Maybe it’s the bright lights, maybe it’s the gambling, or maybe it’s the delusions that come from the stifling heat. Whatever the reason, Las Vegas is a place of hope. So it only follows that at least some of that bleeds into the NBA Summer League, which calls Vegas home.
This is the time of year when every fantasy of hoops feels realistic, tangible. That guy on a two-way deal who scrapped the defense? He will be in the rotation soon. The disappointing second-year rookie who scored 15 per match? Put him on the Most Improved Player list. And any lottery pick that shows something is absolutely, absolutely a future All-Star.
Of course, it rarely works out that way, but hope is fun, and Mavs fans haven’t seen much of this particular brand in a long time. The franchise has not played a lottery pick in the Summer League since Dennis Smith Jr. entered the hearts of fans in 2017. Do you remember how good that felt? The seeds of hope were planted, and even though DSJ didn’t pan out, you can still find fans watering them to this day.
So you’re inclined to take everything I’m about to tell you about 12th overall pick Dereck Lively II as just another prediction along those lines, and I’d understand that. Except it isn’t. Because the 7-foot-1 big man from Duke isn’t just a chance to create a new defensive identity for the Mavericks. During Summer League, Lively displayed a defensive discipline that could earn him big minutes sooner rather than later.
take this sequence, for example, where Lively erases a possession for the opposing team by walling off multiple drives to the rim and using his size to discourage any Golden State players from even thinking about a shot as they approach the rim. It’s a multi-effort play where Lively keeps seeing what the offense intends to do a step ahead of time, and in the process covers for his teammates after the perimeter defense fails multiple times.
That one possession is all you need to know about Lively’s raw defensive talent and why he’s already mature enough for it to translate early in his career. Opposing players fear Lively’s 7’7″ wingspan – rightfully so; he was an elite shot blocker last year in college, and not just because of his size — and Lively has both the awareness and poise to exploit that fear to prevent shot attempts before they start. It will be a welcome sight in Dallas after the Mavericks rolled out a red carpet to the basket last season. Summer League stats should be taken with the biggest grain of salt known, but it does matter that Lively was a plus-35 in five games (the Mavericks won 4-1). If nothing else, it shows he’s already capable of being part of a defensive solution rather than adding to the problems.
Let’s move on. In time, with further maturation, he may become one that defensive solution. Delve into Lively’s advanced stats at the college level and you’ll find a generational defensive prospect hiding in plain sight. Lively’s block percentage, rebound percentage and box plus-minus all put him in the conversation with all the big men taken in the lottery from the last 15 years, along with names like Anthony Davis, Jaren Jackson Jr., Evan Mobley and Joel Embiid. There is also a violation component here. Since 2010, only two big men had both a block percentage over 10 and an assist-to-turnover ratio over 1: Davis … and Dereck Lively II.
No one will mistake Lively for Nikola Jokic on the court, but during Summer League he made smart quick decisions with the basketball when he caught a pick-and-roll pass. Lively showed little interest in showing off her post moves or even the jumper that went viral during his professional day training. Instead, he either dunked the basketball, got fouled, or made a quick pass to an open teammate every time he received a pass or grabbed an offensive rebound. How to get minutes as a rookie big man on a team with Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.
More importantly, how Lively escapes the hole that so many lottery picks fall into as rookies. It takes time for highly talented prospects to find their role in the league, and it can take even longer for them to accept it. But here’s Lively, in an environment where he could dominate the ball and no one would look down on him for it, playing smart, composed basketball. He says all the right things in interviews, also. Lively knows exactly what role he wants to play in the NBA and he is very enthusiastic about playing it. Yes, the universally invoked Tyson Chandler comparison is great. But the most important thing is that it is also who Lively believes herself to be. It’s not often you hear of a rookie asking his guards how they like screens being set to open after all.
Divisive as Jason Kidd has become, the third-year head coach has a stellar record of developing young talent in Dallas between Jaden Hardy, Josh Green and (perhaps a little too well) Jalen Brunson. After weathering the ups and downs of the Christian Wood experience, coaching Lively will be a breath of fresh air. Yes, the 19-year-old will struggle early with his random screen setting and penchant for fouling, but Kidd will enjoy tutoring a big man who is mobile enough to play his scheme, big enough to be a serious rim protector and self-aware enough to lean into those tendencies. It was clear to all that Kidd was enchanted with the center rotation last year. Lively, more than any other big on the roster, allows Kidd to work out his strengths.
While Lively is coming up to speed, Richaun Holmes and Dwight Powell will compete for the center minutes on this new Maverick roster. (It doesn’t matter if Monta Ellis or Jaden Hardy are on the roster; Powell reigns supreme on the Mavericks forever.) Rumors still circulate about the team getting another center, whether it’s Clint Capela or an early-season DeAndre Ayton trade. Both players would provide a talent boost and a level of security to the center rotation. But if Lively’s attitude pans out — and if Holmes rejuvenates himself after a bad year in Sacramento — I’m not sure a veteran center is a requirement anymore. It’s easy to imagine a wave of support for big Lively minutes in February when Lively gets her sea legs under her, similar to the one Hardy received a year ago.
You could make a case that this is the first time the Mavericks have spent a major resource on a high-end defensive talent in the 21st century. Chandler came to Dallas in a disposal trade, while Shawn Marion was a buyout candidate. The Nerlens Noel trade could qualify if you’re feeling generous. (I’m not.) But the last big investment happened way back in 1994, with the drafting of Kidd himself. And there’s a reason why Lively breaks the mold. His ceiling is special, and what we saw in Vegas suggests he’s ready to start working toward it with meaningful minutes in year one. It’s up to the Mavericks to make that happen, and not get in the way of that hope turning into something much more substantial.
Austin Ngaruiya covers the Cowboys for StrongSide. He is a contributor to Dime Magazine and spends way too much time…