DALLAS — While the Dallas Mavericks haven’t been at full strength thus far this preseason, coach Rick Carlisle says the team’s injuries early in exhibition play have created opportunities for his young contributors.
Tuesday, the Mavericks (0-2) took the court for the start of their preseason schedule without the services of prized new addition Wesley Matthews (left Achilles surgery), Tunisian center Salah Mejri (fractured left fibula), big man JaVale McGee (left tibial stress fracture), 13-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki (rest), starting small forward Chandler Parsons (right knee surgery), second-year standout Dwight Powell (left elbow sprain) and first-string point guard Deron Williams (left calf strain). The result was a 96-86 loss at home to the Denver Nuggets as the shorthanded Mavs got off to a rocky start in exhibition play.
One night later, the Mavericks were still without their top contributors while traveling to Houston, falling to a 109-82 loss to the in-state rival Rockets. Still, Carlisle says he was encouraged by what he saw from the team’s young players and roster hopefuls during the two games.
“We’ve got work to do, and we’ve got to get some guys back in there. The guys we’ve got out there are going hard, and we’ve just got to get more done,” Carlisle confessed after Wednesday’s loss.
One player that has stepped up and taken advantage of his extra time on the floor due to the injuries has been swingman John Jenkins, who has quickly earned the respect of Carlisle for his aggressive play.
Jenkins scored 16 points and hit six of his 15 shots from the field during the loss to Denver, overshadowing his seven turnovers while finishing the game at point guard in a matchup against No. 7 overall draft pick Emmanuel Mudiay. He followed that up with 19 points on 6-of-14 shooting in Houston, grabbing five rebounds and playing turnover-free basketball in just under 29 minutes of work.
And although Carlisle admits that playing point guard has been out of Jenkins’ comfort zone, the coach raved about the 6-foot-4 sharpshooter’s aggression thus far this preseason.
“The learning curve is always going to be there with young players. You know, we’ve got some young guys that are getting a real chance to play and are learning things. That said, I really like Jenkins. You know, Jenkins has played a real aggressive game both of the last two nights. He’s shown he can handle the ball a little bit. He’s done a good job, and he’s got to continue doing what he’s been doing,” Carlisle explained.
That aggression hasn’t always been there, according to Jenkins, but the former Vanderbilt standout is learning to look for his shot more after three seasons in Atlanta.
Jenkins, who was selected with the 23rd overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, suited up with the Hawks in 98 career games. He comes to Dallas after averaging 5.6 points and 1.6 rebounds in 13.8 minutes an outing for the Hawks, showing an ability to stretch the floor while swishing 37.5 percent from three-point range in his first three seasons.
Foregoing his senior year after he led the Southeastern Conference in scoring as both a sophomore and a junior, Jenkins left college as the 10th all-time leading scorer in school history. And after also tying the SEC single-season record with 134 made three-pointers to garner First Team All-SEC and Third Team All-American honors in his final collegiate year, Jenkins hopes to continue building on his strong play when the regular season gets underway.
“[Carlisle] has really been on me about being aggressive, and it’s something that in Atlanta I was passive at times,” Jenkins admitted. “I’m trying to break out of that mode, and it’s been tough on me actually. A couple of times I felt like I’m taking bad shots. But to him, he said I’m a good shooter, so shooters shoot. I’m just adjusting to that and playing as hard as I can on defense, being solid and just being aggressive on offense.
“It’s been a huge challenge. I’ve gotten a lot more time at point guard now. It’s just getting everybody in the right position and getting everybody involved, and also trying to create for yourself. It’s a balance to it, and I’m still trying to learn it.”
First-round draft pick Justin Anderson is also trying to learn that balance while quickly adjusting to the NBA game.
Anderson was selected by the Mavericks with the 21st overall pick in June’s draft after averaging 12.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.7 assists during his junior season at Virginia. Anderson was named to the NABC All-America Third Team and All-ACC Second Team during his junior campaign after connecting on 46.6 percent from the field. However, the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder got off to a slow start in preseason while scoring just one point on 0-of-4 shooting in the loss to Denver.
The rookie was then thrown into the fire during Wednesday’s contest, scoring seven points and grabbing six rebounds while defending MVP runner-up James Harden. And after seeing Harden explode for 19 points, six rebounds and five assists in the first half of Wednesday’s contest, Carlisle admits that Anderson is still a work in progress.
“Look, if you’re going to learn to swim, you might as well get thrown in the deep water. And you’re going to have to learn quick, so he got some valuable experience and we’re going to have to help him. And again, he did some better things in the second half,” Carlisle said of Anderson’s progression.
Continuing to struggle shooting the ball while hitting just two of his eight shots from the field against the Rockets, Anderson says he’s learned to focus on impacting games in other ways when he can’t get the ball in the basket. With that said, the first-year pro has turned his attention to concentrating on defense and rebounding, looking to make a difference on the floor in the two areas where the Mavs struggled last season.
Receiving the support of Carlisle and his veteran teammates, Anderson admits that his confidence has grown during training camp and early in the preseason. And after defending one of the league’s most lethal scorers, Anderson hopes to continue learning on the fly.
“Yeah, it was a big challenge,” Anderson said after guarding Harden. “I didn’t know until right before the game, because you never know with preseason what guys are going to play and everything. But it was a big challenge for me, and I think I stepped up to the challenge. I came over to Coach one time after he hit a tough stepback and was like, ‘Wow, it was tough defense and even better offense.’ It was a good challenge, and I think I stepped up to it well.
“I’m just trying to take everything in and just take it in stride, keep going and keep pressing forward. I took a step in the right direction (Wednesday night) by being more aggressive, like I challenge myself to be, trying to get in the paint and trying to get out in transition a little bit. And then I’m also trying to affect the game in a different way defensively and rebounding, so I think I took a step in the right direction. You know, like I’ve always said, it’s with expectations. I understand what this is, and I understand what this is about. It’s an opportunity for me to learn every game, so the guys keep telling me to keep pressing forward.”