The Dallas Mavericks, after a roller-coaster offseason, have assembled a deep, talented team with many new faces and thus a lot of questions about what to expect and who will play. There's no Deron Williams, and no Chris Paul(yet?), but that doesn't mean Dallas won't have an exciting backcourt, and the end of the Dallas bench contains a glut of young, athletic guards, most of whom are relatively unproven but are searching for an identity on this team and a chance to turn promise into production.
This should make training camp competition especially fierce, and while there is a great deal of potential variation in trying to project playing time, we try our best to give you a first look at what might be coming, as the Mavs Moneyball Player Preview series continues with 1st round pick in the 2012 Draft, Jared Cunningham.
Jared Cunningham, or J-Flight(and I hope the rookies get playing time if only so all these awesome nicknames can catch on), was taken with the 24th pick in the 2012 draft, out of Oregon State. As we discussed at the time with our friends over at Building the Dam, SB Nation's excellent Oregon State blog, the decision for Cunningham to enter the draft as a junior was a little surprising, as was his selection in the top 25 picks. Cunningham had flown under the radar a little bit at Oregon State, playing on a team that didn't get a tremendous amount of nationally televised face-time.
Dallas, holding the 17th pick in the draft, traded back with Cleveland, and with the 24th pick took Cunningham, who, according to Mavs sources, was the guy they wanted all along after Royce White had been taken at pick #16. Cunningham would miss the Las Vegas Summer League with hamstring problems, but has been reportedly active and motivated at the mandatory "voluntary" rookie workouts.
Cunningham's college numbers:
Some highlights of Cunningham's junior season at Oregon State:
The first thing that leaps out at you, and the first thing coach Rick Carlisle made note of in his evaluation of Cunningham, is the athleticism, with a striking combination of elevation and pure speed. A foul-drawing machine in college, it seems pretty reasonable to think he'll be able to get to the basket in the pros, a quality sorely lacking amongst Dallas' regular perimeter players since the days of Devin Harris. Cunningham, who checks in at 6'4, can and will play above the rim at the next level, and with his height and speed is capable of defending either guard spot.
Where the issues arise is exactly which spot will he play at the other end? Cunningham played off the ball in college, and even for a 2-guard his assist-turnover ratios are pretty mediocre, at best. Dallas has expressed an interest in converting him to the point guard position, comparing him to another uber-athletic Pac-12 guard who switched to the 1 in the NBA, Russell Westbrook, but Westbrook's A/TO numbers were far better. It's also worth noting a lot of these comments came in the period of limbo following the Deron Williams fallout, but before the acquisition of Darren Collison, and O.J Mayo, or the resigning of Delonte West. So, has the strategy on Cunningham changed now that there are more viable PG options in the fold?
Playing in the summer league could have helped a lot in our evaluation of Cunningham's ball skills and passing instincts, but we'll have to settle for the information we have. In the shortterm, you could maybe argue that Cunningham's development as a distributor is less important than how he develops as a shooter. Why? Well, look at who he'll be trying to beat out. Dominique Jones and Roddy Beaubois are very similar players. Similar age, similar athletic gifts, both combo-guards who maybe project best as scoring point guards, but all three have questions about their consistency shooting the ball. Beaubois, after a fabulous shooting rookie campaign, has regressed statistically in this area, while Jones has never demonstrated much competency from the outside at any stop.
Giving it the eyeball test, I'd say Cunningham has a better chance of becoming a legitimate outside threat than DoJo did. I'm not a shot doctor, but his technique is clearly more traditional, with a high, quick release(compare this to Beaubois's snakelike arms slowly uncoiling his shot from behind his head, or DoJo's near flat-flooted awkward shotput). The results were also better, as Cunningham shot 34.4% from the college three, and 75.4% from the free throw line(some say this is a better indicator of future shooting potential), compared to DoJo's 32.3% and 73.7%.
Another area Cunningham may be able to separate himself from Jones and Beaubois is on defense. Cunningham was twice selected to the Pac-12's All Defense team, and I think it's safe to say that if Carlisle signed off on this pick, that was a big reasaon why. While Beaubois has shown the ability to be a defensive playmaker at times, and possesses all the physical tools to be among the game's better defenders, it was clear there were points last season when Carlisle was unhappy with Roddy's effort level or general awareness on the court as a defender. If Cunningham comes in, works hard, and plays shut-down defense, he'll likely find his way onto the court eventually.
Expecting Cunningham to be a major factor as a rookie is probably not terribly practical. At the most, I think we might see a time arrangement similar to the one Roddy benefitted from as a rookie. If the athleticism translates, he can come in and be a difference maker as an attacking scorer and end-to-end defender, but he'll need to learn the "be ready" mantra of the Dallas Mavericks, because playing time will likely be sporadic. Even if he starts, as Roddy did a few times, it will probably be due to injury or simply a need to switch things up, and starting won't mean he gets the bulk of the minutes in crunch time. All this is predicated on Cunningham being 100% healthy, and that his development shooting and defending outpaces that of fellow youngsters like DoJo and Roddy, and that will still put him into the position of fighting for burn with polished vets like Delonte West and Dahntay Jones.
At the end of the day, when I think about Cunningham, I just go back to something that, as a Mavs fan, I'm appreciative of. There is a process here, with this team and this organization, and I think it starts with the coach. Rick Carlisle has just signed a new deal. He is locked up. He has much, much more job security than any player not named Dirk Nowitzki. He's also very good at his job, and he has Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson's complete trust. What does that mean? It means that if someone out there isn't carrying their weight, or if they're not playing up to their perceived potential, then they're not playing. We saw it with Lamar Odom last year, and I think two years ago we saw it with Brendan Haywood. You do your job, you play. You don't, go sit on the bench. That message will be communicated to all 15 guys, whether they're rookies or ten year veterans. So, in short, it means nobody is going to take minutes from Jared Cunningham who doesn't deserve to, and vice versa.