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Dereck Lively is the player Luka Doncic asked for, and the center the Mavericks need

The young big man has made his presence felt earlier than most predicted and is making a difference.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

When the Dallas Mavericks drafted 19 year old center Dereck Lively II in last summer’s NBA Draft, there was a sense of inevitability. He was linked to the team in the weeks leading up to draft night as they set out to reshape a defense that was atrocious last year. But it was more than that.

Mark Cuban and his front office staff rotation have been searching for a reliable long-term center ever since the model of that player walked out the door over a decade ago, and then again a few seasons later. Fans have pinned their hopes to a variety of big men over the years, appealing to the basketball gods to summon the second coming of Tyson Chandler. Though Lively still has a long and winding path ahead in his career, he possesses an array of potential that might finally satisfy those pleas. None more than Luka Doncic himself.

“Luka asked them [Mavericks front office] to get him a veteran big this summer,” ESPN’S Tim MacMahon shared on the Brian Windhorst & the Hoop Collective podcast recently. As previously reported the team had conversations with both the Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks about DeAndre Ayton and Clint Capela respectively, deals that neither materialized. “That might be a blessing, because Lively’s not playing 30 minutes per game if they go out and get one of those guys that have big salary.”

Lively’s impact and development has progressed at a rate few could have predicted. MacMahon recalls that back to summer league even those around the organization described the center, who won’t turn 20 years old until February, as a project. In his 34 games at Duke the future lottery pick scored in double digits just five times, logged 10+ rebounds six times, and never once recorded a double-double — averaging 5.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Yet in Dallas he’s already posted two double-doubles in his first nine games, including 16 points and 10 rebounds in his NBA debut off the bench pitted against Victor Wembanyama. He’s also recorded a block in all nine games, the first Mavericks rookie to accomplish that in his first nine games.

There will be growing pains without a doubt. He recently fouled out against the Los Angeles Clippers, and head coach Jason Kidd has already pivoted more than once to other schemes and lineups when he’s felt opponents go smaller in their interior play. But Lively has shown adaptability, and a quick chemistry with Luka Doncic that can’t be denied.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Players at all positions feel the impact of Doncic’s gravity and vision, and often it boosts their individual play immediately. And Lively is not the first center Luka has played with adept at being a lob threat. Stalwart veteran Dwight Powell has ranked near the top of the league several seasons in their two-man game, a large reason he was resigned again last summer. But in nearly all the centers who have passed through the hallowed halls of American Airlines Center few had a well-rounded game. Here is the list, in no particular order, of the centers the Mavericks have utilized since drafting Luka Doncic prior to this season (logged at least one start):

  • Dwight Powell
  • DeAndre Jordan
  • Salah Mejri
  • Maxi Kleber
  • Kristaps Porzingis
  • Willie Cauley-Stein
  • Boban Marjanovic
  • Moses Brown
  • JaVale McGee
  • Christian Wood

It’s a staggering list in many ways, considering the pressure the Mavericks have put on themselves to find a big man to pair with their superstar. Porzingis is the lone swing for the fences move, trying to hit a grand slam on a deal in Doncic’s rookie season when a single or double would have sufficed — a move that has handcuffed the Mavericks still to this day. But for the rest on this list some were skilled as a lob threat, some (few) were decent rebounders, and even fewer could be a shot blocker. None of them could do all three, not consistently. Where Powell has excelled in his offensive chemistry he’s lacked rebounding skills or interior defense. Though Kleber can block shots and stretch the floor, he isn’t a lob threat and has never been a rebounder.

Lively has shown flashes of doing all three. And this early in a rookie season that’s more than you can ask for, as he contributes on a nightly basis for a team currently tied for first in the Western Conference. And the league is taking notice, ranking him in the top five of their Rookie Ladder early in the season. The path for young big men in the league is rarely linear. The Mavericks placed their bet on Lively as investment in the future. He still has a ways to go but the team is seeing some dividends now.