Yes, the games don’t count. Still, it never looks good when you’re the last winless team in pre-season. That’s where the Mavericks find themselves tonight as they play their final home pre-season game against the Phoenix Suns, against whom they will open the season in Phoenix a week from tonight. Yet it doesn’t mean that these last three weeks have been a waste of time. Indeed it’s been a time of tremendous opportunity.
Every team rests players in pre-season, and often times the fourth quarter in the pre-season looks like nothing more than a Summer League game in October. And yet for John Jenkins and Salah Mejri, the injuries to Chandler Parsons and Javale McGee have provided the opportunity to show they’re not just NBA players, but players that might be able to help make a good team better.
The Jenkins story is a far more familiar one. The 23rd overall pick in 2012 from Vanderbilt, he twice led the SEC in scoring, never shooting below 40 percent from three point range. He played well in his rookie year in Atlanta averaging over six points a game, and looked to have a future, but a back injury sustained in his second year limited him to just 37 games. Coming back from that injury he found no more room at the inn, with the likes of Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll, taking his spot.
Signing with the Mavericks, even with their plethora of guards made sense to Jenkins. Wesley Matthews, when he returns from his Achilles injury, is going to eat up the lion’s share of minutes at off-guard, and there could be times when Deron Williams slides over to the off-guard when either J.J. Barea or Devin Harris are in the game, but still Jenkins has shown himself to be capable of playing some important minutes – and not just for his pure shooting ability, but for the fact he can floor the ball, get into the lane, and finish with a mid-range pull up or a floater. It’s easy to envision Rick Carlisle carving out an Anthony Morrow style role for Jenkins. Morrow is only the third ranked active career three point shooter.
Mejri’s story is far less familiar, but no less compelling. A 7-2, 235 pound center for European powerhouse Real Madrid, he’s the first Tunisian born player to try to play in the NBA. And after missing the first two pre-season games because of a stress fracture in his leg suffered at the FIBA AfroBasket Olympic qualifier (don’t get Mark Cuban started), he’s shown he’s not just some Euro stiff. He’s got a build that might remind you of Shawn Bradley, but just as Bradley was a very misunderstood player in his NBA career, Mejri has shown he’ll step in there with rough and tumble guys like Steven Adams and Timofey Mozgov and not back down. Averaging 16 minutes in the last three games, he’s averaged seven rebounds, a steal and a block. He can handle the ball, has a nice face-up from the elbow, and he gets in the way defensively. He’s certainly done enough to make the Mavericks think about keeping him over the veteran Samuel Dalembert, who showed up out of shape and then hurt his knee in practice ten days ago.
Yes, we desperately want the regular season to get here with the familiar rhythms of an NBA game that counts, and the desire to see the big guns who are either going to make or break the Mavericks this year. Yet these four weeks have been instructional in the constant effort to try to mine that “Diamond in the Rough.” Ultimately, that’s what training camp and pre-season are all about. Much more so than a winless record.