NBA Summer League is in full swing, and with it the wild proclamations of fans and analysts on each rookie or NBA hopeful. It is a product of the times, but often any nuance in a player’s game gets lost in the excitement of watching the league’s next generation. All of it is unreliable, especially when you remember that for many this is the first five-on-five basketball most have played in months. So if you can wade through all of that and focus in on smaller takeaways there are positives (and negatives) to glean. Though the play of the summer league Dallas Mavericks has been a roller coaster so far, Dereck Lively’s hands have jumped out to me in these games.
Through 39 minutes over two games the Mavericks’ future center has logged 12 points and 16 rebounds. He’s yet to be credited with a blocked shot, but Lively’s defensive potential has certainly been on display. When engaged he moves his feet well and has tracked switches and recovered to the basket well. His big frame and athleticism are apparent immediately — these are all the big bullet-point items on the defensive end we were looking for after the draft and most of that has held true in these games. Lively didn’t play much against the Oklahoma City Thunder in their opener, though he did defend well against one of last year’s draft favorites in Chet Holmgren.
But it was in Monday night’s game against the summer league Philadelphia 76ers that Lively flashed a number of positives on the offensive end. The Mavericks over the years haven’t had many centers who had the size and athleticism of Lively while also having soft and strong hands, but he showed that through traffic and on the offensive glass Monday.
One aspect of his game that will need to be an area of focus this season and beyond is screen setting. Lively simply doesn’t set strong screens, if at all, and often he’s caught fouling as the screener. This might be the most important benefit in the return of Dwight Powell to Dallas, instilling that timing and sense of space to the rookie. But once Lively moves through the screen and trails the ballhandler, his ability to track and catch the ball in traffic is impressive, evidenced here:
The Mavericks haven’t had an impactful rebounder on the offensive glass years. That lacking often leads to one-shot possessions for the team and pressing the margin for error. Lively finished Monday’s game with four offensive boards. Two happened late in the game: the first off a Jaden Hardy drive that led to a dunk, and the second corralling a missed free throw that helped seal the game.
Both of these plays show Lively setting decent screens and staying engaged with Hardy all the way to the basket. He’s active and sure with the ball, going up strong both times in reactive situations. In similar situations, it is not uncommon to see centers, young or vet, either fumble a pass that isn’t right in their pocket or hesitate going back up when in traffic. Being sure with your hands, and decisive in action makes a world of difference for a young center.
These are small plays and don’t project future dominance or some swing-for-the-fences projection of Lively’s game. But these small moments are impact plays that will allow Lively to contribute early for the Mavericks.