It is hard to make a better first impression than what the Dallas Mavericks got from Jaden Hardy and AJ Lawson in their NBA Summer League debut. Both players looked ready for their moment at the circus in the desert, playing solid, and at times thrilling, basketball.
Both poured in 28 points, the most any Mavericks player has scored at Summer League since Cameron Payne dropped in 32 in 2019. Even though they still have room for improvement, it was a solid showing from two players trying to establish themselves.
“It felt really great to get out there and play with the team,” Hardy told reporters after the game. “We’ve been practicing for the past couple of days, so just getting out there and having fun really. The message was just come out there, play hard, play together. I feel like that’s what we did.”
Along with his 28 points—9-19 shooting overall and 8-11 on free throws—he gathered four rebounds and dished three assists in just over 33 minutes of action. He showed off his scoring ability at the rim, from midrange, and hit a couple of shots from deep. It was as good as a first game as anyone could have hoped for.
It is not just his play that has been impressive, albeit in just one game, Hardy is eager to soak up as much knowledge as he can from the coaching staff. He knows that his ability to improve, both on and off the court, will rely heavily on listening and learning.
“I have to ask questions,” Hardy said. “I want to get better. They have [answers], they know. They’re really involved and wanting to help me, so I ask about everything. How can I get better? What do they see when I’m out there? They help tweak things like helping me defensively, helping me become a better defender. [They] help give me that confidence that nobody out there can guard me.”
Even as he finds answers, it’s clear that Hardy still has a lot to learn. With the game on the line in the closing seconds, Hardy turned the ball over twice leading to Chicago buckets. His turnovers wound up costing the Mavericks the game. Hardy said afterward that he will watch the tape of those plays. He understands that they are learning experiences for him. It is also a teachable moment for the coaches and an opportunity to further his development as a professional.
“I think even if he made the plays at the end of the game, we’re going to watch [the film] anyway,” Mavericks Summer League head coach Greg St. Jean told reporters. “It’s all good for our foundation building. At the end of the day, we’re looking to build habits. For these guys, for these situations—we can’t simulate that in practice, we can’t simulate that on a one-on-0 workout. I think all of this is going to be teaching moments for us. I want to make it clear; he played a phenomenal game.”
It wasn’t just Hardy who showed an innate ability to perform on the Summer League stage. Lawson played about as smooth a game as anyone in a tournament that frequently features sloppy play. To go along with his 28 points on 10-16 shooting, including 6-10 from deep, he pulled down five rebounds and had an assist. Lawson also had zero turnovers in a little over 30 minutes of action.
“Today, I knocked down shots,” Lawson told reporters. “My teammates were getting me open. I was playing very hard offensively and defensively. I’m just happy with my performance. I thank God for all of this.”
Lawson has been on the Mavericks radar for some time now. He attended a draft workout with Dallas last year and then joined the team’s free agent camp. Last season, he played 33 games with the College Park Skyhawks in the G League, where he averaged 11.8 points and 6.2 rebounds. It is a testament to his work ethic and continued improvement that he is with the team in Las Vegas now, playing at a high level.
“He has gotten better every time I’ve seen him,” St. Jean said. “I wasn’t familiar with his game heading into last year, but after seeing him in the draft workout, he’s improved his shooting—you guys saw that tonight. He hit a lot of big shots. He played phenomenal.
“I think, just like anybody, if you get a little repetition at the NBA level or even the G League level, the game slows down for you. I saw him with a nice level of patience tonight. He wasn’t hunting shots; they just came in the rhythm of what was going on. He’s going to have a great week for us, and he’s going to have a bright future.”
Perhaps more important than their 28-point outbursts are that Hardy and Lawson are building chemistry on the court. For as much as Summer League is about displaying individual talent in the hopes of landing a contract somewhere, it is also about team building and camaraderie. It isn’t easy bonding on a hastily assembled roster with only a few practices under your belt, but Hardy and Lawson are actively supporting one another.
“He’s a great player,” Lawson said of Hardy. “He’s a great listener too. Every time I talk to him, every time he talks to me, we’re trying to boost each other up. We both want to be better at basketball, better basketball players. Our chemistry, I feel, is coming along pretty well. I feel like we’re both executing and playing basketball the right way.”
It’s only one game, but the outcome is encouraging. Hardy and Lawson proved that they have what it takes to play at the next level and seized the opportunity. The Mavericks have four more games to play in Las Vegas, and if these two overlooked players can continue to build upon their debut performances, they will be the talk of the town before Summer League is over.
“I for sure had a chip on my shoulder,” Hardy said. “I just really wanted to prove myself right. I didn’t really care about proving other people wrong. I wanted to prove myself right. Those long hours in the gym and me putting my trust in God, I for sure feel like I came out here with a chip on my shoulder to prove myself.”
Click here to go to our latest episode of After Dark, part of the Mavs Moneyball podcast feed, click play on the embed below, or go to your favorite podcast provider and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast. I was joined postgame by Jose, one of the cohosts of #77Spaces, along with Jas and Rolo, which is a pre-game and off-season Twitter Space. Click here to listen to one of their previous shows.