clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Salah Mejri's 11-year journey to the NBA sets him apart from rookie class

New, comments

Mejri doesn't feel like a rookie, and as a 29-year-old who has played international basketball for years, who can blame him.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This week, SB Nation is hosting Rook Week, celebrating this year's excellent class of rookies. Check out all the stories from the theme week here.

Salah Mejri doesn't feel like a rookie. As a 29-year-old who has played professional ball for 11 years, how could he? But by strict definition, because he's playing in the NBA for the first time, Mejri has joined a 2015 NBA draft class that looks like one of the best in history.

Mejri's contributions this season have been small, briefly starting a couple games only to return to the bench when Zaza Pachulia was healthy again. But the brief stint was enough to prove to his teammates that he's a rookie in name only -- or, at the very least, it's a complicated title.

"I'm new here, so I'm a rookie, but not a rookie," Mejri told Mavs Moneyball. "I've played basketball for a long time for big teams, for Real Madrid, a big soccer team and big basketball team, too, so, like, nine European champions already won in soccer. So they're one of the biggest teams in the world. Talking about basketball teams, they're one of the best basketball teams outside of the NBA."

Mejri spent the last two seasons with Real Madrid, playing more than 100 games combined for the premier European club. In 2015, he surprisingly made the Mavericks' roster by beating out Samuel Dalembert for the final spot. It wasn't his first attempt, as Mejri worked out for the New York Knicks in 2012 then played summer league for the Utah Jazz. But this time, Mejri succeeded, breaking into the league where he'd like to stick around.

"I'd love to play as long as I can here in this league, to show it's not something impossible, even getting here at a late age of 29," Mejri said. "Lots of other people play 10 years and still don't get to the NBA."

Until Jan. 13, though, no one quite knew who this mystery Tunisian was. Against Oklahoma City, Rick Carlisle sat all five starters and inserted Mejri at the five, only to see him drop 17 points and nine rebounds in a game that was close for longer than anyone could have expected. Prior to then, Mejri had appeared in a couple D-League games, but those days quickly came to an end.

"I played the famous game against Oklahoma City, that was my first game for a lot of fans (seeing me), I had 17 and nine I think, blocked a few shots," Merji said. "They said, 'you're not a D-League player.' It gave me a lot of confidence."

That was a turning point for the "rookie," Mejri said: "I saw some of the guys talking about me, saying, 'he's there, he's ready to play, he can help this team,' so it was big for me, hearing these words from my own teammates and that gave me a lot of confidence to keep going."

A week later, Mejri played again against the Thunder, almost leading a frantic last minute comeback where he blocked both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. After the game, Mejri half-joked, half-bragged that he had "been there, done that" -- explaining he had already blocked Durant while playing for Tunisia in international play.

"It's always nice to block All-Star players, you know," Merji told me, remembering that game. "I got KD, I got James Harden, I got Russell Westbrook. KD, and Russell Westbrook, I got them twice, so it's nice. I'm looking forward to doing it. It's something good, it puts me in the game when I do it, puts the fans on fire, everybody likes it, you know?"

My interview came before the Mavericks played the Clippers, so I told Mejri that he'd earn plenty of love from Mavericks fans if he added DeAndre Jordan to that list. Mejri never got a chance, only entering the game when it had become garbage time. With the Mavericks riding a four-game losing streak, though, maybe minutes for the rookie-who's-not-really-a-rookie couldn't hurt.