The five years since winning the 2011 NBA Championship have been tumultuous for Mavericks fans. In an attempt to cobble together a playoff contender, Dallas has nearly exclusively focused on free agency as a means to improve the quality of the roster. The results have been mixed at best, with Dirk Nowitzki playing with over 60 different teammates over the last half decade.
The 2015 draft saw the Mavericks take Virginia forward Justin Anderson. After years of either not having a first rounder or taking risky players (Jared Cunningham, Shane Larkin), the drafting of Anderson was a breath of fresh air. By all accounts, he appeared to be a solid, if unspectacular, "three-and-D" prospect. Lacking a first rounder in the 2016 draft, the Mavericks selected A.J. Hammons from Purdue late in the second round. Despite his age, the Hammons pick was widely seen as a low risk/high reward move at that point in the draft.
When the Mavericks shifted strategy following the decisions of Hassan Whiteside and Mike Conley in free agency, these two draft picks have suddenly become very important to long term team building. When paired with the signing of 24 year old free agent Harrison Barnes, Dallas is in the middle of what could be considered a "youth movement" for the first time since the early 2000s. This shift in philosophy is important, particularly as the team attempts to stay competitive with Dirk Nowitzki while also preparing as best as possible for life without the greatest player in Dallas Mavericks history.
The shift resonates strongly at the moment as we watch Anderson, Hammons, and a few other roster hopefuls battle during Summer League in Las Vegas. Current Assistant General Manager for the Texas Legends Travis Blakeley helped put into context the goals in player development for a rotation hopeful like Justin Anderson:
"He's that guy showing energy and effort. The chase-down blocks or his commitment to the defensive side of things...it's not 'we're going to get you 20 shots' or 'we want to see you get 10 boards a game'. We're going to need that [defense and energy] with his spot minutes next year. Whether it's 10, 18, 22, minutes. With Anderson, what's nice is his defensive versatility, the 2, 3, or 4 in some situations. He's put on 12-15 pounds of lean muscle. What he's shown down here is not indicative of what you can expect statistically, but I think it's a fun catalyst, a jump start to his career as a Maverick who gets legitimate minutes next season."
That the Mavericks could rely on a second year player for important minutes feels strange to consider, given how many veterans have come in and out of Dallas recently. A combination of talent from Anderson paired with player development from both the Mavericks and the Legends have made his potential transition to rotation player exciting to consider.
Hammons is in a different position. With Andrew Bogut, Dirk Nowitzki, Salah Merji, and Dwight Powell, most of the big man minutes are accounted for on paper. That said, he's still expected to spend a fair amount of time with the Mavericks, while playing home games for the Legends when possible.
"The perception shouldn't be this kid is going to come in and be able to take 15 minutes," said Blakeley, "He's just not there. Most big men aren't unless you're a lottery pick. Big men rotations are so difficult to pick up and see the subtlety and the nuance of the pick and roll game and understand how to adjust, adapt, and find your angles."
Getting and keeping Hammons in shape will be paramount; after four years of Big 10 play he's clearly not yet ready for the pace of either the D-League or the NBA. Though Hammons has always been a traditional back to the basket player, his usage in the NBA will be very different. He'll be expected to clean up the glass on both ends of the floor, set hard screens, and dive to the basket.
Anderson and Hammons are the most visible players at the moment in Summer League, but the Maverick youth movement is surprisingly large. Harrison Barnes is just 24 and he'll get ample opportunity to prove himself considering he's now the highest paid player in Maverick history. Dwight Powell, Seth Curry, and Quincy Acy are all 25. Partially guaranteed players Dorian Finney-Smith and Nicolas Brussino are each 23.
Granted, not all of these players will end up on the final roster, but compared to years past where Richard Jefferson or Charlie Villanueva rounded out the roster, this season it should end up being a few of these lesser known, younger players with potential. Mining for untapped or underdeveloped players is key if the Mavericks want to attempt to stay competitive in the current NBA and in a post-Dirk world.
With where the Mavericks are as an organization, taking low risk chances on young players with unknown upside potential is a long overdue change of direction. Fans should be ready for an interesting ride next season.