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Dorian Finney-Smith plays to change the game

After an injury-plagued sophomore season left him with an uncertain future, Dorian Finney-Smith has emerged as a leader on the Mavericks both on the court and in the locker room.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Dallas Mavericks Shane Roper-USA TODAY Sports

Standing barefoot in front of his locker, wearing the team’s official Nike sweats, Dorian Finney-Smith spoke with reporters after his worst shooting performance of the season.

Earlier that night, he connected on just one field goal in nine tries—good for a shooting percentage of .111—as the Dallas Mavericks held off a second half surge by the Brooklyn Nets to notch a 119-113 win, their eighth of the year. It was an uncharacteristic performance for Finney-Smith, but he wasn’t about to let it get him down.

“All I can do is go out here and shoot the ball when I’m open and put in the work” Finney-Smith said. “Guys trust that if I shoot, I’m going to make it. Even though I missed four [three-point attempts] tonight, everybody on the team kept telling me to shoot the next one. When you hear stuff like that, it’s just encouraging to stay aggressive.”

The confidence his teammates have in his shooting is earned. This season, Finney-Smith is averaging nine points on 48.2 percent shooting and 40.4 percent from behind the three-point line. What’s more is that he’s emerging as a leader on the team in just his third season. The media scrum that regularly surrounds his locker after games is a sign of his growing role.

A history of shooting struggles

Just a season ago, Finney-Smith’s career faced an uncertain future.

After going undrafted, Finney-Smith appeared in 81 games with the Mavericks as a rookie. He carved out a rotation spot as a role player and developed a reputation as a budding 3-and-D player. The only problem was the “3”. He finished the year shooting a meager 29.3 percent from deep. Fixing his shot, therefore, became a point of emphasis over the summer as he looked to improve heading into his second year. But by the time Summer League rolled around in 2017, his shot didn’t look any better.

“The mechanics, right now, aren’t really where Dorian is,” Summer League head coach Jamahl Mosley said at the time. “He’s trusting the process of each piece of what we’re giving him: keeping the ball in front, not pulling it behind the head. Those are the parts he’s concentrating on.”

Mosley reiterated time and again that he wasn’t worried about Finney-Smith’s shot eventually falling consistently as long as he stuck with the process the coaching staff laid out for him. However, that optimism appeared unfounded after a dreadful shooting performance in Las Vegas. He connected on only 12 of 53 shots—22.6 percent—during the Mavs’ six-game run in the desert. Making matters worse, he only shot 19.2 percent on three-pointers.

His shooting struggles weren’t a new development. Dating back to his time in college, Finney-Smith wasn’t known for his stability from deep. While he hit shots from behind the college arc at a good percentage, Billy Donovan, his head coach at the University of Florida who now coaches the Oklahoma City Thunder, had concerns about his transition to the pros.

“He was a good three-point shooter in college,” Donovan said. “He was a little bit sporadic, a little bit inconsistent. I was worried about him coming to the NBA and the line being deeper and how that would impact him.”

With his shot still not falling after Summer League, Finney-Smith’s sophomore season became even more important in terms of his development. If he was going to find success in the league, he needed to show improvement and he needed to show it soon. Early on, it looked like he was turning the page.

In a game against the Sacramento Kings, he came off the bench to score 14 points while knocking down three of his four shots from downtown. That would be his last significant game until the waning games of the season.

After playing 12 uneventful minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder on November 11, 2017 he was shut down due to tendinitis in his left knee. He didn’t see game action again until March 3, 2018, nearly four months later. The extended time away from the game took a toll on Finney-Smith, robbing him of a chance to alleviate concerns about his shooting and log crucial playing time.

Getting his groove back

Finney-Smith headed back to Las Vegas that summer for a third time, a rarity for players heading into their third season. This time, though, he was confident that the work he put in during and after his recovery would pay off.

“I mean, I don’t know how to calculate it but I feel like I’ve been shooting the ball pretty good lately,” Finney-Smith said prior to departing for Summer League. “I’ve been in the gym. I missed most of the year so I was just trying to get my form shooting good. I feel like I’m ready to go.”

He was. In the two games he played, Finney-Smith connected on 41.2 percent of his shot attempts as well as 30 percent of his 3-point tries. While those numbers are modest and the sample size is small, they were marked improvements from where he was a year earlier. If it wasn’t for his injury, though, he may have not had the opportunity to make many of the improvements to his game that have made him more than just a role player this season.

“Last year, it was rough missing damn near the whole year,” Finney-Smith said. “It was good for me to watch the game and get mentally ready to play. I got to see areas I could affect the game more just by watching. It made me appreciate the game a lot more. I appreciate working out a little bit more than I ever did in my life because I’ve never not played basketball. This was the first real injury.”

What he saw on film has helped him offensively. He simplified his approach, attacking the basket on a straight line, moving the ball a bit more, and spacing the floor by knocking down open looks from deep to keep defenders honest. Even with his improvements on offense, he knows that the reason he’s on the floor is to playing aggressive defense. That energy and intensity is part of his identity on the team.

“I think what Dorian has had to do this season—his ability to stay ready every single night has been one of the more impressive things I’ve seen,” Harrison Barnes said. “Regardless of which starter is out, I feel like he’s always been the guy that’s had to step up. He’s taking on tough defensive assignments almost every single night.”

So far, Finney-Smith has matched up with the likes of Zach LaVine, Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Townes, Paul George, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving for significant portions of games, adversely impacting their ability to score for the most part. He attributes a lot of what he’s learned on defense to the mentorship of Wesley Matthews. His efforts have also earned him repeated praise from his head coach.

“He has the ultimate respect of his teammates because he don’t say nothing,” Rick Carlisle said earlier this season. “He just goes out there and plays. And he plays unselfish and he plays to win. He plays to do the little things that generally guys don’t want to do in this league.”

* * *

Even though he speaks modestly, Finney-Smith has another persona. In the back of his locker, there’s a color picture of a tan pit bull printed on a piece of computer paper. The dog’s mouth is agape, frozen mid-bark, showing its teeth. It’s a ferocious, intimidating image that was given to him by assistant coach Larry Shyatt. While Finney-Smith has a pet pit bull, it’s not a picture of his dog. “That’s me, right there,” he said, looking at the picture after a recent game. It’s what the team needs him to be on the court.

The picture isn’t in his locker anymore, though. It’s taped to the wall under the locker room’s lone TV where the players watch film. It’s not just Finney-Smith that’s expected to embody the pit bull mentality anymore. “We need team full of those,” he said. The Mavericks showed that mindset after a recent contentious, back-and-forth 114-107 win over the Atlanta Hawks.

After the game, Finney-Smith again held court for the media in front of his locker. Weeks removed from his poor shooting performance against the Nets, he totaled 11 points on 57.1 percent shooting against the Hawks. More impressive, though, was his effort on both ends of the floor throughout the game, especially when tasked with guarding Trae Young.

He joked that he didn’t guard Young all that well, but it’s apparent that the Mavericks have come to rely on Finney-Smith and the energy he brings. It’s a big difference from where he was a season ago.

“Not being able to play basketball was a little shocking to me,” Finney-Smith said. “Physically, not being able to get up and down and compete—I missed competing. I just told myself, ‘Whenever I get back on the court, I’m going to make them feel me.’ That’s what I try to do every time I touch the court: change the game.”