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Scouting the Dallas Mavericks X-factors

New, and old, faces are being challenged to master their skillsets

There are a number of players on the Mavericks who have opportunities that will challenge them to advance past what they’ve done for the team in prior years. There are also new faces whose potential is somewhat unknown. We all know who Luka is and what he will do, same for the Bang Bros. Elsewhere on the roster, the fortunes of the season can turn on these x-factors.

The returning players and the ball handler question

Frank Ntilikina

The two returning players whose role will most change are both being challenged to be ball handlers and creators. Of the two, Ntilikna has actual experience running plays. What’s concerning is that he’s never done it well. He simply doesn’t have the combination of burst and handle to penetrate and create advantages; he is not a bad passer, but also not an inventive one, and it’s hard to weaponize passing without breaking a defense down. His lack of self-creation as a scorer allows defenders to sag off, leaving him without the ability to manufacture assists.

The challenge with Frank is that he doesn’t have composure and good process when initiating, so it often ends in turnovers and wasted possessions. His defense is legitimately lights out (as we saw against the Suns), and he’s still only 24. A 3-D guard/wing hybrid with a semi-dependable shot lurks in his range of outcomes, the same way players like Bruce Brown and Gary Payton II bloomed late their as shooting came along, but those players still rarely earn initiation reps.

Josh Green

Green has similar issues as Ntilikina, except without experience running sets. He’s not much of a dribbler; while he’s a canny cutter and sees the court well, that doesn’t help him as much on-ball. He does have real burst and athleticism, but it hasn’t been functional when attacking the basket; he looks positively flummoxed by a center between him and the rim. Green has real inventiveness as a passer, so secondary action off advantages created by others should be a strength. He’s wild, but the intent is there, and if the Mavericks were to ever run more, he’d be a beneficiary, as he would in an offense with heavier motion and cutting (I’ve often thought Green would make a useful Warrior).

The creativity could be developed into something more controlled; he’s still young, and ingenuity can’t be taught. A fair expectation would be for him to turn the ball over less and consistently make the right play. Defensively, there is a lot of potential, based partly off his college tape. His hips swivel faster than most NFL corner backs, with quick feet to match. At Arizona he frequently swallowed collegiate star guards on switches. He’s also both physical and aggressive, and playing with force is a real skill. He fouls a lot and occasionally looks lost, and he isn’t a true big wing who can man up a Jayson Tatum, but he’s still young enough that there is defensive upside.

The new rotation pieces

Christian Wood

Wood will likely do a lot of what Kristaps Porzingis did, but with more rim running oomph. He isn’t just a “stretch big”, but a legitimately good shooter for any position. That skillset is perfect to play alongside Luka as long as the diet is spot ups and at-rim attempts. Too often Porzingis tended towards going to work in the mid-range, where he couldn’t move smaller defenders and got thrown off his spot. With Luka uninvolved, those were wasteful possessions even when Porzingis was humming.

It’s easy to envision Wood avoiding that pitfall when playing with Luka, but the team’s initial idea of him as a super-sixth man makes things trickier. He likely will be doing the same problematic routine as Porzingis if leading a bench unit (albeit without taking the ball away from Doncic). He had plus-efficiency last year on self-created shots.

He’s almost a supersized wing athletically, allowing him to drive past other bigs. He does have a viable self-created jumper, with step backs and fades, but it’s not an optimal shot. The issue with the Luka-Wood partnership is on the defensive side. Wood is not a rim protector; he’s long, but too thin and easily moved, even by guards. Obviously this means he’s bullied by centers, and Kidd has reservations about Wood’s minutes as a lone big. JaVale Mcgee can cover him against centers, but then a rim runner stands directly in the way of a Luka/Wood two-man game.

Maxi Kleber and Wood make the most sense together, especially in the playoffs. The offense can stay five-out as it did at its most successful, but also feature a rim runner, and just enough rim protection and switch-ability to survive. The hope for defensive improvement from Wood rests in that last trait–he actually has very quick feet when he wants to use them. He may often look sluggish, but it’s more apathy than ability. When he was locked-in, which was admittedly rare, he switched on to guards and gave them trouble with his ability to stay close and contest shots with his length. Kidd’s aggressive use of Kleber and Powell, playing them up on screens and prioritizing their foot speed, matches Wood’s strengths perfectly. It’s also a style that takes commitment and a heavy work-rate, and no one would confuse Wood for exhibiting those qualities in Houston.

Javale Mcgee

If you’ve watched McGee on other teams, you should expect his role to be similar. Catching lobs, snatching boards, protecting the rim. His skillset is limited, but he does those things well. McGee as a priority in the offseason didn’t make sense, due to how replaceable such a skillset is. Kidd is a smart defensive coordinator and should toggle between coverages according to which bigs are on the floor, keeping McGee insulated from situations that leave him on an island.

Offensively, he’s capable of extremely efficient play. Although Dwight Powell was an efficient rim-runner, he isn’t nearly as vertically threatening as McGee, nor was he good finishing around the rim without Luka’s pinpoint alley-oops. Doncic was the most doubled player in basketball, and Powell and Kleber’s gracelessness occasionally led to some of my least favorite plays last year—moments where the advantage closed quickly due to their below-the-rim nature and lack of touch.

Between McGee and Wood, the rim will always feel threatened. McGee, though, has limited playoff function. He will be matchup-dependent, and the idea that he’d have been useful against a Kevon Looney is flawed. Looney lived in the paint because our defense was stretched so far by the Warriors’ shooting and passing that the rim was left open; his shots were rarely contested. McGee would be too slow to survive against the Warriors. It is truly mobility as much as size that matters for rim protection in the playoffs, and Kleber will still be our most useful playoff big defensively.

Jaden Hardy

Hardy should mostly play off-ball, and to look a bit like a Tim Hardaway Jr. understudy. Such a role is his most likely NBA outcome (for example, Buddy Hield), but there’s potential for more. Though shooting is the trait which he is expected to excel, he has upside as a creator, though it’s very raw. Some say he can’t dribble, which isn’t quite true; he’s inconsistent, but his mentality towards dribbling was among the best in the draft. Sam Vecenie, draft guru for The Athletic, said he might have the best handle in the cycle, and it’s his imaginative capacity, rather than his current ability. His dribble looks belabored and sloppy, but he is as likely to turn a double move into a step back as he is to dribble off his foot. He does not have an elite initial burst with ball-in-hand, but has a certain wiggle and craft that helps him find his spot.

The aesthetic quality of his game—a herky-jerky style of wiry-limbed high dribbling–makes his movements hard to mirror, and at his most instinctual he shoots gaps and changes pace unconventionally. He’s a player who must acclimate first, who needs confidence in his plan of attack. Until he can harness that natural ability, he will lose the ball, dribble purposelessly, and take bad shots. If he is allowed to explore the studio space as a rookie, it will be frustrating.

The upside of his creation ability is the difference between a Hield or THJ (limited gunners), or a Jordan Poole, who can be an offensive fulcrum by mixing marksmanship and playmaking. For now, expect a shooter who is a sieve on defense and interspersed flashes of creativity.

Facundo Campazzo

There is no NBA skill I’m more passionate about than passing the basketball, and I’ve often lamented that Dallas is not a good passing team outside of Luka. Often in the playoffs, when a role player would find himself in an advantage—middle of the floor, defense in disarray—they were terribly slow to process and make a decision. Campazzo is truly great passer.

Besides that, his contributions may be limited. Last year’s playoffs taught us the value, more than ever, of perimeter size. Small guards were put through actions and mercilessly picked on by opposing wings. Campazzo is one of those try-hard players who earns the titles of pesky and “annoying” in a way fans embrace (he’s actually one of the dirtier players around), but attitude and effort can’t substitute for size.

If he could shoot from three, it would make him a simple player to analyze; an offensive spark plug with defensive shortcomings. The issue is that he will not be able to optimize that passing creativity if he doesn’t shoot, and last year the shot deserted him. It’s not like he’s an adept finisher at his size, so if defenses can sag off, it will be apparent that he takes much more off the table than his passing can add.

The Mavericks have a lot of new pieces to work with. These various potential X-factors could help define how well Dallas plays during the regular season and how far they could go in the playoffs.