I stole that headline straight out of MavsMoneyball editor-in-chief Kirk Henderson’s mouth, but when you see a beauty of a sentence so spot on, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Dereck Lively II is a lot of things. A teenager. A mediocre performer in college. A high performer in the NBA for a rookie big. A very large individual with a huge wingspan. And then he’s intelligent and coachable, making him a starter on a competitive NBA team and more or less needed in order for said team to get wins.
And then he’s American. That may not sound like a big deal, but it is. If we are to believe in another theory of Kirk Henderson’s - that the US has a big problem - I mean a problem with bigs - Dereck Lively is a big deal. In recent years, American coaches simply have not been very good at developing big men, at least compared to the Europeans.
Think about it. How many American big men can you mention, who has a starting spot as the number five in the league right now? It’s not a lot - the versatility and skillset of the European bigs and stretch fours have just taken over the league and the American way of developing bigs have not been up to par.
Yet. Because this season we’re seeing three bigs top the Rookie ladder and two of them are American: Chet Holmgren and Dereck Lively. The third is obviously French sensation Victor Wembanyama, who I would actually put below both of them right now. And that’s new. Are we witnessing the return of the American big?
With Dereck Lively, the Mavericks didn’t just get a teenage deterrent in the paint, they also got an offensive dynamo, whose potential is only slowly showing itself. The fact that Lively can be a decently effective rim protector at 19, taking the Mavericks defense from bad to acceptable at times, is almost unfathomable. The list of tasks for a big on the defensive end is long, and it doesn’t only take physicality, but timing, being able to read the offense and a good understanding of the game to know where to be in order to be an effective defensive stopper.
During the Mavs game against the Thunder last week, Lively took it a step further and showed something new on offense. He has had a great connection with Luka Dončić - and Kyrie Irving - on the short roll for a while, and he’s been a lob threat from the beginning. But after Luka Dončić told Lively to take the ball to the basket himself, and not just look to pass (which he does at a high level too), we saw a new level unlock for the rookie.
DERECK LIVELY II POSTER SLAM ON CHET pic.twitter.com/l1hb5eKHAy— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 3, 2023
The way Lively played off Luka Dončić double-teams may have been the best thing to come out of that game, as Josh Bowe wrote more about here. Lively scored three baskets after Dončić got trapped, facing 4-on-3 situations and getting to the basket for efficient scores.
This highlights how Lively has the potential to be an even bigger threat on offense, because defenses will have to adjust how they cover him and defend against the Mavericks, which in turn will leave the shooters open more and make Luka Dončić (and Kyrie Irving’s) jobs easier.
And that leads me to ask the question from the headline: What if Lively more or less can be the skeleton key to keeping Luka Dončić happy in Dallas?
This is not an outlandish idea if you think about it. If you close your eyes and allow yourself to dream, imagine a beautiful partnership between an MVP level point guard and a young big, who has this huge development potential and ability to read the game and use his physicality and athleticism.
Imagine the two of them working together to become one of the best duos in the league. Go ahead, use historical analogies, it makes it even better. It’s a dream, a visualization, but that’s all we need to create reality sometimes. Luka sees the vision too:
Reporter: “What did you think of Lively’s play tonight?”
“Amazing. I mean, you can ask me that and I’ll keep responding with the same answer. He’s amazing in his first year, so it’s going to be scary hours for him throughout his career. So, I think he’s amazing,” Luka Dončić said after the Thunder game Saturday.
To put it simply, Lively can be Luka’s magic button to unlocking doors that Luka has been unable to open by himself. Maybe not this year, but perhaps during the next couple of years. The development potential and promises that come with a talent like Lively may be what keeps Luka happy in Dallas; something that keeps him from looking in other directions.
I had a feeling Lively’s ceiling was high after what he showed to start the season. But with the speed he’s developing and with the physicality, athleticism and IQ he showcases, the ceiling of Dereck Lively just got so high, I’m not sure I can see it anymore.
I might be European and root for my fellow euros to succeed, but if this is what the return of the American big looks like, I don’t want it any different.