Yogi’s a Maverick: The player behind YogiMania is here to stay

Give Yogi Ferrell credit: He took advantage of the opportunity, and that might be an understatement.

The 23-year-old rookie averaged 17.2 points, 5.0 assists, and 1.8 steals per game in five appearances for the Mavericks on his 10-day contract, a collection of performances that could very well go down as the greatest audition in NBA history. Ferrell led the Mavericks — yes, led, in many ways — to a 4-1 record during the deal, including outscoring Kyrie Irving in a win against Cleveland and hitting an NBA rookie record-tying nine 3s in a win at Portland.

His 10-day deal expired today, and he immediately put pen to paper to become a Maverick for the rest of this season and, reportedly, next season as well.

With Deron Williams and J.J. Barea both out for the entirety of Ferrell’s contract, the rookie had the chance to instantly step into the starting point guard spot on a team full of veterans, running pick-and-rolls with perhaps the most point guard-friendly big man in the history of the NBA. Ferrell seized that opportunity and never looked back.

But why has he fit in so seamlessly? What is it about his game that has seemed to blend so well with the rest of the Mavs roster, particularly the starters? Is #YogiMania a flash in the pan or is there more substance to this guy than some might think?

Jump back in time to Saturday, Jan. 28. Ferrell arrived to American Airlines Center at 8 a.m. to meet with Rick Carlisle and the coaching staff. His assignment: Learn the entire playbook and the team’s complicated defensive scheme within the next six hours, before the Mavericks would catch a flight to San Antonio to take on the Spurs the next night.

Ferrell must have made an impression, because right away Carlisle publicly praised his basketball IQ, saying he learned quicker than just about any other player he’s ever coached. That’s steep praise from a guy who coached Jason Kidd.

With just under three minutes left in the first quarter of Ferrell’s debut, the rookie caught a pass in the corner late in the shot clock and, instead of shooting an open 3, swung the ball up to the wing. Harrison Barnes ended up taking an off-balance desperation mid-range shot off the dribble, and the Spurs gathered the rebound, raced down the floor, and scored to tie the game at 21. Carlisle called a timeout.

On his way back to the bench, Ferrell looked up and Carlisle got his attention, telling him, “If you’re open, shoot it.”

On the surface that seems like something that doesn’t need to be said to an NBA player. You have to remember, though, Ferrell was in his first game as a point guard for the Mavericks, surrounded by veteran players who are paid handsomely to shoot the ball.

Therein lies the first challenge Ferrell had to overcome on his 10-day deal. Forget about adjusting to the speed of the game — he’d already played half a season of pro ball in the D-League at an All-Star level. It wasn’t his first NBA game — he knocked that out of the way earlier in the season with Brooklyn. On a short-term deal like that, you’ve got to balance playing within the system with impressing those around you, and sometimes that means scoring. Ferrell did plenty of that at Indiana, scoring more than 17 points per game as a senior en route to All-American honors. But weighing that correctly at the NBA level is a different challenge.

“It’s a little tough,” Ferrell admitted later, “but I’ve got to kind of stick to my strengths, too.”

Later in that game, Ferrell would hit two free throws to ice the game, ending with nine points, seven assists, and no turnovers. The next night, he scored 19 points against the Cavs, one more than Kyrie Irving scored against him. Four nights later, he’d become the first Mavs rookie to score 30 points in a game in seven years.

Lesson learned. Need him to score? He can do that.

Highlights: Yogi Ferrell ties an NBA rookie record

Yogi tied the NBA rookie record with nine three-pointers against the Trail Blazers Friday night.

There’s where he fits in with the Mavericks. Ferrell is more of a J.J. Barea kind of player than Deron Williams, in that he’s at his best in the spread pick-and-roll with the space and freedom to attack the basket when possible. Williams, meanwhile, is a bigger-bodied guard who can punish smaller players in the post or shoot over them on the outside. But while Barea had exceptional quickness earlier in his career and developed a craftier game as he aged, Ferrell has speed and burst that Barea — and, frankly, many other NBA point guards — never possessed.

That poses problems for defenses, especially when Ferrell is playing next to Dirk Nowitzki at center. Dirk pulls the opponent’s big man 25 feet from the basket, leaving little rim resistance. Meanwhile, the Mavs space the floor better than just about any NBA team, making it difficult for anyone to offer help as Ferrell roars toward the rim. This will look familiar to those who remember watching the Mavericks during the 2013-14 season, when Nowitzki and Monta Ellis partnered to produce points at an absurd rate for 82 games. Even the best defenses have yet to catch up with the difficulties of stopping pure 5-out basketball, where every player can both shoot and put the ball on the floor and make a play, whether it’s a pull-up jumper, a drive to the rim, or making another pass.

Why is he so dangerous downhill? Let’s say the defense does commit to stopping him. The rookie’s got the vision to pass out of unfriendly situations, too, and he can mix in some hesitation dribbles to force the opponent’s hand.

Ferrell can breeze past almost any center in the NBA with ease. In the play above, once he got into the paint, all he needed to do was look off the helping Al-Farouq Aminu read Harrison Barnes’ man. Once he committed to Ferrell, and not to Barnes, Ferrell mixed in a ball-fake and delivered a bounce pass to Barnes for a layup.

His little hesitation was important there, and not only because it helped him on that particular play. Some fast point guards can only play at one speed, but you don’t need to go 100 miles an hour all the time. Sometimes slowing it down and changing speeds can knock defenses off-balance even more than a sprint to the bucket. Ferrell has demonstrated that he can go slow.

He’s also demonstrated that he can flat-out blaze.

Ferrell Brings The Effort

Yogi Ferrell chases down the loose ball and jumps into the crowd to the fans' delight.

The Mavs’ starting lineup alongside Ferrell during his run — Seth Curry, Wesley Matthews, Barnes, and Nowitzki — has produced 116.4 points per 100 possessions in 71 minutes together, against just 98.8 points allowed. Ferrell has shown some chops as a capable, pesky defender, also in a similar vein as Barea. That group has taken good care of the ball, as well, for the most part, maintaining an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.24-to-1.

Both Ferrell and Curry can handle the ball, run pick-and-roll, and make plays both for themselves and their teammates. Both can shoot the 3, and both can finish at the basket despite their smallish size. Meanwhile, Barnes and Nowitzki can both create their own shot, and Matthews has improved at creating for himself and for others as the season has gone on, too. All of a sudden, the Mavericks have a pretty complete offensive starting lineup.

Once Williams returns, and that could be soon, it will be interesting to see what happens to the rotation. Needless to say, Ferrell will still continue to get minutes, even if it means coming off the bench. There are always minutes available for guys who help a team.

The Mavericks have found plenty of them this season, too. Ferrell, Curry, Barnes, and Dorian Finney-Smith have all been new, major contributors to this team, and amazingly three of them weren’t even drafted. Ferrell won’t turn 24 until May, Curry is only 26, Barnes is 24, and Finney-Smith is 23.

Ferrell has come out of nowhere and impressed right away. He took advantage of his opportunity. Now, the Mavericks have given him the chance to impress for another season. Let’s see what he does with this one.