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Salah Mejri's surprising season gave the Mavericks a defensive boost

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The 29-year-old rookie from Tunisia wasn't on most people's radar to start the year but ended up giving the Mavericks the defensive presence in the paint they needed.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back

There were zero expectations for Salah Mejri before the season started. Zero. Zilch. None. He was a foreign find that most expected to be a training camp body and nothing more. Even when Mejri beat out Samuel Dalemderp Dalembert for the final center spot on the roster, we mostly assumed Mejri would lag behind Zaza Pachulia and Dwight Powell.

That's how the season went, for the most part. Mejri played 20 total minutes prior to a mid-January game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. With the Mavs resting practically half the roster, Mejri got the start to just soak up the minutes (and the blood) while the Thunder bludgeon the Mavs for about 48 minutes. While the Thunder did win easily, Mejri had a monster game -- 17 points and nine rebounds on 7-of-8 shooting.

He vanished from the lineup again before returning in the Mavs next game against the Thunder. Needing a spark, Rick Carlisle went to Mejri, who got two blocks in just eight minutes of play. He rallied the Mavs to get the game close before losing but there was starting to be something to this Mejri guy because every time he got put on the floor he blocked shots and the Mavs defended like hell.

As Pachulia crumbled as the season wore on, Carlisle went back to Mejri again as a starter. In back-to-back games against Portland during the Mavs hellacious stretch of games in March, he posted back-to-back double-doubles and blocked nine shots combined in the two games.

Carlisle never really did trust Mejri all the way despite that, but it was clear -- Mejri was the unconventional answer to the Mavs glaring center problem. Mejri did things that Pachulia physically couldn't even when he was going well at the start of the season. Mejri was an excellent rim protector, a pretty good pick and roll defender and could run a pick and roll on the other end well enough -- esepcially when he shared the floor with Dirk Nowitkzi. The biggest difference basically boiled down to this: Mejri could block shots and finish above the rim. Pachulia couldn't.

In the playoffs, Mejri got 19 minutes a game but Carlisle failed to pair him with fellow defensive stalwarts Justin Anderson and Wes Matthews enough, mainly due to the injuries that crippled the Mavs offense. Mejri had his problems for sure (lack of strength allowed him to get pushed around by bigs and guards who attacked his body) but he was far and away the best rim protector on the roster. Players could not hit shots at the rim against Mejri for most of the year.

Contract status

Mejri will be entering the second year of his three-year, $2.4 million deal. The next two seasons aren't guaranteed as well. Mejri is an absolute steal at that price, even if he stays at the level he showed this past season. Don't expect him to go anywhere unless the Mavs somehow hit some power fantasy and need to make room to bring in some max guys.

Looking forward

How does "2016 starting center Salah Mejri" sound to you? Because Mavs reporters have caught wind that's what Mark Cuban wants. What Cuban wants, Cuban gets. Mejri wouldn't be awful as a starter with another full training camp to get stronger, be more comfortable at the NBA-level but it'd certainly be a disappointment considering the options available this summer with Dwight Howard, Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford and even Ian Mahinmi.

But considering the Mavs aren't going to get one of those big-name guys unless something crazy happens (Dwight's value tanks, for instance), it wouldn't be such a bad idea for the Mavs to load up on gettable wings and have Mejri start. He's capable of being an elite rim defender and did it in his limited bursts this season -- so long as scouting reports and the rest of the league doesn't catch up to him. No matter what, Mejri will be in Dallas for the next two seasons barring something crazy and the Mavs at least have him to count on hopefully improving while they tinker elsewhere on the roster. It's hard to call a 29-year-old a building block but the Mavs have something good in Mejri.

Additional reading

  • When Mejri started back-to-back games against Portland, he showed off his true potential as a dominant rim protector and capable roll man.
  • It sounds like bizarro world just typing this but the Mavs counted on two rookies to get them to the playoffs this season. Even more surprising -- they delivered.
  • Look, I had no idea who Mejri was when the Mavs signed him. Luckily, Alan Smithee sorta did and gave us a good breakdown of what to expect when he officially made the roster.
  • You don't think of Tunisia as a basketball hotbed, but this piece talks about how they're staying up to watch Mejri play.