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Yogi Ferrell made his case that he belongs in the NBA

Yogimania swept the NBA in 2017, but will it last?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Sacramento Kings Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Looking Back

I didn’t get the chance to write about Yogi Ferrell at length during last summer’s draft process, but I did mention him not once, but twice by name. He was one of about a half-million fringe draft prospects we were looking at, given that the Mavericks only had the 46th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. At the time, Ferrell had just wrapped up a very strong college career at Indiana, including three tournament appearances and a pair of trips to the Sweet 16.

Yogi signed with Brooklyn after going undrafted, played with their summer league team in Vegas, and then joined the Long Island Nets, where he played well enough to earn a D-League All-Star invite. He had to respectfully decline though, as he had an NBA gig at by then. When Jeremy Lin went down with an injury, Yogi got the call-up to the big club, but was unable to really distinguish himself on a dead-in-the-water team utterly bereft of talent. With Lin returning and Spencer Dinwiddie emerging, Brooklyn moved on.

That brought Yogi to Dallas. The Mavs were utilizing their own revolving door at point guard, with Yogi following Pierre Jackson from being out of the league and into the starting lineup. This baptism by fire proved to be exactly what Yogi needed to finally showcase his NBA skill set, and that he did, outplaying Kyrie Irving and the defending champion Cavs on the second night of a back-to-back before exploding a few days later on national TV for 32 points (and 9 threes) against the Portland Trail Blazers. Yogi-mania had arrived.

From the position of enjoying arguably the best 10-day contract in recent NBA history, Yogi’s regression to the mean afterward might have been something of a comedown, but considering that he was an undrafted rookie who joined a new team at midseason and was immediately tossed into the starting lineup, Yogi’s play was nothing short of remarkable. Yogi averaged a little over 11 points and 4 assists as a Mav, and shot over 40% from three. The only Maverick guard with a better offensive rating was breakout starter Seth Curry.

On defense, Yogi hounded opposing point guards, using his speed and deceptive strength to some effect, despite his small stature. Rick Carlisle made special note of Yogi after a game against the Clippers where Yogi took on All-World point man Chris Paul. This is perhaps where the Yogi comparisons to J.J. Barea are most apt, because Barea has made a career out of being a pest whose quick feet, strong base, and relentlessness irritates the other team’s ballhandler into making a mistake.

Contract Status

Yogi is one of several young players that Dallas has signed to a “multi-year deal” that actually represents no real commitment on the “multi” part. Ferrell has a team option for 2017-18 at a minimum salary of about $1.3 million. Like Dorian Finney-Smith, Jarrod Uthoff, and Nicolas Brussino, Yogi has a chance to make the roster and be a rotation guy next year, but Dallas could just as easily let him go, depending on how the draft and free agency play out.

Based on his play, the team’s public comments on him, and the current roster outlook, I’d say there’s a pretty decent chance he’s back next season, but if Dallas addresses the point guard position in the offseason as most expect, someone may be the odd man out. Devin Harris and J.J. Barea are well-liked veterans on team-friendly deals. Seth Curry may or may not play some point going forward. You may have heard the draft is flush with top end point guards, too. Plus, Dallas may try to check in on the asking price for upcoming free agents like Jrue Holiday, George Hill, and Jeff Teague. So nothing’s for sure right now.

Looking Forward

Assuming for the moment that Yogi is back, let’s unpack what he brings and what his upside is. Ferrell turns 24 next month (making him a full year older than Nerlens Noel), so by rookie standards he’s not especially young. Nevertheless, one can hope that with a full offseason program and training camp experience, there can be gains in his understanding of where and when to move the ball, which was lacking at times.

Yogi played a lot of pick and roll in Indiana, which gave me hope he’d excel in such a capacity with the Mavs, but I thought he struggled with his pace there. An energetic guy who has to leverage his quickness to compensate for a lack of height, Yogi often played “too fast,” getting to the wrong spot at the wrong time and forcing himself into making a snap decision. I saw a little bit of improvement as time went on, but more will be needed before we start making the J.J. Barea comparisons, as Barea is simply masterful with his timing in pick and roll. In a strategy very similar to the one he’s used for years with J.J., we saw Carlisle play Yogi almost exclusively with Dirk, which undoubtedly helped space the floor for him.

The most encouraging aspect of Yogi’s game, I think, is his shooting. He made over 40% from the college three his last three seasons in Indiana, and as I mentioned, hit that bar again from the extended NBA line as a rookie. He can be a little streaky, but when he gets going he can legitimately change games, as he did in his first Portland game, hitting big shot after big shot. He did a lot of damage pulling up for threes in transition, where his speed allows him to play from an instinctive position rather than a reactive one.

Defensively, you like his effort and toughness, but his size can be a major detriment against the wave of big point guards running around today’s NBA. Dallas defended better with him off the court, though the difference wasn’t necessarily staggering. As I said before, maybe the thing that surprised me most about Yogi was that he appeared stronger (and more athletic, frankly) than I expected, so I’m hoping that with some seasoning Yogi can be a better situational defender.

All in all, Yogi probably belongs in the NBA. Let’s see if he keeps it up.