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What the end of the bench can do to find playing time

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With the Mavericks having eyes on major improvement this season, players at the end of the bench will have to find ways to lock in a rotation spot.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

We haven’t even hit training camp and it’s already hard to not start looking ahead. It all feels so close, so within reach. So pardon us as we start getting slightly ahead of ourselves. It’s just...Dirk & DSJ & Luka & Barnes & Wes & DJ. We can’t help it. You get it.

The Mavericks only just recently officially announced their training camp roster, though we knew the names a while ago. And with camp and preseason games still to come, any number of roster decisions could still be on the horizon. But for now, what does seem clear is the Mavericks have five starters (our guess would be Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Luka Doncic, Harrison Barnes and DeAndre Jordan), and four players returning from last season’s deadly bench mob (J.J. Barea, Devin Harris, Dwight Powell and Dirk Nowitzki). Nine players that should form the core of Rick Carlisle’s rotation.

But as we all know, the Great Bald Wizard likes to use a deep bench, even when health isn’t an issue. That means there are minutes out there for the taking from guys at the end of the roster. So what should they focus on to lock in some time on the floor?

The Rooks (not named Luka Doncic)

JALEN BRUNSON: In the post-draft press conference, the Mavericks made it clear that they were prioritizing intelligent, team-minded players with a habit of winning when they selected both Doncic and Brunson. Few players drafted this year were as accomplished in their previous stops than these two. Brunson is very much a Carlisle player, despite our feelings about the other options on the board in the early second round. His toughness and catch-and-shoot ability combined with his basketball IQ should win coaches and teammates over.

For Brunson to lock in consistent court time he should focus on the other end of the floor. He’s never shied away from using his compact frame to body up opposing players. But being undersized with average athleticism, there will be an adjustment period. Brunson’s lucky to learn behind a feisty small veteran guard in Barea, who’s entering an astonishing 13th season in the league. Though the Puerto Rican point guard isn’t a shut down defender, he has found ways to be a disruptor on the perimeter — getting up in to guys, and fighting through screens to create some chaos. Brunson needs to harness a similar energy. If he does, the reigning Wooden Award and National Player of the Year will see the floor.

RAY SPALDING: There hasn’t been much word on his summer from the Mavs themselves, but he could be a sneaky interesting storyline through camp; even getting a mention in this Bleacher Report piece this week. He’s springy and long, with classic screen-and-dive ability — grabbing all the lobs around the rim. Defensively he’s quietly great switching away from the basket, and has a nose for creating turnovers.

Spalding’s first major block to finding playing time is the log jam at the four and five positions. He’s behind Barnes (and maybe Doncic), Powell, Dirk, Jordan, and maybe even Maxi Kleber and Salah Mejri. But Spalding can hone in on a few things to open up opportunity. The best way for any young big man to find playing time on most teams, and especially under Carlisle, is to focus on hustle, defense and rebounding. Some of these things are already assets in Spalding’s game, but establishing early on that he’s capable will make a strong impression.

Finally, improving his jump shot would be a bonus. Carlisle won’t be looking for Spalding to be a scorer, especially away from the basket. But it’s an area he needs to improve. Yes, there are Spalding summer workout videos, just like every other player on this planet. All good things. But Spalding still needs to prove that he’s not the player that shot 39 percent in the mid-range last season, and is a career 24 percent three point shooter, if he wants to expand his game and solidify playing time. It’s a similar state that Dwight Powell found himself in trying to carve out a role in Dallas. Ultimately he just focused on being an elite roll man. Something that Spalding should be able to do as well.

The Restricted Free Agents

Next summer the Mavericks will have plenty of roster decisions to make from top to bottom. They’ve given themselves plenty of flexibility. They’ll have opportunity to sign players to major contracts, but just as important they’ll need to make decisions on some younger players who still need to prove they’re worth an extension.

MAXI KLEBER: Last season was dreadful, but a nice on again off again surprise came in the form of a young big man from Wurzburg. No one knew much about Kleber, or what to expect of his transition to the NBA. But notching 36 starts over 72 games, even on a bad team, isn’t an awful way to kick off a career. Kleber showed surprising athleticism, solid rebounding and shot blocking, and occasionally the ability to knock down an open three.

But really, this is just the beginning. Kleber will be part of that log jam in the post positions. And with the Mavs’ plan/hopes of being a mildly competitive team this season, it can be easy for guys like Kleber to get lost in the shuffle. Proving that he has some staying power, and can be a reliable contributor in short bursts on a far more competent team will make or break next summer for Kleber. The aforementioned jump shot is really where Maxi could set himself apart from many of the big men on this roster.

DORIAN FINNEY-SMITH: The conundrum of DFS will add its third chapter this season. On the one hand the undrafted wing was another in a long list of diamonds in the rough the Mavs have found. On the other, outside of nagging injuries, Finney-Smith has done little to show he can improve his massive weakness. Primarily his three point shot. It’s hard to call DFS a “Three-and-D” player at this point.

Lucky for him, the Mavs are in desperate need of depth at the small forward position, with only a few bench players capable of filling that role. And because Finney-Smith has proven to be a capable, even sometimes elite defender, he will find ways to get playing time. But in a system that needs an army of shooters, especially with DSJ and Doncic out there to find open men in the corners, DFS must find a way to improve his shot. After 102 NBA games, plus three stints in summer league, his career 29 percent shooting from three is holding him back.

The New Guy

RYAN BROEKHOFF: The loss of Doug McDermott this summer was upsetting for many. He looked to be a perfect piece of the puzzle for the Mavs. And though he was more expensive than some expected, he seemed a logical piece to retain for a team looking to make massive improvements this season. It’s possible that Ryan Broekhoff could be McBuckets 2.0 (McBruckets? we’ll workshop it).

The Australian wing, who played college ball at Valparaiso (career 12 points, six rebounds, shooting 40 percent from three), was another one of those out of left field signings the Mavs have made for several off seasons. The 28 year old has played five pro seasons of basketball, shooting 44 percent from three. His greatest task this season will be adjusting to the pace of NBA play at both ends of the floor. And finding small ways to contribute to the flow of the game. If he can acquit himself there and be the sharpshooter the Mavs need off the bench, he should find time in the rotation.