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The Mavericks arrive in Las Vegas seeking personal growth, Summer League championship

The players don’t want to go 0-5 this year.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Mavericks begin NBA Summer League play Saturday afternoon. Dallas will face an Oklahoma City Thunder team loaded with young talent in its opening game in Las Vegas. Unlike in previous years, the Mavericks have a team built around a core of players already under contract.

Dallas is led by second-year guard Jaden Hardy; first-round draft picks Dereck Lively II and Olivier-Maxence Prosper; two-way players AJ Lawson, Mike Miles Jr., and McKinley Wright IV; and undrafted guard Jordan “Jelly” Walker. They’ll have the opportunity to prove their worth and compete for a championship in the desert.

“My focus, going into Summer League, is just trying to play the right way,” Hardy said at Tuesday’s press conference. “Obviously playing my game, but still trying to play the right way, make the right plays as if I was playing with — if Luka was out there or Kyrie out there. Trying to make those same decisions if I was out there. Just trying to make the smart play.”

Hardy will garner his share of attention from fans and opposing defenses in Las Vegas. While Hardy wants to win — Dallas didn’t win any Summer League games last year — Mavericks summer head coach Jared Dudley is ensuring he’s focused on coaching him up and preparing Hardy for every possible situation on the court.

In practice, Dudley says he’s been putting Hardy into situations designed to frustrate him to prepare him for Summer League and next season. Dudley and the other coaches serve as referees during practice to provide additional challenges to see whether or not Hardy can maintain his focus and demeanor.

“They’re gonna trap him, they’re gonna load up on him, they’re gonna foul him,” Dudley said Wednesday. “Sometimes I give him the call. Sometimes I purposely don’t call any fouls for him to see him frustrated and tell him to work through. ‘Hey, listen, I’m not calling any fouls for you today,’ because you might have one ref that won’t call it. You might have one ref that loves your game and calls every foul. So I just want to put him in a position where he has to — every single day it’s not the same old, same old.”

Dudley understands that Hardy, who played 48 games during his rookie season, is the team’s star. He said that Hardy is on “a whole other level” and expects him to lead the offense, getting 18 to 20 shots per game in Summer League. Still, there are plenty of aspects of his game, especially defensively, where Dudley sees room for growth.

“He’s 19,” Dudley said. “His highs are going to be a little bit higher than that in Summer League because he’s probably more talented than 85 percent of the players. He’s got a long way [to go], but yet we’re happy where he’s at right now.”

Hardy isn’t the only player returning to Las Vegas who was on the team last year. Lawson was a standout alongside Hardy. His play with the Mavericks helped him land a two-way contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves to start the 2022-23 season. He eventually signed a two-way deal with Dallas in late December and spent the remainder of the season with the Mavericks.

Wright, too, is a Summer League veteran. This will be his third time in Vegas. He previously played for Minnesota in 2021 and started all five games for the Phoenix Suns last year. Dudley says that Lawson and Wright are ahead of the curve because they’ve only taken a couple of weeks off from basketball since the regular season ended. As for Wright, he wants to continue building a foundation and becoming a team leader.

“[I’m] just trying to find ways to help the team, whether that’s on the court or off the court,” Wright said. Going to my third Summer League, I’m establishing a leadership role. I’ve been here. I know what Summer League is like. I know what to expect from other teams, from the fans to the play style, to everything. So, I’m just trying to take that next step in my game to show I can run the team, be a leader, and help the younger guys coming in.”

Dallas’ rookies will undoubtedly need the help. Transitioning from college to the NBA is a giant leap in the game’s speed and competition level. For Lively and Prosper, the shift has been exacerbated. Neither has been able to practice — they’ve been doing one-on-zero drills and watching film — because the trades the Mavericks used to acquire both of them on draft night weren’t finalized until Thursday afternoon.

“I guess they will get thrown into the fire,” Dudley said Thursday. “First thing first is they’ll go over our five-and-oh with players [and] start building the chemistry with the starters. Those two guys are definitely starting — our first-round picks — getting them reps. I think there’s no better opportunity than the first game when you get to play OKC with Chet [Holmgren], and you got the Williamses [Jalen and Jaylin]. You have guys that are actually NBA players — I think they have six or seven guys that will be on their roster.”

Helping Lively adjust to the NBA is Mavericks legend Tyson Chandler. Chandler has been working with the team as a part-time assistant coach since 2021. Dudley brought him in as a full-time assistant to help develop the young players on the Summer League roster. Lively seized the opportunity to learn from the 2011 NBA champion.

“Being able to learn from somebody who is that high caliber of a player and who knows that much about the position about playing the style of game — just being able to have that as an asset is something I’m just so grateful for,” Lively said. “I’ve already been able to pick his mind. He’s probably already tired of me asking questions, but I’m going to just try to take every day and just try to learn one percent each day and just try to get better.”

Even though Lively and Prosper didn’t have the opportunity to practice with the team fully until Friday, their time in the gym on the sidelines allowed them to bond as teammates. They lean on each other as they navigate the ins and outs of becoming NBA players, including where to be, what to wear, and being comfortable asking dumb questions.

“I think me and Derek have already started to create a really good bond,” Prosper said Thursday. “Even though we haven’t done much outside of [the gym] yet because we’ve been so busy, everything we’re doing here is all together. Whatever we’re doing, live together, workouts, whatever. Anything we have to do, media, whatever, we’re all doing it together. So, it’s good because we’re going through the same experiences at the same time. And even now, we’re not playing, but we’re both on the sideline talking to each other and everything. So we’re starting to build a bond with each other, so it’s been good.”

The Mavericks’ draft picks will need that bond to transfer onto the court quickly to help the team notch wins in the Thomas and Mack Center. They aren’t the only rookies looking to make an impact in Vegas. Shortly after the 2023 NBA Draft concluded, Dallas signed TCU standout Mike Miles Jr. to a two-way contract after he went undrafted. Miles is a guard who can put the ball in the bucket, but Dudley wants to put him in a position to play both sides of the ball.

“For him, I just wanted [him] to play his game,” Dudley said. “Be aggressive. We will coach you on the shot selection, where it goes. But defensively, if you wanna get that two-way to eventually [get] a spot, this is where you go to make your impact.”

Miles knows he’s good. He also knows that his shot is what carried him this far. While he wants to prove that he belongs in the NBA, Summer League is also about growth and learning from his teammates and the coaches around him. Most importantly, it’s also about winning.

“Personally, I just want to try to get better every day I’m down there,” Miles said. Just try to pick up everything, learn everything I can from everybody that’s there — coaches, players, everybody. But the main goal is to win. I’ve won everywhere I’ve been, and that’s the goal. To go down there and get the championship and represent Dallas.”

The Mavericks have never taken home the top prize in Las Vegas. The closest they came was in 2017 when Dennis Smith Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Yogi Ferrell, Brandon Ashley, Nicolas Brussino, and Johnathan Motley led the team to the semifinals. But a run at the Summer League championship isn’t out of the question this year.

The 2023 roster looks like one of the most complete and promising teams Dallas has fielded since 2017. It has a healthy mix of veteran leaders with NBA experience and rookies who played at a high level in college. They don’t want a repeat of last year. This team won’t be satisfied until they stand atop the podium and raise the championship trophy on Monday, July 17.

“I’m excited for Summer League, man,” Wright said. “I’ve been preaching it every day to the Summer League team that we’re going to get a Summer League championship. You know, last year, Dallas won zero games down in Vegas. That ain’t happening this year.”