise, and the Mavericks obviously want to reach the playoffs in what could be the German’s last season. That’s part of what made Nowitzki’s late-season surge so refreshing to see: It reinforced the belief that he can still play big minutes on a good team, so long as the talent around him continues to blossom. The team’s young players will have to take a step forward to push the Mavs over the hump. Regardless, Dallas could enter 2017-18 with a real shot at the playoffs despite only a few known quantities, and Nowitzki is still probably the surest thing of them all, which at his age is truly incredible.

The burning questions

OK, so if he’s still a pretty sure thing, what is there to wonder about?

The Mavericks have acknowledged they’ve entered into a transition period. Harrison Barnes is taking over the late-game duties, and Rick Carlisle is running the free throw isolation plays for Barnes now that he once called for the German en route to a championship. By the end of the season, the Mavs were starting multiple rookies on a regular basis. The club’s biggest move of the season came at the trade deadline in a move for Nerlens Noel, who became the Mavs’ youngest player. Heading into next season, it’s likely Noel will be the second-youngest, behind only the team’s No. 9 draft pick, who will likely still be a teenager on opening night.

It’s difficult both to get young and still compete for another playoff run for Nowitzki. The 19-year vet said during his exit interview that he’s willing to help mentor young players as they come, but clearly the Mavs aren’t interested in going full rebuild with a legend still in the locker room. The club is walking a delicate tightrope, which leads to some questions that must be answered by next season.

1. Is Dirk still Dirk?

Evidence cited earlier suggests that, yes, Nowitzki is still Nowitzki. He might never average 20 a game again, but the fact remains that he was still a productive scorer. That question honestly does not need to be asked.

His highlight run of the 2016-17 campaign excluded some of his finest late-game performances, including back-to-back games against Portland and Utah in which he hit last-second shots to bring the Mavs back into the game (Blazers) and tie with a couple seconds left (Jazz). As you can imagine he had quite a few highlights this season, but those two fourth quarters stand out.

Dirk Sends It To OT

Harrison Barnes misses the shot but Dirk Nowitzki is there to retrieve it and lets the jumper fly to send the game into OT.

More importantly as it relates to the youth movement, however, Nowitzki fit well within the team. As the season wore on, Harrison Barnes and Seth Curry emerged as the club’s two strongest clutch performers, as both can create their shot and see the whole floor to make the right passes. Dirk still found himself with the ball in his hands late plenty of times, but one unintended consequence of Nowitzki’s prolonged absence to begin the season was the development of Barnes as Curry as late-game studs; together, they shot 50 of 98 from the field in the clutch this season, per NBA Stats.

Dirk’s willingness to not have to be the guy late in games could be a big factor next season, when he’ll almost certainly be healthier than he was this year and, therefore, play more games. He had a lower usage rate in the clutch this season than Barnes, Deron Williams (while he was with the Mavericks), J.J. Barea, and Yogi Ferrell. At this stage in his career, he’s just as dangerous when he’s off the ball as when he has it in his hands. Defenders are always going to stick with him, no matter what else is happening, even if it means the opposing center steps 25 feet out from the rim to defend him. Nowitzki’s gravity helped lead to Wesley Matthews’ game-winning 3 in Chicago, for example. (There will be more examples of this later.)

One of my favorite Nowitzki plays this season wasn’t even a shot. It was a pass. On March 15, with the Mavs clinging on to a narrow lead in Washington and Nico Brussino playing out of his mind, Nowitzki gave up a fairly good look at a 3-pointer to swing it to the rookie in the corner for a better one and then was the first to dap him after the bucket.

We celebrate Nowitzki more for his baskets than his passes or floor presence, but those qualities might be more valuable on a young team than they’ve ever been. If a player is capable of helping his team win simply by standing still, it’s crucial to keep that guy on the floor when you need a bucket while the young guys figure out how to take over games. That he can still score at a high level is a bonus: Nowitzki scored 1.088 points per possession in the post against his own defender (not even a switched little guy) this season, per Synergy Sports. To put it in context, he scored more efficiently against bigs in the post than the league-leading Golden State Warriors offense did overall, regardless of play type (1.043).

So, yep, he’s still Dirk.

How’d he do as a 5?

The key date to remember about the 2016-17 Mavs season is Jan. 12. That’s when the club made a commitment to 5-out small-ball, and Dallas rode that philosophy to the 20-13 stretch mentioned earlier. Even after the Noel trade, Nowitzki still started at center for quite some time.

You can imagine many things would be true about a team with Nowitzki at center. First, you’d expect the offense to be pretty spectacular because of all the shooting. With the offense running predominantly through Harrison Barnes, that left the German to spot up on the perimeter and pull the center from the rim. As a result, Dallas could get pretty creative on the perimeter. Though Barnes ultimately passes to Dorian Finney-Smith, watch the screen Yogi Ferrell sets to free up Dirk from the corner.

There aren’t many offenses in the league in which point guards are basically setting pin-down screens to spring the center loose for a 3-pointer. That type of action is very difficult to defend and, if timed perfectly, can give Nowitzki an easy look almost every time.

Defensively, though, you might think a Nowitzki-at-center group would struggle to defend the lane without the presence of a traditional rim protector. Also, given Barnes’ relatively low rebounding numbers for a power forward, you might think the Mavs would struggle to clean the defensive glass. That wasn’t necessarily the case, though.

Below are some of Nowitzki’s on-off splits on both sides of the ball from Jan. 12 through the end of the season, when more than half of his minutes were played at the center position. (All starred “on” numbers represent the highest mark on the team, while all double-starred “off” numbers represent the lowest.)

Nowitzki On Nowitzki Off
Mavs Assist% 62.3% 54.8%**
Mavs D Rebound% 79.4%* 74.5%**
Mavs Turnover % 10.8%* 13.3%**
Opp. Free Throw Rate 0.237* 0.313**

What do those numbers mean? Assist rate measures the percentage of buckets a team makes that came off an assist. With Nowitzki on the floor, Dallas assisted more than three-fifths of its baskets. With him off, that number dropped to below 55 percent, which was the lowest mark without any player on the roster. More surprisingly, the Mavs assisted on just 45.0 percent of its made 2-pointers without Nowitzki on the floor following Jan. 12, which shows just how much the club relied on Barnes to create from the mid-range without the Big German.

The Mavericks rebounded at an elite rate with Nowitzki and struggled in that regard without him — a 79.4 percent defensive rebound rate would have finished third in the NBA this season, while their 74.5 percent clip without him would have ranked 29th in the NBA. Dallas allowed 2.4 fewer second-chance points per 100 possessions with Nowitzki on the floor than without him. The Mavs also rarely fouled shooters with Nowitzki on the floor (free throw rate) — the 0.237 rate would have ranked sixth, while the 0.313 rate would have ranked 28th.

Finally, the Mavericks rarely ever turned it over while Nowitzki played, even when he was at center and primarily just setting ball screens. Dallas gave it away just 10.8 percent of the time with Nowitzki on the floor for the last four months of the season, which would be the lowest team turnover rate in the history of NBA basketball. (The Hornets’ 11.7 percent turnover rate this season is the lowest on record, per NBA Stats.) The Mavs have almost always been a low-turnover team with Nowitzki; the Dirk-Era Mavs have three of the nine lowest turnover rate seasons in NBA history, according to Basketball-Reference. They were historically low again this season — tied for 16th-best in league history — and that’s with no less than eight true point guards logging minutes, plus Nico Brussino manning point for long stretches in several games.

There are certainly trade-offs with Dirk at 5. For example, Dallas shoots less often at the rim and earns trips to the free throw line at a much lower rate with him on than when he’s off. There’s not as much of a rim-protecting presence as there would be if a player like Noel or Salah Mejri is in the game. But those are sacrifices you’ve got to be willing to make when you need a quick scoring burst within the course of a contest.

Is he a good fit between Barnes and Noel?

Nerlens Noel is a restricted free agent this summer, but the Mavericks have publicly stated their desire to retain him, and Noel has gone on record to say he likes playing for and living in Dallas. If the Mavs can strike a deal with the young big man to bring him back, and if nothing else crazy happens, a Barnes-Nowitzki-Noel frontcourt could be starting on opening night 2017.

Barnes and Noel are just 25 and 23 years old, respectively, so the Mavericks have plenty to be excited about in terms of their long-term development. (Read about Barnes’ season here and Noel’s here.) But in the short term, their fit with Nowitzki — and, more vitally, Nowitzki’s fit with them — is essential.

The sample size with a Nowitzki-Noel partnership was pretty small considering he was such a late acquisition and Nowitzki sat out some games down the stretch, but nevertheless there were some good results. The Mavs were +6.0 points per 100 possessions when the two shared the floor, including sporting an impressive 100.1 defensive rating and 2.04 assist-to-turnover ratio. That 6.0 net rating would have ranked third in the NBA this season, and the 100.1 D rating would have led the NBA. Though this isn’t to suggest the Mavs will win 60 games if Nowitzki and Noel play 48 minutes a game — in fact, the Mavs were only 9-11 when they played, but several losses came when the two would be shut down mid-game — it does tell you something about the pair’s potential. (It’s no surprise that Nowitzki’s best individual stretch — March 5-21 — coincided with Noel’s arrival. Together they torched opposing second units.)

Noel’s rolling ability combined with Nowitzki’s spot-up shooting can create some devastating offense for the Mavs.

Noel isn’t the only Maverick who benefited from playing next to Nowitzki, and vice versa. The 7-footer has a unique symbiotic effect on nearly all of his teammates. When the Mavericks have surrounded Dirk with players who complement his strengths and can fully take advantage of the extra space he provides, it’s almost always led to offensive fireworks.

The graphic below shows some of the top Mavs guards and wings’ individual shooting numbers when Nowitzki was on the floor this season vs. when he was off.

Player 2P% Dirk On 2P% Dirk Off Difference 3P% Dirk On 3P% Dirk Off Difference
Harrison Barnes 52.4% 48.1% +4.22% 35.5% 35.0% +0.48%
Seth Curry 60.3% 47.8% +12.44% 42.7% 42.4% +0.30%
Wesley Matthews 42.9% 43.4% -0.52% 37.5% 35.9% +1.57%
Yogi Ferrell 42.3% 39.7% +2.55% 41.1% 39.0% +2.13%
Dorian Finney-Smith 51.4% 46.7% +4.70% 32.7% 27.9% +4.79%
J.J. Barea 51.3% 41.9% +9.40% 36.8% 34.7% +2.12%

That chart does more to show the positive impact Nowitzki has on his teammates more than any words I or anyone else could write. Every single player shot the 3-ball better — some significantly — with him on the floor than when he was off, and every player also saw massive 2-point improvement (with the exception of Wesley Matthews, whose numbers only decreased marginally).

Now, Nowitzki’s presence wasn’t always the only thing that had an influence on production — numerous point guard injuries to begin the season coinciding with Nowitzki’s absence presented the offense with unique challenges for some of those players, as well — and there are many reasons why those numbers could look the way they do. But there’s only one constant, and that’s Dirk.

The mark of any great athlete in a team sport is his ability to make those around him better. That holds especially true in the NBA, when just five teammates are on the floor at the same time and the league’s hierarchy is typically determined by only a handful of players.

Nowitzki might not be in the popular discussion for top-five, or even top-20, active players anymore, but I would bet you’d be hard-pressed to find another player in the league right now whose presence would provide a similar universal boost to his most common teammates. An easy guess would be LeBron James, who’s now considered possibly one of the three or four best players ever and is still at the height of his powers.

That Nowitzki still made an impact of that magnitude — in an injury-plagued season on a lottery team, no less! — is truly stunning. He is a walking offensive cheat code. In an era when we have more tools than ever to determine what makes a good basketball player, Dirk is still underappreciated, or at least he’s not been properly quantified. I suspect that 15 years from now new stats will have been created that can more accurately determine his one-of-a-kind effectiveness. The above chart could be a good place to start.

At this point in his career, Nowitzki might not be able to go out and get you 25 points every night, or even 20. He might not be able to play 35 minutes a night, and he probably shouldn’t even play 28 anymore. The days of “give it to Dirk at the elbow and get out of the way” might be behind us forever. But even now, in an NBA in which otherworldly athleticism is required and ball-handling big men are the most sought-after asset in the game, there’s still a place for Nowitzki, the soon-to-be 39-year-old who’d rather jog than sprint and has dunked just 11 times in his last three seasons combined.

He can play with the young guys on his own team and continues to make them better. He can play power forward or start at center. He can spot up in the corner or keep running the pick-and-pop. He can post up, he can get you some rebounds, and he can still draw a double-team. He is today what the Mavericks can only hope Harrison Barnes will one day become, and who at least 20 other teams hope their best player can one day evolve to be.

Yes, even now, after 19 long seasons and coming off perhaps the longest one yet, Dirk is still Dirk.

On the Inside: Harrison Barnes

2016-17 Exit Interview: Harrison Barnes

Mavs F Harrison Barnes addresses the media for exit interviews.

Over the next several weeks, we will publish end-of-season breakdowns for some of the key Mavericks as part of our “On the Inside” series. Imagine never having seen the players before, and this is the scouting report. Read all of them here.

In an age when efficiency is king in the NBA, and when you read all about it on this very site, the more statistically savvy basketball fan might not want to give Harrison Barnes the credit he deserves for his first season in Dallas.

Barnes finished tied for 81st in the NBA among qualified players in points per shot at 1.19, and 57th among them in free throw attempts per game. Those two stats are directly related, of course: If you replace shot attempts with free throws, you’ll naturally score more efficiently because you’re scoring points without taking a field goal. The 24-year-old Barnes clearly has room for improvement in that regard, and he’ll be the first to acknowledge that.

But too often the starting point for any smart Barnes discussion is “He’s played well, BUT…” ending that argument with a thought on efficiency, or too many mid-range attempts and not enough 3s, or that he needs to get to the free throw line.

Given his age and his relative lack of experience in this role, those complaints are a bit premature.

This was Barnes’ first-ever season as any type of focal point of an offense. His career usage rate in Golden State was just 16.3 percent; this year it soared up to 25.3 percent, meaning he was responsible for more than one-quarter of the Mavs’ possessions. After two seasons playing fifth fiddle for title-contending Golden State, when more than 60 percent of his field goal attempts were either 3s or layups, Barnes had to earn every shot this season as the go-to guy. We got to watch him figure it out for 79 games, and he did a heck of a job doing that. The guy is only 24 years old and he was taking game-winners on a brand-new, injury-ravaged team which, on most nights, started more undrafted players than those who were selected on draft night.

We all need to put his first Mavs season in context. Yes, in the future he ought to shoot more free throws, and hopefully he can turn 21-foot 2-point shots into 24-foot 3-point shots in order to score a little more efficiently. But we’re kind of splitting hairs here: For example, if next season he adds one point to his scoring average and attempts one fewer shot per game — that’s a very realistic possibility if he gets to the free throw line a little more often — he would have finished 37th in points per shot and he’d have had an incredibly efficient season. Heck, even taking one fewer shot while scoring the same points per game would vault him up more than 20 places. The statistical difference between ordinary and extraordinary is so extremely small that to base your entire assessment of a player on one number is kind of silly, especially in this situation. Efficiency is a process.

Barnes embraced what was for him an unprecedented role and performed at a high level for most of the season. With another summer of individual (and team-wide) improvement he could potentially enter the All-Star conversation should his numbers take a small step forward. He’s not far from being one of the top scorers in the NBA at this rate, and he’s come a long, long way in that regard since averaging 11.7 points per game a year ago for the Warriors. There’s so much potential left to tap that it’s hard to believe Barnes has plateaued as a player. This article is about how he’s scaled the mountain to this point, and also imagining what’s still ahead of him.

Shot creation

Barnes’ first responsibility was becoming the endpoint of an offense that for long stretches of the season without a veteran point guard. With Deron Williams, J.J. Barea, and Devin Harris all injured within the first three weeks of the season — and with no Dirk Nowitzki, either — head coach Rick Carlisle shifted the offense toward a more isolation-oriented system built around Barnes, who moved from small forward to power forward and saw a dramatic rise in touches.

It was a welcome challenge for the fifth-year pro, who wrote for Mavs.com in January that although his workload increased significantly from his time with the Warriors, in Dallas he at least knows what he’s going to get heading in to every game.

“Sometimes I would shoot five 3s, sometimes I’d get four post-ups, sometimes all my touches were in transition,” he wrote about his role in Golden State. “It was hard to be consistent that way. But here, I know what plays I’m gonna get, I know what shots I’ll have. It’s a routine now, and now that I have that consistency I can just focus on trying to get better at the things I want to improve on.”

That aside, Barnes’ job was still much more difficult this season. Instead of capitalizing on open 3s and extra space granted to him by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, Barnes assumed an initiator role for the Mavericks, relying almost exclusively on off-the-dribble shooting, post-ups, and isos. Even his catch-and-shoot attempts were less open: Last season, according to Synergy, more than 59 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts were unguarded, but this season that number sank down to 48.5 percent. To his credit, Barnes hit a higher percentage of both guarded and unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers this season than he did last season, jumping 1.7 and 6.4 percent, respectively.

Numbers like that do a much better job of telling you just how different Barnes’ season was, and visualizing just how much more dribbling he did this season tells you a lot, too. More than 64 percent of his field goal attempts followed at least one dribble.

You’ve got to remember Barnes is at the very beginning of this stage of his development. Until this year, he’s never done any of this stuff before. Below is a chart showing how much his workload changed from last season in Golden State to this season in Dallas. The numbers represent the percentage of his possessions by play type. Notice how dramatically his spot-up and transition touches decrease, while his iso touches rise extremely high.

Play Type 2015-16 Volume 2016-17 Volume
Isolation 8.7% 24.5%
Post-Up 12.7% 17.8%
Spot-Up 29.5% 14.8%
Transition 19.1% 5.8%

Isolation is considered a less-efficient means of scoring than operating out of the pick-and-roll, simply because it’s difficult to beat a guy one-on-one and when you clear out an entire side of the floor, it’s likely to inhibit ball movement that could lead to an open shot elsewhere. But because Barnes played so many minutes at the 4 in an offense that targets mismatches, he was able to put the ball on the floor against bigger, slower players and get to the rim at will, especially as the season wore on.

And before the Nerlens Noel trade, while the Mavs were committed to a small-ball lineup with Barnes at 4 and Dirk Nowitzki at 5, Dallas was able to run some creative Barnes/Nowitzki actions to force even more switches. The clip below does a great job of illustrating the difficult choice that demands the defense to make: Dirk sets a pin-down screen for Barnes and then they almost run a pick-and-roll, and by then the defense must switch. Utah’s problem is Derrick Favors is a center, not a modern power forward, and Barnes has a significant quickness advantage against him. The result is an and-1 layup, as he’s strong enough to finish through the contact. The Mavs kept going back to that mismatch all night long Barnes finished with 31 points on 12-of-20 shooting, one of his finest performances of the season.

Barnes scored 0.932 points per possession in isolation, per Synergy Sports, and he used more iso possessions (369) than all but four players in the NBA. Considering the offensive boom the league has enjoyed in recent years, you’d like to see higher than 0.932, but again: This was Barnes’ first season doing this sort of thing, and he still compares favorably in isolation to some of the best players in the league. Kawhi Leonard scored 0.939, for example, and Paul George scored .940. Jimmy Butler, meanwhile, scored just 0.872, and John Wall averaged only 0.807 PPP. All of those players were top-20 in isolation possessions per game, and Barnes was more efficient than several of those high-usage players.

More encouragingly, Barnes increased his isolation PPP by more than 0.1 points per possession this season from last, and he also improved his efficiency in the post. That suggests he’s got the potential to keep improving as he continues to work on those areas of his game.

The key to being a great isolation scorer is developing one or two reliable moves and then complementing them with counter-moves. For example, Barnes typically would catch the ball on the wing and size up his defender before making a move. Occasionally, though, he’d make a quick dribble move to go baseline immediately and attack the basket. That in itself is a counter-move.

Those decisive attacks are particularly important against long wings like Andre Roberson, as those are the guys who tend to give Barnes the most trouble. He was great against bigger and smaller players, but like-sized guys have the length and foot speed to stay in front of him and still contest his shot.

But what happens if he tries to attack yet the wing beats him to the spot? What’s his counter move? Does he have the ball-handling ability and body control to make a move in traffic and still finish? Earlier in the season he tried to beat Luc Richard Mbah Moute off the bounce during the final possession of a game in L.A. Barnes actually lost control of the ball but recovered in time to get up and hit a game-winner. You don’t want to try repeating that. As the season went on, however, he gained better control of the ball and was able to make sharper moves. This sequence, from a game played on March 19, shows how much Barnes improved as a ball-handler and as a patient, scoring-minded player.

He faces up against his defender, the similarly sized Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, before decisively attacking baseline. Hollis-Jefferson beats him to the spot and cuts off his drive, so Barnes responds by spinning middle and rising up for the shot. He then finishes athletically through traffic to put his team up six points with less than 30 seconds to go. That’s a big-time bucket against a really nice defender.

Playmaking vs. Turnovers

The key to Barnes’ game is his ability to avoid turnovers. According to Synergy Sports, of the 166 players who averaged 10+ possessions per game and appeared in at least 10 contests, Barnes finished with the sixth-lowest turnover percentage, giving it away just 6.8 percent of the time. He had a self-admitted ball-handling weakness upon arriving to Dallas, but his daily work with player development coach God Shammgod clearly paid off in that regard. Barnes primarily played one-on-one basketball, so for him to turn it over as rarely as he did is a testament to the work he put in and his basketball IQ. He generally doesn’t make any silly plays with the ball, which is tough to do when you’re the center of the defense’s attention.

That doesn’t mean it was always an easy process. Iso ball is about identifying and getting to your spot. Barnes worked from the elbow or top of the key a majority of the time this season, and one of his favorite moves was taking one or two hard dribbles, then bumping his defender to create some space before stepping back and rising for a 16-footer. A layup is the better shot, of course, but sometimes trying to force something better can actually be a bad thing.

You appreciate Barnes’ patience, because the first shot isn’t always the best shot, but he could have taken that little step-back jumper and gotten it off just fine. Instead, he crossed over again against Solomon Hill in an effort to get into the paint but just couldn’t create any separation, and ultimately he turned it over because he dribbled too much. When a guy is in your face like that, you’ve got to get to your most comfortable spot and take the shot. Don’t over-complicate things, because that’s exactly what the defender wants you to do. (If he wants an even better look, this is where a reliable counter-move would come in handy. For example, Nowitzki is notorious for pump-faking defenders if he can’t create enough separation, and usually he ends up forcing enough contact to earn a whistle.)

That game was played on Dec. 26. By April 2, Barnes was much more comfortable getting to his spot and shooting without thinking. That comfort level is the perfect antidote for an over-aggressive defender, especially one facing a size disadvantage. Barnes takes the time to read the floor then makes a quick 1-2 dribble to get inside the arc, and takes one more hard dribble into Matthew Dellavedova to create some room. At that point it’s church.

In the clip above, Barnes looks so much more comfortable making that move than he did against Hill more than three months earlier. And he should: He developed throughout the year and worked on that exact move every single day for 100 days and eventually got it down to a science. It almost looks like the defender isn’t even there. That’s the mark of a really good one-on-one player. Similarly, Dirk’s been doing it for years.

By now, Barnes can consistently generate good looks for himself, but the next step for him is to create looks for his teammates as well. He turns it over at a historically low level — just 8.8 percent of the time, which would be 14th-best in NBA history if he had enough minutes to qualify (he’s another season or so away) — but he doesn’t record many assists. For as well as he avoided turnovers this season, Barnes still had just a 1.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

As mentioned before, it’s difficult to generate assists when you’re playing a lot of isolation. He’s not a prolific pick-and-roll ball-handler at this point, so that’s an element you’d like to see him add. It’s tough for him to do much of that at the 4 position, though, because there’s only one player, the center, to screen for him. The Mavs like to swing the ball side-to-side and run multiple pick-and-rolls, and usually the 4’s job is to set those screens. Asking only the center to set screens for 30+ minutes a night would be physically taxing and could make the offense a bit too one-dimensional.

As defenses show him more respect, though, Barnes will have an opportunity to move the ball even when trying to play one-on-one. When the Mavs visited San Antonio on Nov. 21, Barnes saw his first double-team in the post. You could tell the experience was new to him.

But by the end of the season, he was more comfortable moving the ball as defenses threw more guys his way.

This doesn’t mean he was perfect — he turned it over against double-teams in April, too — but he took strides forward. As he was presented with new problems, he found ways to solve them.

It’s very difficult to send double-teams against a player working in the middle of the floor, so if defenses are brave enough to do so, Barnes has got to make them pay by accepting those additional defenders and moving the ball to the newly open man.

In those two plays above, he has no intention to shoot the ball when he puts it on the floor. He understands the defense is going to swarm him, but he’s absorbing all of that extra attention in order to create a good look for his teammate. He doesn’t need to hand out five assists per game, but stepping up to 2-3 could really open things up for the rest of the offense and force defenses into tough positions. Do they continue doubling him at the risk of giving up a 3-pointer, or do they let him work on an island and score efficiently one-on-one? It’s a tough choice.

Improving efficiency

While Barnes could stand to become more efficient — and very well could based on natural progression that happens in a player’s mid-20s — he took steps forward in the middle of the season. For example, he shot 35.1 percent from beyond the arc in 2016-17, but just 28.6 percent from 3 in his first 16 appearances. During that time, the Mavericks were without their three best ball-handlers and Dirk Nowitzki. Across his final 63 games, when the team was much healthier, he shot 37.0 percent from deep.

He also attacked the basket more often later in the season. After driving the lane just 3.7 times per game from December through February, Barnes averaged 4.6 drives per game in the month of March, per SportVU. That resulted in an uptick in free throw attempts, as well: From the beginning of the season through Feb. 25, he averaged just 3.3 free throw attempts per game. Between Feb. 27-April 2 he averaged 4.5 per game, according to Basketball-Reference. Interestingly, that corresponded with him playing more minutes at small forward once the team had acquired Nerlens Noel. You would think Barnes would have an easier time attacking the basket at 4 than 3, although he still played plenty of minutes at the bigger forward spot after that deal.

You’re beginning to see the type of player Barnes can become. Next season, if he maintains that 37.0 percent 3-point shooting clip and can get to the free throw line five times per game instead of three, and does everything else the exact same, all of a sudden he’s averaging close to 21 points per game instead of 19.2. Now, let’s say he averages six free throw attempts, or maybe he improves in isolation, and he’s up to 22. And if he takes what Rick Carlisle calls a “quantum leap” and attempts 7-8 free throws and really solidifies that elbow isolation game? At that point he’s one of the premier scorers in the league.

This is only the beginning for Barnes. He’s a good player today, but with plenty of room for improvement. If he can realize that potential, he’s got the chance to be an excellent scorer for many years.

On the Inside: Seth Curry

2016-17 Exit Interview: Seth Curry

Mavs G Seth Curry addresses the media for exit interviews.

Over the next several weeks, we will publish end-of-season breakdowns for some of the key Mavericks as part of our “On the Inside” series. Imagine never having seen the players before, and this is the scouting report. Read all of them here.

Where do you start when discussing Seth Curry’s first season in Dallas?

The very beginning seems like a very good place. And before he’d ever played one game for the Mavericks, Curry had appeared in only 48 NBA contests. Before he logged his first minute, he’d played just 713 in his career. Mind you, Curry was 26 at the beginning of this season, so he wasn’t exactly a spring chicken. He was an old prospect, if you will, a player raw enough to make large improvements and still in his athletic prime.

He came to Dallas as a bit of a journeyman, a player known most for his shooting stroke and his last name. Then the games started, and it didn’t take long for Seth’s play to allow the younger brother to distance himself from Steph. By the end of the year he was one of the biggest surprises of the season and certainly one of the best bargains in basketball, after signing a team-friendly two-year pact with the Mavs in 2016.

The Mavericks presented Curry with the opportunity to play for a coach in a system that assures players will do what they do best, while also giving them some freedom to improvise. Dallas plays a beautifully structured brand of basketball that doesn’t always have a ton of concrete structure: It’s a read-and-react style of play that keeps the ball moving and gives everyone a chance to create.

Curry, meanwhile, needed just that: a chance. A chance to prove that he was more than just a shooter, that he was more than just Steph’s brother, that he was a legit ballplayer and could become one of the most efficient scorers in the league. Just before the end of the season, one of Curry’s buddies tweeted “Achievement is talent plus preparation.” Curry sent a tweet back: “+ opportunity.” You can put in all the work you want, but you can’t show what you’re made of unless someone gives you the chance.

He received that opportunity in Dallas and took advantage of it, and now he appears to be on the path to becoming a super-efficient scorer who can also handle the ball and make plays for himself and for others. The question for him has moved from “Is he an NBA player?” to “Is he a really good combo guard or can he become a starting point guard?” He and the Mavs will attempt to answer that question in the future. But considering where he came from, that’s a heck of a lot of ground to cover in just one season.

Shooting over everything

Before assessing anything else Curry can do, it’s imperative to lead off with the most important element of his game: shooting. He is an unbelievable 3-point shooter; of all the players in NBA history who have attempted at least 400 treys, Seth Curry ranks sixth all-time in 3-point percentage, at 43.2 percent. When you have a potentially generational shooting stroke and arrive to a team with a creative head coach, you’re going to be put in some positions to use that ability to unlock other elements of your game.

Generally when you think of 3-point shooting you probably envision a guy standing still and waiting for a kick-out or swing pass, and all his job requires him to do is catch the ball and let it fly. Curry can certainly do that, but he’s at his most dangerous when he’s catching on the move. The Mavericks freed him up all year long using flare screens, allowing Curry to float around the perimeter before quickly leading his defender right into a waiting big man.

Curry’s willingness to sneak around on the outside puts pressure on his defender to keep at least one eye on him at all times, lest the guard get wide open for a jumper. That also plays into the Mavs’ hands, though, because Dallas uses pick-and-rolls to force switches and mismatches. If a player like Dirk Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes, or Wesley Matthews is operating against a smaller player, defenses are going to want to gravitate toward that side of the floor to help out. But Curry can easily counter by roving over to the weakside and using a big man to spring him loose for 3. Curry was 13 of 25 from the field directly following a flare screen, per Synergy Sports, and many other times he attacked off the dribble, but we will get to that later.

He was also the first Maverick I can ever remember who made it a point to sprint to the corner in transition and wait for a pass. Curry was 14 of 35 from the field when running the wing in transition, per Synergy, and most of those attempts were 3-pointers. He usually plays at a more reasonable speed, but every now and then you’d see him turn on the burners in the open floor and beat everyone down to the other end.

Curry might not play exceptionally fast, but he does have very sharp footwork and solid body control, something that shows up not only in the clips above, but also in halfcourt situations. His footwork and agility allowed him to make quick cuts and use just one screen to free himself up for relatively clean looks.

It takes players years to develop that level of sophisticated footwork on the perimeter. Plenty of players can stand still and shoot, but not many can move around the floor like that, stop on a dime, and catch the ball ready to launch. Curry is 26, remember, and beginning in 2013 had to play two years in the D-League just to stay in pro basketball, so maybe these are tips and tricks he picked up along the way. It’s amazing to consider this now, but he didn’t become a full-time rotation player until this season, his fourth removed from his final season at Duke. And even then, last year in Sacramento he carved out a nice spot but still played in just 44 games. How all that untapped potential went unnoticed is beyond me.

It’s easy to say Curry’s entire game is predicated on his ability to shoot the ball — you never want to boil down a player’s game to just one thing — but it’s still kind of correct. He obliterated league averages in shooting percentage by zone this season, per NBA Stats.

Shot Type League Average Seth Curry
Restricted Area 61.1% 63.2%
In the Pain (Non-RA) 41.8% 59.8%
Mid-Range 40.3% 43.6%
Left Corner 3s 38.6% 46.9%
Right Corner 3s 38.8% 48.8%
Above the Break 3s 35.1% 41.1%

The mid-range and around-the-basket numbers are notable because they’re not long-range shots, but much of his success there does have at least something to do with his ability to shoot the ball. Defenses simply have to account for distance shooters, and Curry and the Mavs exploited that fear with much success this season.

During one stretch of the season Curry averaged 14.4 points per game on 51.7 percent shooting from the field and 49.7 percent from deep, on 4.7 treys per game. That’s good for a 62.9 effective field goal percentage. For reference, Gary Harris led all guards in eFG% this season at 58.7 percent. Steph Curry finished at 58.0 percent, and Seth rounded out the top-3 at 57.8 percent. In other words, at his peak Seth Curry was by far the most efficient guard in the NBA.

That stretch, by the way, was from Dec. 10 to March 10 — more than 1,200 minutes played across 42 games.

Shooting off the dribble

All the shooting is very nice, for sure, but players don’t separate themselves from the pack with their ability to merely catch and shoot. At some point, even if you never develop the ability to run an offense, you’ve at least got to be able to put the ball on the floor. (That’s why Wesley Matthews’ improvement off the dribble was so big.) Curry was a fantastic shooter last season in Sacramento, but more than 44 percent of his possessions were either as a spot-up shooter or running the floor in transition, per Synergy. This season in Dallas, however, spot-up shooting and transition offense accounted for less than 35 percent of his offensive possessions.

Here’s an example of how his shooting can force defenses into uncomfortable situations. In the play below, he comes off a hard V-cut like in an earlier clip, but this time the big defender steps out to the arc to contest a potential shot.

Mindaugas Kuzminskas steps out to dissuade Curry from shooting, but the guard is able to breeze past the Knicks forward to get into the teeth of the defense. Neither Courtney Lee nor Derrick Rose can offer much help, because both guys are still checking a player only one pass away. Joakim Noah, meanwhile, has 30,000 points to worry about in the middle of the floor. The resulting driving lane makes the new I-635 look narrow, and Curry gets to the rim with ease.

You hear a lot about Dirk Nowitzki’s floor gravity, but that impact only goes so far unless you have players who can take advantage of the extra real estate. Curry is one of those guys. In the play below, watch how Anthony Davis has to fight his instincts to help out as Curry gets to the cup, because he can’t afford to sag too far off Dirk.

That’s a great example of the respect Nowitzki commands from opposing defenses, but the key to that play was Curry forcing Jordan Crawford to leap out at him to contest a potential 3-pointer. Curry was able to catch the ball on the move and drive immediately, beating help defense from Jrue Holiday along the way. Nowitzki and Curry essentially played 2-on-3 and won. (It should be noted that the play above was late in the fourth quarter when New Orleans didn’t want to foul or surrender a 3, but the Mavericks are still going to take those points and can run this play in all clock situations. Curry shot 55.2 percent from the floor in the clutch this season.)

Dirk doesn’t deserve all the credit, though. Curry was able to use some clever moves to get clean looks off of curls with Nowitzki’s help. He dodges three Lakers defenders without moving, like Neo in “The Matrix,” before freeing himself up for a finger roll.

One-third of Curry’s possessions this season came as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, and in those situations he was one of the premier scorers in basketball. Of the 79 players who recorded at least 200 such possessions, Curry ranked 10th in points per possession, per Synergy. He scored more points per possession shooting off the dribble in the P&R (1.037) than Portland’s C.J. McCollum (1.027), and finished just behind Chris Paul in that regard (1.04).

As always when evaluating Mavericks, you want to start when they’re in the high pick-and-roll with Nowitzki. There aren’t many players better-equipped to take advantage of Nowitzki’s gravity than the smooth Curry, who hit 56.8 percent of his pull-up jump shots this season, including an absurd 15 of 22 pull-up 3-pointers.

You can take two things away from the above clips. First: Big men remained terrified of leaving Nowitzki alone. Second: Defenses want to give up mid-range jumpers. But if Curry can make them at a high clip, that’s going to continue being a good shot for the Mavericks for as long as those two play together. He may as well be alone in the gym.

If they’d switched the big man on to him, anyway, Curry still would have been fine. According to Synergy he scored more efficiently in isolation situations following a switch than Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, his teammates Nowitzki and Barnes, and all but seven other players in the NBA. (minimum 20 possessions).

Nowitzki won’t always be around, of course, and if Curry is going to be in Dallas for years to come he’s going to be partners with several different players, many of whom won’t afford him the same spacing benefits as the future Hall-of-Famer. The Mavericks value guards who can come hard off screens, find pockets of space, and get a shot up. There’s never been a doubt that Curry has the confidence to let ‘er rip, and this year he showed he can step quickly into those spots and get a shot up, going either direction.

As big men started to pick up on that, sometimes they’d step out to offer a contest. That’s when Curry’s shooting ability opened up his passing.

This season Curry used his shooting to establish his passing game, in the same ways that NFL teams classically used their ground game to establish their play-action game, or the way MLB pitchers use knee-high fastballs to set up breaking pitches in the dirt.

Playmaking at his own pace

Toward the end of the season the Mavs began experimenting with playing Curry at point guard, but a lingering shoulder injury eventually led to his season-ending shutdown, so the sample size was fairly small. Still, even when playing with Yogi Ferrell, Curry had a lot of offensive responsibility and the Mavericks were solid in those situations. From the time Curry became a full-time starter on Jan. 12, Dallas scored an above-average 1.074 points per possession in 915 minutes with Curry on the floor and without Deron Williams (while he was still a Maverick, and after he’d been waived). Without the luxury of playing alongside a veteran decision-maker, the Mavs’ offense was still good with Curry in at least partial command.

If he’s going to be playing point guard he’ll be the primary point of attack in the offense, which means the defense won’t be off-balance as he’s running off a ball-screen. That puts more pressure on him to break down the opponent in order to open things up for his teammates. Many players do this with blinding speed or exceptional quickness, but Curry relies more on crossovers and his eyes to keep the defense guessing.

That patient, probing style suits his game just fine. Curry doesn’t need to get all the way to the rim to score, which forces defenders to respect his jumper. If they don’t commit one way or the other to stopping either him or his teammate, after a few steps it makes his read easy — so long as he can keep his dribble alive. Earlier in the season Curry didn’t consistently show the ability to keep his dribble going when he drew attention in the middle of the floor, especially when coming off a ball-screen, but as the season wore on he demonstrated that he’d improved there.

It would have been easy for him to pull up at the elbow, but at that point Dwight Powell isn’t in position to receive the pass. By taking an extra step forward, Curry not only gives Powell more time to get into a favorable position, but he also draws in Rudy Gobert an extra half a step. That made the difference as Powell laid it in and drew a foul.

The same can be said about the play below. Curry finds himself at the free throw line with two Lakers staring him down, but instead of panicking he uses a hard crossover to move the ball to his left hand and create a better passing lane to the wide-open Powell. If Curry weren’t a good shooter, there’d be no reason for the big man to step out this far on him.

He very rarely ever attacks at a hundred miles an hour, and in the above two clips he never even reached 75. But his ability to shoot forces defenses into a tricky situation: If the small defender goes over the screen (as his defenders did in both clips above) that leaves Curry one-on-one against a big man, with a rolling teammate to help. Centers definitely don’t want to get blown by, but they also don’t want to give up an open jump shot, either, and Curry ranked fifth among all players in points per possession who faced at least 100 pick-and-rolls where the defender went over the screen.

So what do you do? I suppose the only answer is to apply some pressure and force him to pick up his dribble, but he progressed as a ball-handler as the season wore on and continues to work rigorously on his ball-handling each summer. He’s a very difficult player to cover.

Does this mean he’s a point guard, then? Five or 10 years ago there’d be almost no debate: He’d be a shooting guard in the mold of former Maverick Jason Terry. Nowadays, though, teams are searching for a point guard who loves to shoot first and pass second — or, at least, shoot when the shot is there. Curry makes up for his lack of lightning quickness with control and smoothness, and his exceptional shooting ability offsets pretty much any other weakness; there simply aren’t many guys who can shoot like he can off the dribble from all over the floor, and we didn’t even address his finishing ability at and around the rim.

However, he’s also very valuable playing off the ball, where he can attack off-balance defenses and use his threat of the jumper to create open driving lanes all game long — and have the benefit of not having to defend point guards for 30+ minutes a night, either.

Ultimately the decision regarding his spot in the lineup belongs to the Mavericks, and their choice could very well determine the direction they go in this summer’s draft and into free agency. If they believe Curry can be a point guard, they might need to add some depth at 2. On the other hand, if they want to play him at off-guard they might search for point guard help this offseason.

Either way, the Mavs found one of the steals of the summer, and Curry clearly maximized what proved to be his first real opportunity at meaningful NBA minutes. The team’s best stretch of the season coincided with Curry’s best run, and that’s not a surprise. He’s got the potential to be a game-changing offensive presence, and while he might be 26 and not 20, he still has plenty of room to grow and enough time to keep adding to his game. It’s up to him and the Mavericks to keep showing it.

On the Inside: Wesley Matthews

Wesley Matthews 2016-17 Highlights

Check out some of Wesley Matthews' highlights from the 2016-17 season!

Over the next several weeks, we will publish end-of-season breakdowns for some of the key Mavericks as part of our “On the Inside” series. Imagine never having seen the players before, and this is the scouting report. Read all of them here.

Wesley Matthews is many things: He’s tough, bold, and stubborn, all qualities that contribute directly to his success on the floor, particularly on defense. Those same traits, however, can create some big headlines because he’s always going to say what he means, and he’s always going to mean what he says.

As occasionally brash as Matthews can occasionally be as one of the key voices in the Mavericks’ locker room, his declaration at the beginning of his second season in Dallas that he wanted to be a better player than he’s ever been was perhaps the most eyebrow-raising thing he’s said.

Matthews is an optimist and is not a quitter, but he’s also realistic. He understands the public perception of his odds of overcoming a devastating Achilles injury in 2015 which cut short his best season and flung him into free agency as more of a question mark than an exclamation point.

He also fully understands fan frustration whenever he battles through a shooting slump or the Mavericks lose four out of five, events often connected to each other. He knows how they feel, because he feels it too. He sits at his locker in silence after close losses. When C.J. McCollum hit a back-breaker just before the buzzer at American Airlines Center in February, Matthews could only call it a good shot, offering no further thoughts.

2016-17 Exit Interview: Wesley Matthews

Mavs G Wesley Matthews addresses the media for exit interviews.

Undrafted out of college and now playing for his third team, the chip on Matthews’ shoulder grew even larger after his Achilles injury and bigger yet again following a slow start to the season, both for himself and his team. He plays with anger, an edge, an almost maniacal rage. It’s what keeps him going when he momentarily leaves games with bumps, bruises, or exhaustion-induced nausea. It’s what kept him going this season, the Mavs’ toughest in more than a decade.

He’s the kind of guy you root for as a fan because he’s seemingly one of the few athletes today who openly care more about the result of a February regular-season game than you. He plays through hip injuries, strained calves, and bum ankles because even the idea of missing a December game is enough to ruin his day. Rick Carlisle doesn’t even bother to consult him anymore about DNP-rests; he pawns off the job to someone else. All of this is to say when a guy like Matthews says he’s going to improve, you’re likely to believe him. As a fan, you certainly want him to be right.

And, while Matthews wasn’t totally right about being better than ever in 2016-17, at least in terms of offensive efficiency, he was correct in other areas. He set career-highs in assists and defensive rebounds per game, and both assist and rebound percentage. He posted the second-best defensive box plus-minus of his career. He remained an excellent one-on-one defender against at least three positions. And while his shooting percentages weren’t career-high marks, his field goal and 3-point percentages both improved from last season. That’s progress. Here’s where, and how, he performed for the Mavericks this season.

Making plays off the dribble

Matthews became a much more dynamic player off-the-dribble for the Mavericks in year two of his four-year deal, and it seemed to directly correlate to his almost-permanent move to small forward and Yogi Ferrell’s arrival to the scene at point guard. Beginning Feb. 1, Matthews’ assist rate — the percentage of teammates’ baskets which he assisted — was 18.9 percent. That mark is higher than Seth Curry’s 15.7, and it was higher than everyone else on the Mavs’ roster outside of Ferrell, J.J. Barea, and Devin Harris.

For the season, he assisted on 13.8 percent of his teammates’ buckets when he was on the floor, topping his previous career-best mark of 11.8 percent in 2012-13. Last year, Matthews assisted on only 8.9 percent of his teammates’ makes.

Many factors converged to make this the case. First, Matthews was another year removed from his Achilles injury, which gave him an extra burst off the bounce. But, perhaps more importantly, Matthews played small forward almost exclusively for the Mavs’ most meaningful stretch of the season, beginning Jan. 12. He shared more floor time with multiple guards who could shoot 3s at an above-average rate, and either Dirk Nowitzki or Nerlens Noel played center a majority of the time. That resulted in loads of extra space for Matthews to attack off the dribble, and he was doing it against bigger small forwards and sometimes power forwards, against whom he could create better driving lanes.

Matthews drove the lane 3.7 times per game this season, per SportVU, up from 2.6 last season. Following the lineup change on Jan. 12, that number rose to 4.1. When you tick up the pace and play in more space, you force the stretched defense to make some crazy rotations. Suddenly you’ll have centers leaping to close out against small forwards, and point guards will be protecting the rim. If you move quickly enough, you’ll find some great looks.

Beginning Jan. 12, teammates hit 45.3 percent of their 3-point shots following a Matthews pass, per NBA Stats, which is a blistering number. Seth Curry’s impact there cannot be understated, and he certainly had a hand as the receiving end of plenty of Matthews’ assists, but that’s the point of having an off-guard who can shoot the 3-ball. If Curry is making all the plays, no one can pass it to him. But when you have a 1 and 3 who can attack the basket and find shooters, you can better utilize your players’ best abilities.

The Mavericks seemed to use more flare screens than most other teams in the NBA this season, particularly when the ball entered the post. Dallas pushed more off misses following the mid-season lineup change, and that tricked defenses into some awkward cross-matches. Matthews frequently benefited from the ability to post up against smaller 1s and 2s who scrambled to defend him in transition. That commanded attention from other defenders, which let small Mavs shooters sneak around flare screens for open 3s. Mavericks spot-up shooters were 19 of 35 from the field following a Matthews pass out of the post, per Synergy Sports.

Notice how Julius Randle is slowly creeping closer and closer to Matthews, not even noticing the action going on right next to him. Harrison Barnes’ screen frees up Curry for a wide-open shot, and Matthews delivers the ball on the money for 3.

He was also effective in the pick-and-roll, particularly when finding shooters. (More than 48 percent of his assists went for 3s this year, per NBA.com.) Nowitzki as the center forces opponents to pull their rim protector far away from the rim, leaving all sorts of space underneath for the ball-handler to exploit. Matthews often craftily found those pockets of space, attracted attention, and passed out to the shooter.

And this is something we didn’t see much of, but Matthews and Barnes teamed up for a 3-4 pick-and-roll with Nowitzki in the corner. Watch what it did to the defense.

Matthews also found Nerlens Noel 10 times for an assist this season, per NBA Stats. Only Barea and Harris found him for more. If you’re going to play spread-out small-ball, your guards are under a lot of pressure to attack and make plays for everyone. Having a wing who can read the floor and move the ball takes a load off their shoulders, though, and that added dynamic makes an offense even more difficult to defend.

Shooting and attacking

He didn’t always settle for making a pass, though. Matthews showed he can attack slow, off-balance closeouts and get all the way to the basket and finish, a huge step forward from last season.

The Mavericks space the floor too well — even with a traditional big man in the lineup — for defenders to lackadaisically close out against a shooter. The rotation simply has to be perfect, or else there’s nothing but wide-open pavement between the ball-handler and the rim. As previously stated, Matthews found the lane much more often this season, and he was also more efficient the closer he got to the rim than he was one season ago. See the chart below, with percentages by zone (and attempts in parentheses) from last season to this one.

Shot Type 2015-16 2016-17
Restricted Area 51.5% (99 FGA) 54.1% (109 FGA)
In the Pain (Non-RA) 36.7% (79 FGA) 43.3% (90 FGA)
Mid-Range 41.1% (151 FGA) 36.1% (169 FGA)
Corner 3s (Total) 41.7% (156 3PA) 41.8% (91 3PA)
Above the Break 3s 33.6% (369 3PA) 35.2% (386 3PA)
% of Total FGM Unassisted 31.7% 42.0%

Matthews did take a step back in the mid-range, but he improved in the restricted and non-restricted paint areas, as well as from above the break. He was also blocked fewer times at the rim this season (14 times) than last season (20), indicating that he had better lift and, perhaps more importantly, the Mavs’ small-ball tendencies drew rim protectors too far from the basket to offer help against wing drives.

Attacks like this, though, give confidence that his improvement in the lane wasn’t completely due to teammates.

It wasn’t always this smooth. There were some possessions that would end with too much dribbling or late heaves to beat the shot clock, especially at the beginning of the season when the Mavs played the slowest pace in the league. But that play above happened on March 31, when his 3-point shooting dropped off and the banged-up Mavs were suffering through a losing streak. He didn’t settle for anything there and he didn’t pound the ball into oblivion. He made a move and got downhill. There’s something to be said for that, and if he can make that play in late March, he should be able to do the same thing after an offseason of rest and further recovery.

About the shooting. Matthews has hit 36.2 percent from deep through two seasons with Dallas, down from 39.3 percent for his career before coming here. But to say he’s failed as a shooter is a little bit a stretch, given he’s still one of just five players in the NBA to have hit 160+ 3s five straight seasons, including the last two. During one 44-game stretch in the middle of the season, he shot 41.9 percent from deep: That’s converting at an elite rate for more than half a season. In his final 22 games, however, he shot 27.4 percent. Is that related to health? Fatigue? Rotating team personnel and fewer minutes shared with the resting Nowitzki and the injured Curry? It could be a combination. But there’s 44 games’ worth of evidence to suggest he can return to the high-volume, high-efficiency 3-point form that’s made him one of the league’s most prolific shooters.

You would like to see him back up closer to 38 or 39 next season, which is certainly possible. If he’d made just 13 more 3s of his 479 attempts this season, he would’ve shot better than 39 percent from deep and we’d be talking about how great a season he had. The margin between average and very good shooting is incredibly slim.

In the right situations, he was still an excellent marksmen, percentages considered. He ranked in the 81st percentile league-wide in spot-up shooting out of a pick-and-roll, per Syngery, hitting 43.1 percent of his shots when ball-handlers kicked out a pass his way. He hit just 20.8 percent, meanwhile, as a spot-up shooter out of isolation. It’s more difficult to get clean looks against a set defense, and much easier to get them against scramblers. Matthews and the Mavs paid the price in that regard, particularly earlier in the season when injury-plagued Dallas’ offense slowed to a crawl. As a spot-up shooter getting a look out of all non-iso plays against man-to-man defense, he shot exactly 40.0 percent. That’s much closer to the rate you’d expect to see him hit.

And even if he remains at 36 percent another season, still a league-average conversion rate, that will be fine if he can continue to attack the rim and make plays both for himself and his teammates. That stuff opens up the offense for everyone else.

“I want to be able to do everything,” Matthews said during his exit interview. “I want to be the most complete player that I can be. With the shooting slump that I had, there were still ways I had to be effective on the court — energy, leadership, defense, that’s always gonna be a part of it. But being able to get other guys shots, get other guys open, I take pride in that as well. I take pride in being a basketball player.”

Elite one-on-one defense

An inclusive term like “complete player” also takes defense into consideration, and when discussing Matthews the truth is it’s almost blasphemous to admire his contributions on the defensive end after watching him play with the ball in his hands. After two seasons in Dallas, the “Good Matthews Defense” mixtape is already pretty long, and below is one of his greatest hits.

He remains a devastating one-on-one defender. Among the 58 guards who defended at least 50 isolation possessions this season, Matthews ranked 19th in points per possession allowed, per Synergy. When he’s on an island, he can get up into your space, make you uncomfortable, knock you off your spot, and most importantly he can do all of that without fouling. Even defending the best perimeter players in the league, guys like James Harden and Russell Westbrook who live at the free throw line, Matthews averaged just 2.2 fouls per game this season.

One of his secrets: Make players go to their weak hand. Harden is left-handed, but in the play above Matthews is camped out on his left hand, forcing him to go back to the right even after Harden beats him to his preferred side. In the play below, he forces Dion Waiters so far left that by the time Nowitzki grabs hold of the air ball, Waiters is out of bounds.

And then there’s this one, slowed down to make it easier to see. Watch as Matthews sticks to Kawhi Leonard’s hip, pushing him uncomfortably low toward the baseline and steering him directly into his help defender, Salah Mejri.

Generally, opponents had a bad time when they put it on the floor out of isolation against Matthews. Going left, they shot just 7 of 21 from the field with a whopping 11 turnovers. They didn’t fare much better going right, either, shooting just 7 of 24 from the field with five turnovers. If you can’t get all the way past him, there’s no way you’re getting a good shot.

There’s really nothing sexy about any of those plays, but that’s the way defense is supposed to be. You hear coaches and players say the same thing: Defense is desire, want-to, effort, pride, attitude, whatever you want to call it. It’s all of those things. It’s about willpower, the irrational belief in your ability to stop someone else with world-class talent from doing what they want to do in a game where new rules have made good defense become more and more difficult to perform. For a guy like Matthews, playing one-on-one against the best scorers in the league for 36 minutes a night is an opportunity, not a sentence. It’s a challenge, not an obstacle.

For the season, opponents shot just 34.3 percent against him on off-the-dribble jump shots. And when he closed out against spot-up shooters well enough to force them to put the ball on the floor and drive toward the basket, they scored just 43 total points on 84 possessions, turning it over 19 times. Sometimes, as Mavs owner Mark Cuban said, you can tell how good a defender someone is by the shots opponents don’t take against him. Matthews might not be the single-best perimeter defender in the NBA — it’s difficult to quantify that, anyway — but he certainly is one of them.

Moving Matthews to 3 while still giving him the freedom to defend the other team’s best player on a nightly basis unlocked new compartments of his game while also helping him continue to do what he’s always done best. This isn’t to say he should never play shooting guard again, because he still certainly can. But as the league continues to get smaller, he’s a very valuable player to have because of his ability to play 2-3 and defend 1-3, and occasionally even 4.

And one thing’s for sure about Matthews: He is never, ever going to be satisfied with how he’s playing, good or bad. It will never be enough. That trait, above all others, is why he’s survived in this league for so long, and it’s what will help him continue to play at a high level in seasons to come.

On the Inside: Nerlens Noel

2016-17 Exit Interview: Nerlens Noel

Mavs C Nerlens Noel addresses the media for exit interviews.

Over the next several weeks, we will publish end-of-season breakdowns for some of the key Mavericks as part of our “On the Inside” series. Imagine never having seen the players before, and this is the scouting report. Read all of them here.

There are many reasons to appreciate the NBA, and different players possess certain qualities that are easy to appreciate.

Take Dirk Nowitzki, for example. His age-38 season got off to a rocky start, but by the end of the year he was the same ol’ Dirk, relying on smarts and footwork to sink 18-footers and trailing 3s. Each Nowitzki game is a masterclass in the sport’s most subtle nuances. Many people can’t or don’t understand the effect he has on a defense simply by being on the floor, even if he’s camping out 25 feet from the rim. At this point in his career, he’s a thinking man’s superstar.

Then there’s Russell Westbrook, who might be on the opposite end of the spectrum from Nowitzki in terms of making court noise. Westbrook is the most ferocious player, pound-for-pound, perhaps in NBA history. He’s a bicycle-sized freight train who swoops into passing lanes like a hawk, runs the length of the floor like a crazed bull, and dunks with the power an angry Shaq. He’s a 7-footer trapped in a 6-foot frame, and in his attempt to break out of the cage that is his body, he causes chaos all over the floor.

Generally, players are either one or the other. Chris Paul is more like Dirk. Giannis Antetokounmpo is more like Westbrook.

As it happens, though, the Mavericks have one of the few players who consistently flash both the qualities of a cerebral star and a game-breaker. Nerlens Noel is firmly in the middle, for now at least, and how he develops as he grows up — he’s still only 23 years old — will ultimately determine the camp in which he belongs.

Either way, it was very easy to appreciate Noel in his brief stint with the Mavericks to end the season. He appeared in just 22 games, but in that short time he showed enough to make the front office believe in him. Noel will become a restricted free agent this summer, but while nothing is guaranteed, the brass has said many times the goal is to bring him back long-term and make him a key player in this team’s future. This is an attempt to show why they feel the way they do, and why Noel will hopefully be making savvy plays and causing chaos in Dallas for many years to come.

The art of the alley-oop

Noel’s most obvious and significant offensive contribution in his 22 games with Dallas came in the form of finishing alley-oops in the pick-and-roll, particularly in partnership with J.J. Barea, who Noel considers one of the best lob passers on the team, alongside Devin Harris.

Overall in the pick-and-roll (including pops for jump shots), Noel scored 1.184 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. That mark ranked 20th out of 120 in points per possession among players who recorded at least 49 possessions as the roll man, finishing just behind Hassan Whiteside (1.196) and ahead of Nikola Jokic (1.146) and Joel Embiid (1.141). Given his combination of length, quickness, and leaping ability, Noel is a pretty easy lob target.

Through his first half-dozen or so games in Dallas, though, the alley-oop numbers simply weren’t there. It took a while for the guards to know what Noel was thinking, just like it took him some time to learn to read their minds. Throwing and finishing a lob might look easy, but Noel said it’s anything but.

“There’s definitely a lot more than people see, especially when you have so much (responsibility) to harness in the pick-and-roll,” he told Mavs.com. “Being athletic, I can really switch up from short rolls, to knowing when to slip, and just playing off so many different guards that have different tendencies. Whenever you’re playing pick-and-rolls it’s not that simple. You have to see who you’re playing with.”

The Mavs’ offense is a careful, calculating one. Dallas wishes to avoid turnovers like the plague, but Rick Carlisle also wants his team to constantly keep the ball moving, too, and he wants multiple pick-and-rolls until something opens up. That means there’s a lot of real-time negotiating between the ball-handler, the screener, and the primary defenders.

Thankfully for Dallas, Noel understands the game at a high level for such a young player, so he gained a quick grip on the system and when and where to expect the ball. What’s more, he’s got the athleticism to finish over players and contort his body in mid-air to accommodate whichever kind of pass comes his way.

Sometimes, when playing with Barea in particular, Noel said the ball comes his way before he’s even expecting it, not unlike a quarterback who throws a pass to a wide-out before he makes a cut.

As you can see above, though, that can have a devastating impact on the defense. Noel gets to the rim so quickly and can climb so high into the air that other big men are too slow to keep up, and defenders responsible for help become helpless. Barea threw the pass before Noel stepped below the free throw line.

“Some of the guys had to learn how athletic I was, to be able to go and get it,” Noel told Mavs.com. “I think easily seeing what kind of position the (opposing) big man is in, it’s just hard to turn around and be able to get off the floor when you’re trying to play the pick-and-roll, so once I reach his level or get behind him, it really signals the alley-oop (lob) every time.”

But he’s not just a lob threat. Noel can make plays off of short rolls, situations when he receives the pass before he arrives at the rim. As shown below, he’s got the footwork and ball-handling ability to dribble-drive to the rim, but he can also read the defense and find the open man on the move.

“Most of the time, I’ll be rolling to be a target and open up for another guy on the weak side, with his guy coming in to tag,” Noel told Mavs.com. “Most of the time I will be rolling, but different teams play different styles. Sometimes I like to short roll and quarterback the gym.”

Most centers in this league can’t rise for a jump shot and then deliver a sharp pass to a cutter along the baseline. In fact, there are many wings who can’t make that play, either. Noel has been an above-average passer for his position for most of his career, though, even dating back to his high school days when he was able to play some point guard.

Whether it was him moving it or someone else, generally the ball moved better when he was on the floor, especially with veteran guards. In 133 minutes Noel and Barea shared the floor, Dallas assisted on more than 65 percent of its made field goals, per NBA Stats. In the 145 minutes when Noel and Harris played, that number rose to 69.8 percent. For reference, the Warriors led the league in assist rate this season at 70.5 percent, and just one other team finished with a rate higher than 63.1 percent.

The next frontier for Noel in terms of offensive development, particularly in the pick-and-roll game, is developing a reliable mid-range jump shot. Some nights the roll simply won’t be an option because of how some teams pack the paint. In those instances, he’ll need to show he can step out and knock down a couple 15-footers to keep the defense honest.

That was the opening play against Memphis in the last game of the season. Noel was given a jumper by design. It was the second time I can remember Rick Carlisle calling the young center’s number from range on the first set, with the first coming a couple weeks earlier against OKC.

“I think it opens up a new level,” Noel told Mavs.com that night. “No big men can stay with me off the dribble. I think I’m too quick. But with that mid-range jump shot, they’re gonna have to step up on me, and I think my first step is good enough to go by anybody.”

Indeed, if he can hit that shot with any level of regularity, defenses will have to take that into consideration when constructing the gameplan. Even if Noel puts on the 20 pounds he said he hopes to add this summer, he’ll remain quicker than an overwhelming majority of NBA centers. If lumbering big men want to step out and contest the mid-range J, Noel is more than happy to attack them off the dribble.

As for the chemistry and growing more comfortable with the younger guards, Noel said it will come in time — assuming, of course, that he’s back with Dallas next season.

“Me and Seth have grown, me and Yogi have grown together,” he told Mavs.com. “It’ll be hard to really stop a team that gets on the same wavelength with every guard on your team, and the pick-and-roll is just as effective with every guard. I think as we continue to grow and I get more comfortable with them, and they get more comfortable with me, it just continues to help the team.”

That’s the subtle, nuanced, thinking man’s stuff. Now let’s get to the part where he becomes unfair.

Sometimes he breaks the game

Noel is the type of guy who can play perfectly within the confines of the center position. And, yes, “confines” is the appropriate word, because some of the things he does makes you think he’s more suited to play small forward.

Noel can streak down the sideline like a vertical threat in the NFL, reel in a long outlet pass, take a dribble, step through the defense, and finish.

He can also jump a passing lane above the arc, take it coast to coast, and finish with a dunk.

And, most spectacularly, he can intercept a kick-out pass, lead the ensuing fast break, and deliver a one-handed pass in stride to a teammate for a dunk.

It should be noted that Noel is right-handed, but in most of these plays he uses his left hand for most of the skill moves. He’s better finishing floaters and layups with his left hand, too. That ambidexterity is oddly appropriate given his rule-bending, gravity-defying nature.

A coach obviously can’t draw up plays like the ones above. Noel will probably never bring the ball up the floor in the halfcourt, and I’m sure Carlisle would prefer he chase a defensive rebound as opposed to sprinting down the floor every time a shot goes up. But that’s not the point. Noel is a highly skilled, highly athletic player who knows when to push those buttons. If he’s with the Mavericks beyond this season, they can gradually grant him more offensive responsibility with the goal of better utilizing his vision, ball-handling, and athleticism as weapons. That will be very, very interesting to follow.

There’s nothing subtle about his defense

Noel Lines Up Defender For The Kodak Moment

Nerlens Noel picks up the steal, leads the break and then rises up over the defender for the slam.

If Noel’s offensive repertoire is a combination of basketball Art (with a capital “A”) and game-breaking tendencies, his defense is an even more dangerous mix. Generally he plays within the Mavs’ defensive system and makes more conventional plays like the one below, when he comes from the weak side to help a disadvantaged teammate and block the shot.

Noel is always on the prowl, patiently waiting outside the lane for a smaller player to test him. When playing as a traditional center, he’s effective as a rim protector. But every now and then he’s given the go-ahead to become momentarily unhinged and create all sorts of chaos on the perimeter, and that’s when he becomes really intriguing.

Noel singlehandedly derailed that Clippers possession by stepping out against J.J. Redick and then Chris Paul, suddenly and aggressively pouncing on them like a leopard. Some teams ask big men to do this more often, but it’s a risky play. Most guards are quicker and faster than most centers, so generally you want big men to back off or else they risk getting blown by. What’s more, guards are masterful at drawing contact from clumsy 7-footers who might hip-check or stick out an arm just far enough to draw a whistle. (You can see Redick brace for contact above.) But Noel didn’t make contact with either guy, and instead just crowded their space and ultimately forced a turnover.

Most of Noel’s best defensive highlights came when he stepped out to the perimeter. Perhaps his most impressive play on that side of the ball came in a home loss to Toronto when, trying to jumpstart a second-half comeback, Noel was unleashed to blitz, trap, and pressure ball-handlers high up on the floor.

He was almost 40 feet from the rim when DeMar DeRozan sent a pass to Jonas Valanciunas. With some help from Devin Harris, who tagged long enough to slow Valanciunas down, Noel was able to cover all of that ground and stuff his shot at the rim. That’s an incredible play.

Noel’s quickness and instincts, particularly in when knowing to step out versus when to play more conservatively, has turned him into one of the most disruptive defensive centers in the league. From the time he joined the Mavs on Feb. 25, Noel averaged 3.8 deflections per 36 minutes, according to NBA Stats. Among centers who played at least 100 minutes in that time, that mark ranked second.

Player Team Minutes Per Game Deflections per 36 Contested FGA per 36
Ian Mahinmi Wizards 19.2 4.7 16.5
Nerlens Noel Mavericks 21.9 3.8 16.2
Willy Hernangomez Knicks 24.0 3.7 14.0
Zaza Pachulia Warriors 17.0 3.6 11.9
DeMarcus Cousins Pelicans 33.7 3.3 13.8

Noel not only causes a ton of deflections, but he also contests a lot of shots. That means that he’s not completely selling himself out to chase a steal to the point that he’s not in position to protect the rim or get a hand in a shooter’s face, and he can stay in good position against faster players who attack him.

One thing four of the five players from the chart above have in common is they don’t play many minutes, which presumably gives them more energy to create chaos defensively without having to worry about logging 35 minutes. However, Noel played the way he did with Dallas for significantly longer stretches while he was still with Philadelphia, and that suggests he could do the same here if asked. He averages two steals and two blocks per 36 minutes for his career. This guy is a maniac on D.

He’s also quick enough to stay in front of smaller players, as shown below against Washington’s Bradley Beal. He didn’t bite on any of Beal’s fakes and crossovers, instead staying low in a defensive stance, eventually forcing a long jumper off the bounce. Not only does Noel play with energy and fire on defense, but he typically plays with discipline, and that’s not a combination you usually find in young big men.

One of Noel’s biggest issues after joining Dallas, though, came in defending the post against bigger, burlier guys like Cousins and Marc Gasol. With aid from his help defenders, Noel was able to coax those guys into committing turnovers on 16.7 percent of the post-up possessions he faced as a Maverick, which ties for 10th among the 62 bigs who played at least 40 post-up possessions, per Synergy. The Mavs would frequently send help from several different directions, and Noel’s active hands generated plenty of steals.

But Noel’s opponents took a higher volume of free throws than any of those players, going to the line 23.8 percent of the time. Double-teaming and active hands can lead to a ton of contact, and in the instances when Noel is one-on-one against a bigger guy, he’s got to stay vertical and contest a shot without fouling. (That’s where potentially adding 20 pounds could be a big help.)

If you’re going to have one Achilles heel, though, it might as well be there. The league is quickly moving away from the post in favor of more pick-and-roll, and Noel has always excelled there. He is a menace against the play the league relies on the most. That’s good news.

Simply put, Noel can bend and break opposing offenses like great scorers can do to opposing defenses. That’s a very rare quality to find in a player. It will be interesting to see, moving forward, if the Mavericks tweak their defensive system to feature Noel more often in his chaos role.

That’s assuming, of course, that he’s a Maverick in 2017-18. And this summer, there aren’t many bigger priorities for the front office than making sure that’s the case.

On the Inside: Yogi Ferrell

2016-17 Exit Interview: Yogi Ferrell

Mavs G Yogi Ferrell addresses the media for exit interviews.

Over the next several weeks, we will publish end-of-season breakdowns for some of the key Mavericks as part of our “On the Inside” series. Imagine never having seen the players before, and this is the scouting report. Read all of them here.

The modern basketball revolution which has quickly swept across the NBA has left in its wake a few very important questions. Does an inability to shoot the 3-pointer disqualify a big man from playing power forward? Is there really such a thing as “shooting guard” anymore? And, most important of them all, what exactly is a point guard supposed to be these days?

It used to be that point guards simply didn’t shoot the ball. John Stockton never took even 12 shots per game in a single season. Steve Nash never attempted more than 13.6. Jason Kidd took more than 14 attempts just twice in 19 seasons. There are exceptions, of course — before Russell Westbrook averaged 30 and 10, Nate Archibald did it way back in 1973, and Oscar Robertson is 12th on the all-time scoring list. But, generally speaking, point guard has not been a scoring position — until now, that is.

Even three years ago, the thought was that a team could not win a championship with a point guard as its best player and best scorer. Stephen Curry put that notion to bed, and one year ago Kyrie Irving outdueled Curry by averaging 27.1 points in the Finals and hit the game-winner in Game 7. Westbrook averaged 31 points and a triple-double this season, and the MVP will probably go either to him or James Harden, who averaged 29 and 11 running point for the Rockets.

In this new NBA, the point guard position has experienced perhaps the most dramatic evolution of them all. The term “pass-first” point guard has suddenly left the lexicon, outside of Mark Cuban’s tongue-in-cheek description of Tony Romo before he joined the Mavs for the home finale. The closest example is probably Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio, who averaged just 8.7 shots per game, which still tops seven of Stockton’s seasons.

So what, then, is a pure point guard? Is it one who strictly hunts for shots? Is it someone 6-foot-5 or shorter who can handle the ball? Is it someone who can excel in the pick-and-roll? I don’t believe it’s any one of those things, specifically. It’s all of those things, together, and then some.

“We want him to remain aggressive looking to score but just make the meat-and-potatoes plays,” Devin Harris said about Seth Curry late in the season, when the Mavs gave him some run at the 1. “If you see a guy, feed him. Get us in our offense and remain aggressive. It’s not easy for a young guy. But we’re better when he’s scoring.”

In the Mavericks’ offense, a point guard must simply run the offense. That’s a fairly vague responsibility, but at its core, running an offense means the ball-handler has the power to make the right play. Shoot it if you’re open or pass it if someone else is. Play with command, play under control, and keep the ball moving. Think the game, see the game, and make a play. It sounds easy, but it really isn’t: NBA point guards carry more responsibility now than perhaps ever before.

Harris was referring to Seth Curry in the above quote, but he easily could have said the same thing about Yogi Ferrell, as well.

Kia Western Conference Rookie Of The Month: Yogi Ferrell

Yogi Ferrell of the Dallas Mavericks is your Kia Western Conference rookie of the month.

Ferrell, who will turn 24 in May, just completed his first pro season after spending four years at Indiana. Think of how much the NBA game changed while he was in school: During his freshman season, only eight NBA point guards attempted at least 15 shots per game. This season, 13 did. Ferrell himself attempted 11.9 shots per 36 minutes with the Mavericks, which is more than Stockton ever attempted any season in his entire career.

He arrived to the NBA able to score the ball, there was no doubt about that: He finished top-6 in the Big Ten in scoring each of his last three years at Indiana, and he was averaging 18.7 points per game for the D-League’s Long Island Nets before receiving a 10-day offer from the Mavericks. He also demonstrated in four years with the Hoosiers that he was a high-IQ kind of player who could play within a system and keep his teammates involved. He could both score and pass, and the Mavericks asked him to do both right off the bat, and a month later he was the full-time starting point guard and the Western Conference Rookie of the Month.

Ferrell took many strides this season as a developing player, but perhaps his most important improvement came in the closing weeks of the season, when all of a sudden it looked like something clicked and he gained command of the offense. That quality — “command” — is almost purely a theoretical concept. There’s no real way to measure it, but you know it when you see it, and if you watched closely in March and April you saw that Ferrell had it.

Taking command of the offense

Command is more than just handing out assists and playing like a quarterback, but Ferrell did that to a large degree this season. In his 36 appearances for Dallas, the Mavericks were 12-8 when he dished out 5+ assists, per Basketball-Reference. Dallas was 17-19 when he turned it over three or fewer times, but 16-13 when he gave it away twice or less, and a very respectable 10-7 when he made just one or fewer turnovers. But it’s about more than mere numbers in a box score.

Command is about bringing everything together — speed, athleticism, vision, smarts, deception — to put yourself and your teammates in positions to be successful. It’s being in total control. Here’s how Ferrell got there.

There was never a question that Ferrell had next-level quickness. He arrived to the NBA with an explosive first step and above-average straight-line speed which, when used in combination, allow him to get to the rim against pretty much anyone. That gives him the ability to make spectacular plays look kind of easy.

But the NBA is full of players who are at least as nearly as fast as Ferrell, and there are big men and wings who can sniff out smaller, quicker guys who play at one speed. Their anticipation can result in crowded lanes, forced jump passes, active hands in passing lanes, and — especially if the point guard is playing faster than his teammates — icky turnovers.

Ferrell can’t always control where his teammates are or what they’re doing, but it’s his job as a point guard to read the floor and create a good opportunity, even if that means slowing down so that he can take full advantage of a screen, or so the big man can dive to the basket. Not long ago a point guard was the symphony’s conductor, but in today’s NBA he’s the first-chair violin, floating on top of the supporting players. His sound must soar above everyone else’s, but he’s still got to stay in time with the tubas. It’s not an easy job.

Very early in his time with the Mavericks, you could see the gears spinning as he’d make reads. You knew he was trying to make plays — that he was trying not only to look for his own shots, but to set up his teammates for easy shots — but at the highest level of competition in the world, you can’t afford to over-think. You can’t make an early pass to a big man 15 feet from the basket just because his man takes one step toward you.

Now, to be sure, the “right basketball play” is ultimately to send a pass to Dwight Powell. And, to be fair, this was only Ferrell’s second game as a Maverick, just 48 hours after he signed a 10-day contract. But the pass simply arrived too early, forcing the big man into a situation where he had to collect a pass on the move, take a dribble, and put up a contested shot. (Ferrell scored 19 that night in a Mavericks win.) As the season progressed, and as he gained more experience, he learned mixing in a hesitation dribble and simply slowing down by a step or two can open things up so much more.

This is the same exact play run two months later. Watch as Ferrell takes a slight hesitation dribble and one more step into the lane to lull the defenders to sleep only for a fraction of a second. That quick herky-jerky move gave Nerlens Noel all the time he needed to get to the rim, and by that time both defenders had already committed to Ferrell.

Ferrell has lethal speed, but super-quick players don’t always need to get into the teeth of the defense to make a play. Sometimes, using the threat of a blow-by is enough to draw the center from the basket and gain the upper hand. That’s command.

Command is about manipulation, changing speeds, and using a combination of patience, cleverness, and aggression to complement your physical gifts. It’s when your brain, not your foot speed or your vertical leap, beats opponents. It’s when you move from the passenger’s seat into the driver’s seat.

Command is driving into a crowded lane against Giannis Antetokounmpo — perhaps the most physically imposing wing in the NBA — and attracting unbelievable amounts of attention to set up Harrison Barnes for a dunk.

In the play above, Ferrell uses an early Dirk Nowitzki screen to breeze into the lane six seconds into the shot clock. It would’ve been easy for him to launch toward the rim and seek out a foul, but trying to do that against two 7-footers is a risky proposition. Instead, Ferrell hesitates slightly to get Antetokounmpo on his hip, then knifes past Thon Maker and makes a banzai charge directly into Khris Middleton, which opens up Barnes under the rim. That’s a superior basketball play for a guy listed generously as 6 feet tall. There was never a chance that Ferrell was going to shoot the ball: He made that play for the team.

Why is command so important? It’s what separates similarly sized J.J. Barea from most other backup point guards in the NBA. Barea is a guy who is always under complete control of the offense, and that more than anything has helped him overcome his relative size deficiency for a decade. Even if he wasn’t making shots on any given night this season, the Mavericks were usually good when he played. For the third straight year, Dallas had a higher offensive rating with Barea on the floor than without him. Following his return from injury on March 10, the Mavs scored 109.5 points per 100 possessions with Barea on the floor versus just 97.1 points per 100 when he was on the bench. It’s not always reflected so obviously in on-off splits, but that gives you an idea of just how good Barea is at running the show, and Ferrell appears to be developing into that kind of player.

3-point threat

The rookie is quickly evolving into a legit NBA point guard. As he continues to gain command, he’ll be able to show off his most devastating weapon: his 3-point shot. Of the 24 rookies who attempted at least 100 3s this season, Ferrell finished fifth in 3-point percentage, at 38.6. He connected on a solid 40.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys. He was terrific at catching and shooting on the move, as well.

The most potent element of his shooting game, though, comes in transition, when he can race up the floor, stop on a dime, and let ’em fly.

You’ve got to be careful throwing around this comparison, but given his size, his shooting form, and his self-confidence, Ferrell is capable of having Westbrook-type flashes on the floor. He’s a point guard whose athleticism and occasionally irrational confidence allow him to make plays other guys his size simply cannot. In the sequence below, he plays a long outlet pass like a defensive back, then gets back down the floor and steps into a straightaway 3, holding his follow-through until it finds the net.

As teams wise up and begin to close out on him harder in the open floor or defend him more tightly in half-court situations, that can free up his driving game. He showed some potential as a finisher around the rim this season, mostly when sharing the floor with Nowitzki to help alleviate some pressure from opposing big men. As teams begin to focus more on him, Ferrell will have to use screens more effectively to create space and get to his spots. But he’s already shown he’s capable of figuring out the hardest part.

The long-range shot is more important than the around-the-rim stuff, though, at least in his immediate future. He came to the NBA with an “NBA skill,” as Rick Carlisle likes to call it. Young players must establish themselves as soon as possible, in any possible way. Ferrell’s nine-trey explosion on a Friday night in Portland gave him a reputation as a dead-eye 3-point shooter, and he backed it up for the rest of the season; he connected on 40.3 percent of his triples for the Mavericks, on 149 attempts. Below is a chart showing the most prolific 3-point shooters among rookies from Jan. 29, the date Ferrell debuted for Dallas.

Player Team 3-Pointers Made 3-Point Percentage
Buddy Hield Pelicans/Kings 74 41.1
Jamal Murray Nuggets 62 35.4
Yogi Ferrell Mavericks 60 40.3
Denzel Valentine Bulls 52 36.9
Dario Saric 76ers 50 28.4

Combined with his pesky full-court defense and ability to dodge screens on defense, Ferrell already has a defined skillset with plenty of room for growth. That’s what you hope to see in any rookie.

His shooting and high basketball IQ earned him a trip to the league, and later a starting job. But whether or not he ever becomes a full-time starter, his command and emerging ability to take control of the offense could make him a productive, valuable point guard in this league for many seasons to come.