Dereck Lively II played one of the best games of his life in the Dallas Mavericks’ preseason finale against the Detroit Pistons. Lively had 14 points, five rebounds, two assists and a block in 24 minutes of action as Dallas beat Detroit, 114-104. His 14 points were a preseason career-high. It was also the most points he has scored in a game since high school. Too bad none of it counts.
Lively will get a chance to record meaningful statistics and prove himself in the regular season soon enough. He’s started every game for the Mavericks in Summer League and preseason, and if he gets the starting nod again on Wednesday, he’ll be the first rookie to start for the Mavericks on opening day since Luka Doncic in 2018.
“They’re big shoes to fill as a starter, regardless of it being Luka or not,” Lively said after Friday’s game. “But being able to know that they’re trusting me with it just makes me want to be able to have everybody’s backs and work that much harder.”
Dallas’ presumed starting center will get a tough test out of the gates, facing off with fellow rookie Victor Wembanyama when the Mavericks open the season against the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday. Despite the opening night challenge, Lively says he is ready for it.
“He’s a very good player,” Lively said. “It’s going to be a battle, and I’m excited for it.”
Lively’s 14-point outburst against the Pistons was an outlier for him. In his previous three preseason games, he scored 10 points. During preseason, he averaged 6.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 1.8 blocks in 20.4 minutes per game. Beyond the box score, Lively’s work ethic on and off the court endeared him to teammates and coaches.
“Lively, for such a young guy, he really listens. He catches on to things. He’s been an amazing teammate to be around,” Josh Green said Friday. “He’s loud in practice. He does everything. He works super hard. I think he’s done an amazing job, and so has O-Max [Olivier-Maxence Prosper]. O-Max has done an amazing job. They’ve both been true professionals. Tonight, you saw it. D-Live, he’s been working on all of that, and he’s going to be a big help for us.”
Off the court, Lively has been working a lot with former Mavericks’ center and NBA Champion Tyson Chandler to help him grow and adjust to the NBA game. He’s also been studying film with Mavericks assistant coach Sean Sweeney. His work in practice and the film room has translated into games. Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd likes what he sees so far.
“It’s been great—playing with both the starters and the second group,” Kidd said Friday. “They enjoy him out there, protects them on the defensive end, and offensively, he’s a threat being able to set screens. We sometimes take it for granted. He has great hands with being able to come up with the ball in traffic.
“Then, one of the things we’ll see as we go through this journey with him is his ability to pass. He understands how to play the game. He’s able to find an open teammate. He has all the tools; [it’s] just a matter of being able to get him the minutes to go through the oven as a rookie and get him out on the other side with confidence.”
His confidence is growing. He’s impacting the game where he can and enjoys being on the floor with fellow starters Doncic and Kyrie Irving. The offensive punch Dallas’ two All-Stars bring every night allows Lively to complement them and open opportunities for himself and his teammates.
“I definitely think it makes a lot of my job easier,” Lively said. “Everyone’s going to be focused on the main threat. So, I just got to be able to play off that, find my open touches, and get my points.”
He especially likes his pairing with Irving. The two seem to have already developed chemistry on the court, and Lively sees a lot of similarities in how they play the game.
“I feel like our speeds match, and I feel like the pace of the game we can play off of each other very well,” Lively said. “I feel like being able to know that he likes to get downhill, and he likes to create his own shot. No matter if it’s a three-point, a layup, or a sidestep little floater, I feel like no matter what he’s going to do, everybody is focused on him. So, it’s going to make my positioning easier to get into.”
Lively did not spend as much time on the floor with Doncic or Irving as the team may have liked during preseason. Both players missed considerable time due to injury. Doncic’s availability on opening night remains uncertain as of this writing. Regardless, the trio looks to be a primary feature of Dallas’ rotation moving forward.
“When you have somebody who’s playing above the rim every pick-and-roll or he’s going to put pressure on the rim, it opens up opportunities for shooters on the perimeter,” Irving said of Lively on Friday. “I’m looking forward to getting downhill a few more times, developing that kind of one-two punch, and also seeing the way that him and Luka develop that one-two punch in the pick-and-roll.”
Despite his age, Lively’s dedication, reps on the court, work in practice and watching film have allowed him to emerge as a valuable member of the new-look Mavericks. His willingness to face challenges, test himself, and learn from his mistakes helped him grow. Preseason might have presented many challenges but meeting them with confidence helped Lively earn a starting role.
“A lot of ups, a lot of downs, but I always just try and keep my head forward,” Lively said of his preseason journey. “I feel like no matter if I’m doing good, no matter if I’m doing bad, I’m just trying to focus on what I can do better. [I’m] just trying to listen to my vets, listen to my coaches, and just try to listen and put down everything I can.”