The Dallas Mavericks desperately need to get better defensively. Dereck Lively is one of the best defensive prospects in the draft. That means Lively is a hand in glove fit for the Mavericks, right? The answer is... maybe?
Lively is an incredibly long prospect. He is 7’1 with a 7’7 wingspan. This is what leads to his primary skill, shot blocking. Lively averaged 2.4 blocks per game despite only playing 20.6 minutes per game. That translated to an elite block percentage of 12.7 percent. For reference, Jaren Jackson Jr had a block percentage of 14.3 percent in college.
Lively can block shots at the NBA level, but he has other interesting tools. Perhaps the most important question for defensive big prospects is how and how well do they defend the pick and roll? Those questions might sound the same, but they aren’t. Brook Lopez is an elite defender, but he is almost solely a drop defender in pick and roll. That gets exploited in playoff matchups and is an important distinction between the very best defenders. Bam Adebayo is the most switchable big in the NBA and he was just instrumental in the Miami Heat drastically outperforming their talent in the NBA playoffs.
Lively is certainly not Adebayo in that he will not be a full-time switch defender, let alone an elite one. But neither is he a defender like Lopez or Rudy Gobert who is confined to drop. Despite being most comfortable in drop, Lively can switch at times and has some impressive highlights doing so. Most importantly, he also has the ability to play at the level of the screener, giving his team options.
Lively’s biggest strength is clearly his rim protection. In addition to the shots he blocks, Lively alters many others. He does a really good job of positioning his body in such a manner that he can use his length to deter shots at the rim even when he can’t block them. He covered for a ton of defensive mistakes in front of him, which would be good practice for potentially playing on this Mavericks team.
Lively also has surprising feel as a short roll passer. Luka Doncic has often talked about the NBA being easier to score in than Europe because of the improved spacing. The same can be said of college which has a shorter three-point line and less developed offenses. Despite these limitations, Lively showed very encouraging abilities to both make simple reads as a short-roller and more advanced plays such as reversing the ball to weakside shooters. Nikola Jokic he is not, but passing is a potential strength for him.
Fouling. Lively’s shot blocking percentage is similar to Jackson’s but unfortunately so is his foul rate. Jackson averaged 8.6 fouls per 40 minutes in college and Lively averaged 8.0. Jackson won the Defensive Player of the Year award this year meaning he has overcome those issues to some extent, but they still severely limit his playing time. Jackson averaged 7.0 fouls per 100 possessions his first three seasons in the NBA. He lowered that number to 6.0 this year showing the importance of limiting fouls.
Lively is also a liability offensively. There are videos of him draining jumpers in open gyms. Do not be seduced by these. Lively does not show the ability to shoot in games and banking on him doing so because of his ability to make practice gym jumpers would be a gigantic mistake. He does show ability as a finisher, which would be helped by Doncic and Irving feeding him lobs. He does not however show any craft at finishing in ways other than dunks near the rim. Think about Willie Cauley-Stein blowing a ton of non-dunk finishes to get an idea of Lively’s weakness in this area.
Lively is also not a good screener. This skill is lost in evaluating players, but while a player like Jarace Walker sets bone jarring picks, Lively prefers brush screens or slipping them.
Fit with the Mavericks
Lively does fit somewhat as he could potentially be a rim finisher and defender. It is easy to envision him finishing lobs from Doncic on one end while erasing Doncic mistakes on the other. However, the fit is not as smooth as it might appear. Lively is a project. He will not have real value for years, and the Mavericks need to improve quickly.
Lively’s inability to set good screens or to shoot also provide problems. It is one thing for a pick and pop threat such as Christian Wood or Kristaps Porzingis to set a brush screen. Their gravity still creates openings for ball handlers even if their body doesn’t. Lively does not offer that shooting and thus his screens would simply be an invitation to double Doncic or Irving despite his short roll playmaking. It sounds good to say that he would be capable in four-on-three scenarios following those doubles, but do you really want to take the ball out of Doncic and Irving’s hands for a rookie who averaged five points per game in college?
Lively has shown flashes of the ability to defend in space, but he is not the type of defender who will wreck plays everywhere on the court. His value is primarily near the rim, and the Mavericks have defensive problems everywhere. If he gets spaced to the perimeter, it is unlikely he will still be able to provide much defensive value. Given the current climate of the NBA playoffs, this likely means he will be played off the floor. More versatile defenders like Walker or Taylor Hendricks might actually help the Mavericks defense more in those scenarios despite Lively being the best shot blocker of the bunch.
Lively has been compared to Tyson Chandler frequently. There are some similarities, but there are important differences too. Chandler was much better at hedging and recovering defensively. Chandler also relished the contact that came with screening. Chandler developed all of these traits over years in the NBA, so Lively has time to potentially do so as well. If he does, he will be a very good player for someone. He just isn’t worth the 10th pick in this draft to see if he can develop those skills.