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Dorian Finney-Smith is a diamond in the rough

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A desire to learn and keep improving has made the rookie an important part of the Mavs’ rotation.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into this season, Dorian Finney-Smith was an afterthought. An undrafted rookie who made a lackluster summer league appearance wasn’t supposed to make a splash on a team full of veterans hoping to make a playoff run with an aging superstar. Circumstances, however, changed all of that quickly. Now, Finney-Smith is a key member of the Dallas Mavericks as they slog through a season that unraveled.

Finney-Smith got his first chance to show his worth when Rick Carlisle inserted him into a game against the Milwaukee Bucks. He impacted the game almost instantly. His play helped swing the game in the Mavs’ favor, allowing them to get their first win of the season.

“Look, it’s tough,” Carlisle said at the time. “[Finney-Smith] hadn’t played much at all except a little bit of clean-up time. Tonight he got a taste of what it’s all about. He’s earned himself some minutes here. I’m happy for him. Frankly, we couldn’t have won the game without him.”

Since then, Finney-Smith has seen his role on the team continue to grow. He’s started in 18 games as of December 18 and has recently been playing his best basketball.

He set a career high in scoring with 11 points in a win against the Chicago Bulls earlier in December. Then, two games later, he bested that, scoring 12 against the Indiana Pacers in another win. Then again, two games after that, he dropped 13 points in a win over the Denver Nuggets. The games against the Pacers and Nuggets were also his best rebounding efforts of the season, with eight and nine, respectively. Then, on Sunday against the Sacramento Kings, he bested himself again, hitting a new career high with 17 points.

“I’m shooting the ball with confidence and just trying to get every ball,” Finney-Smith said humbly after beating the Nuggets. “That’s pretty much it.”

He has reason to remain humble despite his improved play. He’s still a rookie and has a lot to learn if he wants to stay in the NBA for the foreseeable future. Right now, he’s doing everything he needs to do to make that happen.

“If you want to do it and you focus on it, you get better a lot faster,” Mark Cuban said of a player’s defensive learning curve when coming into the league. “Most guys don’t put that emphasis on defense. Doe-Doe does. He deserves a lot of credit for doing it.”

Doe-Doe is Finney-Smith’s nickname.

Cuban went on to say that Finney-Smith studies other teams’ offensive sets, neuroanalytics, and “takes advantage of every tool that we have.” He also compared him to players like Marquis Daniels, Josh Howard, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd in the way he focuses on improving defensively.

While he can’t ask those players for advice, a resource that Finney-Smith has been turning to is Wesley Matthews.

“He’s teaching me where to be, how to get through screens, what a person likes to do,” Finney-Smith said of Matthews’ tutelage.

It’s no wonder that he would look to Matthews for guidance. He’s the best perimeter defender on the team and one of the best in the league. Beyond that, Matthews is a willing teacher.

“Wes imparts a lot of knowledge about player tendencies,” Rick Carlisle said of Finney-Smith learning from Matthews. “Things that officials tend to call, tend not to call. He imparts showing your hands. There are probably 10 different defensive situations that great defenders are dealing with constantly. Mid-pick and roll when the guy is coming at you 100 miles per hour, guys coming out of the corner off multiple stagger screens, when you have to go over the top of [screens] and when you can gap those slightly. There’s a lot of subtle things.

“Wes is a great guy for any young player to spend time with. His mind is a computer when it comes to defense. And offense, too. He’s a very smart player on offense. But defensively, he’s one of the very best.”

While Finney-Smith is utilizing everything the Mavericks have to offer to get better, perhaps the most important thing he is getting is playing time.

“Dorian has been doing better positioning, understanding how to position himself to step into shots, have vision, have rhythm, and read defenders that are flying out at him,” Carlisle said of the knowledge Finney-Smith is gaining through experience. “The more of that stuff he gets, the better he’ll do.”

One of the biggest adjustments for Finney-Smith, besides the talent gap between college and the NBA, is changing positions.

“He played mostly at the 4 position [in college],” Carlisle said. “Here, he’s playing the 3 and some at the 4. And when you go from 4 to 3 it’s always harder. You’re guarding guys with a more honed skill set. They’re faster, they’re smaller, they attack more. Generally, they just have a different kind of aptitude than the guys that are inside banging. It’s much more challenging.”

Finney-Smith has risen to the challenge, however, and guarded some of the marquee players in the league.

If there is a concern with Finney-Smith, it’s his offense. He’s shooting 42.3 percent this season and 35.6 percent on three-pointers. His numbers are improving, though. In his last nine games, coinciding with his career-high scoring outbursts, he’s shooting 51.7 percent overall and 45.7 percent from behind the arc.

“He’s working hard on his shooting,” Carlisle said after the game against the Nuggets. “The three-point shot is going to be a very important element to his game. Right now, he’s a 3-and-D guy that’s got to be able to make some simple plays, tonight he did those things.”

For now, Finney-Smith will have to rely on his defensive prowess. It’s the reason the Mavs gave him a contract and the reason he continues to see minutes. The rest of his game will catch up eventually.

“He’s a defensive guy,” Carlisle said. “He’s wired as a defender by nature, and he gets really upset when he gets beat on a play. It’s pretty easy to see that out there. He’s a very productive member of this team because he is so consistent at the defensive end.”

Coming into this season, Finney-Smith was going to be a bench warmer. But through a string of unfortunate and unexpected injuries, he’s emerged as an important part of the starting lineup. No one could have predicted his rise but the Mavs are certainly better for it. They’ve found a diamond in the rough.