They’re rarely the center of attention and the stats sheet doesn’t always reflect what they do on the court. But finally the Dallas Mavericks have some high quality role players they can count on consistently.
The two players on the top of the list will probably not surprise you if you’ve followed the Mavericks this season. Perhaps the best value signings in years for this team: Dante Exum and Derrick Jones Jr.
Jones and Exum have taken it upon themselves to show up to every game and do whatever it takes, and whatever they can do, to get the win.
Jones has been very frank about wanting to do everything possible to support the team. In an interview with the Bally broadcast crew earlier this season, he said that he was there to do everything Luka and Kyrie didn’t, displaying a winning attitude and the perfect role player mentality.
Role players in essence know their role to a tee. They know their weaknesses and strengths to an extent that, with the great ones, you get consistency next to a star, who in turn has more freedom to create because he can trust and count on his teammates. That is a winning recipe.
For Jones, that means hustling, playing the best defense he can and taking the easy shots Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving create for him, as well as looking to drive to the basket, especially when Luka is doubled. It’s a simple game playing next to these two, Jones said earlier this year.
Both Exum and Jones have been consistent contributors on a team, which has long been reliant on superstar magic most of the time, simply because the consistency of the rest of the roster has been non-existent. And consistency can be important building blocks for creating a winning culture and breed something imperative for a winning team: trust.
And trust has been a major key to improvement this year, leading Luka Dončić to defer more and take more catch-and-shoot threes than earlier. He used the phrase “the trust factor” last month, when explaining the next-man-up mentality the team has been showing while injuries were piling up.
“It goes back to just the trust and the chemistry I have with the guys. From when I first got in here, [Coach Kidd] told me to play my game and be who I am,” Jones said last month as well.
Whereas stars and superstars are the point of attack, the focus of attention and where all the pressure lies, role players are the foundation of a basketball team. Without consistent role players hustling, defending, knowing their roles and not trying to do more than their skills allow them, stars cannot carry the pressure of scoring, leading and stepping up when it matters.
Dante Exum, beside being one of the most capable point guards the Mavericks have seen in a long time, is just that.
Here, Exum refuses to give up on a play and manages to save the ball with an incredibly athletic move reminiscent of Dennis Rodman:
Whether that inspired Luka Dončić to dive for the ball next game, we’ll never know, but this is what happened:
DJJ w the tip away and Luka saves it in! pic.twitter.com/x7vgFEYxC5— MavsHighlights (@MavsHighlights) December 31, 2023
What this shows is that these role players are inspiring and bringing with them a winning culture that helps build trust, which a team needs to win. Even - or especially - a superstar, who is used to being the one who has to wing it and carry most of the weight on offense.
Trust and connection are pivotal in building a winning culture. One could argue that there’s a possibility that the last time Luka really trusted his teammates was in Madrid.
But with the help of the consistency of these capable role players, trust seems to be growing, freeing Luka to expand his game. We’re already seeing multiple examples of this over the last months with improved defense, more catch-and-shoot threes and a much faster pace. Even his complaining to referees is down, despite not going away completely - the man is Balkan after all.
Without the foundation of good role players, playing their part, superstars are rarely super. They stand on the shoulders of the role players, who give up their bodies on defense, hustle for every rebound and protect their superstar. They do all the intangibles needed to get consistent wins. If the Mavericks can avoid injuries, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re in for a fun extended run in the playoffs, exactly because of the consistency of role players like Exum and Jones.
Exum especially has already proven himself under the highest of pressure in Europe, and his IQ and understanding of the game next to Luka Dončić when it matters will be a joy to watch. They say that role players play best at home. That won’t be the case for Exum, who like Luka has gone through the experience of playing in the EuroLeague and thrived. Don’t underestimate the Dallas Mavericks role players. They’re some of the best in the business.