There's not much positive to look at regarding the Mavericks right now. They're in a tailspin, a game below .500 and clinging to a playoff spot while their second-best player is out for the season and could be looking at his second knee surgery in as many years.
Beside Dirk Nowitzki turning the clock back to 2006 and straight murdering the league in March like he did when he was 27, perhaps the best thing to look at on the Mavs is a 29-year-old rookie center from Tunisia.
Salah Mejri is the damn truth. It doesn't sound any less stranger the more I say it or write it.
I've watched him all year and I've looked at his numbers and it doesn't get any easier to process, but it's true. The dude can play. It's to the point where I wonder if the Mavs have already locked up their starting center for next season. That is, in itself, a ludicrous statement. Is Mejri that good in his minutes this year or is the Mavericks roster such a demonic hellscape nightmare that any capable body looks like a centerpiece? A little column A, a little column B. With Parsons out for the rest of the season, the Mavs have to trot out a big lineup. Why not find out if he's for real in the meantime?
Let's cut to the chase -- Mejri has been a fantastic rim protector in his limited time so far. Not an average one. Not even just a good one. A FANTASTIC ONE. That probably isn't much of a shock, considering Mejri's gaudy block numbers this season (Mejri has more blocks than Zaza this season despite playing almost 1,500 minutes less than him. 1,500!). The great thing is Mejri's block totals aren't a mirage.
There's a big difference between being a good shot blocker and being a good rim protector. An example of the former is JaVale McGee. Yes, McGee is a breathtaking athlete and a tremendous shot blocker -- he's averaging 2.6 blocks per game per 36 minutes. However, he is not a good rim protector. Mejri is. On the year, players shoot 57.3 percent at the rim when McGee is the defender, per NBA.com's stats page. Mejri is at 39.3 percent. That's why McGee is inactive and Mejri is the Mavericks new starting center.
In Mejri's last two starts, teams are shooting 4-of-20 (20 percent) against him at the rim. Those two starts were against Portland, a high-flying offensive team that loves its jumpers but between Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum love slash into the paint as well. There wasn't even a surprise factor involved -- Portland was 1-of-10 at the rim against Mejri in the first game on Sunday and 3-for-10 in the loss on Wednesday night. Point is, Portland had a good two days to prepare and still got stonewalled by Mejri.
The best part about Salah is he goes about his rim protecting in an elite way. He doesn't just block shots out of bounds -- he's smart about his positioning and when to contest and when to stay floor bound. There's a ton of noise for rim protectors to have to cancel out -- teams setting picks as misdirection, herky-jerky ball handlers in pick and rolls -- yet Mejri finds a way to stay on point and not get lost in distractions. That's HUGE for being an elite rim protector in today's NBA.
Just look how Mejri is able to recover on this drive to force a pass and still be in position to make the block.
With all due respect to Zaza Pachulia, he can't come close to making that play. Mejri's combination of timing and length gives him an athletic advantage that lets him make the plays the Pachulia's body physically can't, even though Pachulia's positioning and mind is usually in the right place.
Another great aspect of Mejri's defense is he seems to be a solid pick and roll defender, walking the tightrope of showing against the ball handler but still being within range to cover the roll man. He's not perfect, of course. He's a 29-year-old rookie. But he makes more positive plays in those situations than negative ones so far and he does something really, really well -- block shots but keep them in play.
That's definitely something McGee can't comprehend.
Even with all the great defensive fundamentals Mejri has brought, perhaps my favorite aspect of his game is the dude oozes swag and takes no shit.
"I know what I can do. I know I can help this team," Mejri said. "I can do things like no one on this team can do like blocking shots, bring energy to the game.
"So the coach [has] to believe in me, [has] to give me some more minutes. I know he [does] believe in me, but we have a lot of big men here â they're all more experienced than me â so I don't blame him or nothing."
Sometimes that confidence leads him to block a shot that isn't there -- a big, nasty habit that a lot of young shot blockers (and even veteran ones) still struggle with. Overextending and reaching for a block you have no shot at just handicaps a defense tremendously, the same as an all-or-nothing gamble for a steal in the passing lane leaves a defense compromised and essentially playing 4-on-5 for a pass or two.
Luckily, that's not a habit that's hampered Mejri's duties at the rim. It's something he needs to work on, but it doesn't cripple his game like it does to McGee. Mejri has shown patience when guarding the rim, allowing his go-go-gadget arms and positioning to protect the rim instead of his jumping ability.
That still doesn't always guarantee success. Mejri is rail-thin and at times in Wednesday night's loss, you could see Lillard get a bit more comfortable attacking the body of Mejri to push him back and finish by him. Another year and off-season in an NBA weight room could certainly help there.
On offense, Mejri is ... fine. He isn't the threatening pick-and-roll diver the Mavs offense desperately needs next to Dirk and Chandler Parsons, but he's long enough and sets good enough screens that he can cut hard enough to the basket and finish over and through defenders. He has a decent enough touch that allows him to flip in jump hooks but Mejri still needs to work on finishing with an NBA defender near him -- he was just 5-of-10 on Wednesday on contested field goals and all of them are near the basket.
Still, he provides much more juice than Zaza ever could, simply because his length and athleticism allows him to finish easier.
You can see how spreading the floor with four shooters and Mejri can lead to productive offense, so long as Dirk is on the floor. Don't confuse Mejri with DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond or Dwight Howard, but he's definitely productive enough on that end to keep him on the floor for his defense. Mejri will never be a centerpiece of a pick-and-roll offense like Tyson Chandler or Brandan Wright could but so long as he has shooters around him, he should remain productive. Like I said, it's fine.
The question now remains -- how long can he keep this up? Mejri's still only played 261 minutes this season, a super small sample to judge from. He's still relatively new on NBA scouting reports and he hasn't had consistent burn all season. It's hard to judge whether this can last over a grueling 82-game stretch, especially if he doesn't bulk up as guards find ways to power through him at the rim.
He's on the books till 2018. With the NBA free agent centers this summer outside of Al Horford, Howard and Hassan Whiteside looking grim, you can definitely squint and see a way where the Mavs build around a small-ball core of Parsons, Wes Matthews, Dirk and (insert free agent wing players here) while Mejri can be a spot starter and soak up the center minutes when needed.
I'm not sure I'm totally on board with that, as Dirk continues to age. I like the idea of small-ball Dirk as a weapon rather than the starting lineup you're going to roll out every game. Regardless, I'm all about the Mavs just getting talent in here first and figuring out the lineups latter. The Mavs can't afford to look at free agent wings like Kent Bazemore, Harrison Barnes and Nicolas Batum and shrug because they already have Matthews on board and want to bring Parsons back. Just bring talent in here.
Perhaps Mejri helps. Perhaps he's the center the Mavericks have been searching for since DeAndre snubbed them last summer. There's definitely some substance to go along with Mejri's style that gives me hope he can be a longer-term building piece -- I'm just not sure how long it's going to last.