I never thought O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison would find themselves in the same predicament.
Mayo is one year away from possibly being tacked onto the all-time lottery pick bust lists, while Collison is three years removed from a promising rookie season that made the league fall in love with his potential (until he stood them up last season).
One was supposed to be a star, and one was predicted to be solid. Mayo was drafted No. 3 in 2008 after his one-and-done at USC, while Collison was picked No. 21 a year later after, at one point, leading UCLA to three consecutive Final Four appearances.
Besides having relatively different games – O.J. is known for his versatility and athleticism, and is one of the game’s most underrated shooters; and Collison is known for his defense, and quickness off the dribble to get to the basket – they are, oddly enough, finding common ground.
This offseason, both were testing journeyman territory for the first time, a slippery slope for two young guards that longed for stability, needing a home in the league as much as Greg Oden needs new knees.
Collison bounced around from New Orleans to Indiana, showing dazzling glimpses of becoming an elite, playoff-starting point guard until his bulb dimmed, and Mayo, in four years with Memphis, was far more talented than he was given the chance to be. He was consequently relegated to the bench with limited freedom in a spotty Grizzlies offense.
“Me and O.J, we were talking yesterday about how much we have a chip on our shoulder,” Collison said in an ESPNDallas interview on September 10.
Enter the Mavs.
In July, Dallas traded Ian Mahinmi for Collison and Dahntay Jones, and signed Mayo as a free agent with a player option for next season.
This wasn’t the team Mark Cuban originally envisioned when he chased Deron Williams to help rebound from a first round playoff sweep by OKC, as well as premature exits from guards Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. Then again, this isn’t the backcourt Collison and Mayo thought they’d be a part of at this point in their careers, either.
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Asking O.J. to become a sixth man was like asking the all-state quarterback of the football team to wash all of the team’s jerseys after a two-a-day – with no gloves.
Ill-prepared for the transition, Mayo was unable to develop a sustaining shooting rhythm in limited tick.
While critics questioned his attitude and his work ethic – not to mention his fight with teammate Tony Allen and suspension from a positive drug test – Mayo questioned how he fell out of basketball graces so quickly.
In 2008, he averaged 38 minutes. But by 2011, he played just 26 per game. So went his scoring average, from 18.5 to 12.6 per night on just 43 percent from the field.
It’s easy for a player to fall through the cracks of pro basketball, from big name to no name, and it can happen faster than a five-point game can turn into a 20-point one.
All it takes sometimes is one shot, one play, or one run, and the game isn’t what you thought it was anymore.
Coming to the NBA with far more humble expectations, Darren Collison was hoping he could find his niche with a team as a hybrid of a traditional point guard and a slashing scorer who could get up and down the court quicker than Shawn Marion‘s abnormal sling release.
Collison started 37 games at the point while three-time All-Star point guard Chris Paul was sidelined with an injury. Collison relished the opportunity, averaging 12.4 points and 5.7 assists per game on 47 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc en route to NBA All-Rookie First Team honors. The future of the Hornets seemed so bright that some even flirted with the idea of trading CP3.
Instead, Collison was traded to the Pacers in 2010.
The dream in New Orleans ended and Collison found himself on a playoff-contending Indiana team, and despite averaging around 10 a game for two years, he struggled with consistency.
Darren and O.J. are at a critical point in their careers: young enough to turn them around and old enough to acknowledge the mistakes they made on the way.
Both Collison and Mayo need a fresh start, and the Mavericks need fresh, young players willing to build around Dirk Nowitzki‘s last chances for another ring. Part of Dallas’ woes last year were that they were one of the oldest teams in the league.
But the new guards should do more than just replace Kidd and Terry. Mayo already adds more size, athleticism and depth at the two, and Collison can bring fresher legs to the point to give Dallas the speed and vitality necessary to compete amongst the flashy, quick combo guards of the West.
As part of the five new additions to Dallas, the team can look forward to pushing the ball in transition via Collison, who is also equally skilled in directing traffic in the half-court set, making the right read off of a high screen – often brushing against his teammate’s shoulder ever so slightly before pulling up for a midrange jumper before his defender can recover.
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Collison is used to working the pick-and-roll with big men like David West, and can easily do the same for Dallas with Nowitzki rolling for a pick-and-pop, or Mayo for a pick-and-fade three-ball.
Mayo’s touches will increase in a system that runs and spreads the floor, giving him the space he needs to create his own shot that was somewhat suffocated for the last few years.
Dallas was 20-3 when they scored 100-plus points in the 2011-12 regular season; clearly offensive production is tantamount to their success. But the postseason requires more than buckets. Are Mayo and Collison ready to be the starting backcourt for a playoff team lusting to get back the title they won in 2011?
Yes, they are ringless. Sure, compared to other guards in the league their stats don’t exactly drive you to look them up on YouTube. But what they do have is critical playoff experience, and just need to be put in the right situation to flourish.
In 2011, O.J was part of the No. 8 ragamuffin Grizzlies team that upset the first-seeded Spurs in six games if the first round, just the second team in NBA history to do so in a seven-game series. Against the Thunder in the semis, they nearly pulled off another shocker before bowing out in Game 7.
This spring, Collison and the Pacers gave the eventual champs from Miami a big scare in the Eastern Conference Semifinals before losing the series, 4-2.
Mayo and Collison know what it’s like to compete against champions. All they want now is to be one.
Though the stakes are high for these two to prove themselves on likely the biggest stage of their pro careers, Cuban seems optimistic on what’s to come.
“You want to have a team you can keep around for a long time. You don’t want to have to go through this every summer,” Cuban told ESPNDallas.
O.J. and Darren don’t want to go through it again, either. They’re hoping this is their last stop.
How good can a potential backcourt of Mayo/Collison be?
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