All eyes were on San Antonio on Wednesday night in the late window of the first full NBA slate of the season, as ESPN was on hand for the debut of Victor Wembanyama with the Spurs. While foul trouble limited him some, Wemby showed the flashes of brilliance that make him a once-in-a-generation prospect, but his Spurs fell to the Mavs 126-119.
The Mavs also had a rookie big man making his NBA debut, as the 12th overall pick in this year’s draft, Dereck Lively II, came off the bench and showed why Dallas had him circled on their big board. Lively’s performance was, in the words of Luka Doncic on live TV after the game, “f**king great,” as he put up 16 points and 10 rebounds in 31 minutes, going 7-of-8 from the floor and was a +20 off of the bench.
When the Mavs drafted Lively, the hope was that he could finally fill the rim protection void in Dallas, but no one was quite sure how impactful he would be immediately and how much Jason Kidd would trust the young center to anchor the Mavs defense. We got a quick answer on Wednesday night as his 31 minutes were fourth on the team, behind only Doncic, Kyrie Irving, and Grant Williams, and it was immediately obvious how important Lively is going to be to the Mavs achieving their goals this season.
The question for the 7’1 big man out of Duke was how quickly he could get up to speed on the offensive end in order to allow the Mavs to enjoy his rim protection skills on the other end. While he probably won’t go 7-for-8 every night, it was quickly apparent that he is a damn near perfect big for what the Mavs need out of that position offensively with this current roster. Luka Doncic was desperate for a good pick-and-roll partner and just someone who provides vertical spacing as a lob threat. It was something last year’s Mavs team did not have and you could tell very quickly how much Doncic was enjoying playing with a guy in Lively who is happy just setting screens and running to the rim.
The pick and roll between Luka and Lively is going to be fun. He's got good timing on his rolls. pic.twitter.com/vjLPqxGNvh
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 26, 2023
Lively, of course, benefits greatly from playing with a passer like Doncic, and I would expect Jason Kidd to look very closely at pairing the two as often has he can when deploying the rookie big man. Lively might not have a lot of diversity in his offensive skillset, but the thing he does have (finishing dunks) is the exact thing Doncic really needed next to him. There is no reason on a Mavs team with Doncic, Irving, and even guys like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Josh Green that Lively should ever need to do any self-creation offensively in the post. As such, I have a feeling a lot of his shot charts will look like the one from last night.
That is what it looks like when a young man knows his role and does his best in it. If anything, Lively’s understanding of his shortcomings as an offensive weapon might be beneficial for this Mavs team. Their best offense is “let Luka/Kyrie make decisions on the ball” and anything else, especially post touches for an inefficient shooting big man, is letting the defense off the hook. He knows his job is to set a screen or hand the ball off to those guys and then get to the paint where his job is to finish a lob/pocket pass or be ready for a putback on an offensive rebound. On Wednesday night, he did that wonderfully.
First career bucket for D-Live 💪 pic.twitter.com/ttY8nvYfwu
— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) October 26, 2023
Doncic gushing about Lively in his postgame interview isn’t just important in the context of getting a win on opening night, but it also was a major step in building the trust between the two of them. Part of the challenge of building around Doncic is it can be hard to find players willing to embrace a role in orbit of Luka, who are also talented enough to earn his trust. On Wednesday, Lively’s performance went a long way in doing that with the Mavs superstar.
Lively’s screening was impressive, as he does a good job of getting wide and making for an actual obstacle for guards, but it’s what he does after that that will make him a Doncic favorite. Watch this play again from the wide angle, as he sets a quick screen and then recognizes that both defenders have their attention on Doncic, with Lively’s man in deep drop. The reason for that is Lively isn’t a threat to pop and shoot, but Lively demonstrated the risk in sinking that far back to the rim on him.
I repeat, Luka Doncic really likes playing with Dereck Lively II pic.twitter.com/By4GVepfWs
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 26, 2023
Lively’s timing on his rolls was impressive in his first game in the NBA, as he showed patience when needed but also the right sense of urgency when given a runway to the rim. On this play, he eats into the space given quickly and before Zach Collins can get a body on him in the lane, he’s on his way up for a vicious and-1 finish.
The defensive impact of Lively speaks for itself. Fully understanding the small sample size of a 31 minute game, the Mavs were vastly better on the defensive end with him in the game (98.5 DRtg with him on the floor, 133.3 DRtg with him off of it). He is both a terrific rim deterrent when in the paint and mobile enough to shut off driving lanes and bother pick-and-rolls before they even get to the rim when he has to step out on the perimeter. That is an element they simply haven’t had in the frontcourt, and his presence mitigates some of their issues at the point of attack. That said, I was most impressed with his offensive impact (126.1 ORtg with him on the floor, 100.0 ORtg with him off of it) because that was the biggest question for him.
No he is not a dynamic threat, but that is arguably a good thing given his situation. If he can continue being the vertical threat at the rim opposite Doncic and Irving, set good screens, and be bothersome on the offensive glass, that will give Dallas a dynamic they simply haven’t had with Doncic. Dallas has long valued floor-spacing bigs around Doncic, which is understandable, but a pick-and-roll partner who puts opposing bigs in a bind with how long they stay in front of Doncic before falling back to protect the lob is just as important to have. Lively gives them that, and as the game wore on there were times where you could see the Spurs bigs leaving a little earlier to recover back, with Doncic having the patience to drag out the action so long that the defender has to show his hand.
It won’t be this smooth every night, and we’ll have to see how Lively manages in a game with bigger, stronger, higher level center opposition. That said, the trust Doncic has in him that’s already apparent is huge for a rookie in his situation and given what he provides on defense that no one else on the roster can, it’s hard not to be excited about his future in Dallas after this outing.