O.J. Mayo: Where Opportunity Meets Desire

When the Dallas Mavericks signed Mayo to a two-year, $8 million deal in 2012, many thought that they were just looking for stop gaps — players that can fill the holes until their books become squeaky clean in 2013. For the most part, they were right.

Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and one of the better owners in the league, clearly understood the limitations the new CBA presented in terms of sustainable competitiveness and wanted to maintain as much flexibility for the future. Along with the two year deal for Mayo, Dallas traded for Darren Collison – who’s on the last year of his rookie contract – and an expiring Dahntay Jones.

They also signed Chris Kaman to a one year deal while winning the amnesty waiver for Elton Brand (which is also for a one year contract). All in all, Dallas only has four guaranteed deals for 2013/14 — Dirk Nowitzki,Shawn Marion and the rookie contracts of Jared Cunningham and Jae Crowder.

It’s pretty clear that Dallas wants to be a player in the free agent market of 2013 (especially if they trade Shawn Marion for scraps). Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith are unrestricted, while Jeff Teague and Brandon Jennings are restricted free agents that populate the list of potential targets.

For the longest time, Dallas needed a younger secondary creator that can occasionally carry the offense (or maybe carry it entirely). They needed someone like that to support Dirk Nowtizki on the tail end of his career. Think of the relationship Tony Parker has to Tim Duncan. They needed somebody to help them transition from a Dirk-led team to a non-Dirk led team. Guys like those – young, primary or secondary creators are hard to come by since most teams keep them as valuable assets to their organization. Memphis ,on the other hand, thought otherwise and Dallas swooped in immediately (after missing out on the biggest fish on the market, Deron Williams). Of course, at that point, OJ Mayo’s reputation was less creator and more spot up.

When OJ Mayo was first drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves (but was immediately traded for Kevin Love), everyone thought he was the next star. He had everything a high school phenom needed to get into the NBA – a flashy game, a rockstar press following and a decorated career. He was everybody’s talk of the town – ahead of eventual 2008 No. 1 pick Derrick Rose, and No. 2 pick Michael Beasley.

However, he was unable to showcase more of his skills in college because his team got eliminated quickly. Yet, his season averages of 20.7 PTS, 44.2% FG, 40.9% 3PT (on 6.5 attempts), 4.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists (3.5 TOs) as a freshman at USC was impressive enough to convince teams to take him in the top five in a deep draft. With those numbers, the future was looking bright for him as a scorer/shooter.

Of course, as history has shown, OJ Mayo peaked as a rookie. He would slowly lose his vice grip on the title of “star” as he slowly moved from “go-to guy” (a incredibly fierce and competitive one, I might add) to “spot up shooter/occasional creator”. Memphis would go on to develop their identity as a “Grit and Grind” team – one that values toughness, defense and rebounding. Mayo – known to have some maturity issues and not really known for his toughness, defense or rebounding – eventually found himself as the awkward guy on the core group. He would sign a miniscule but flexible deal in Dallas (relative to his peers like Rose, Beasley, Russell Westbrook and Love, among others) to redeem himself. He needed to prove to himself and to people that he still had potential as a scorer.

Dallas had the need (since Dirk was aging) and the opportunity (since Dirk was recuperating from knee surgery). Mayo had the desire (after four years working within the role of a shooter) and the skill, as he was a good shot creator for Memphis in his rookie season.  He had seven games where he scored 30 points or more, which ties for fifth most among rookies.

It was perfect – opportunity meets desire. So far it has worked. Or has it?

OJ Mayo is having the best season of his career so far for the Mavericks. After plateauing production at around 16~17 points (on average or below average efficiency), OJ Mayo is currently averaging 20.6 points/game — a career high — while also having the most efficient year of his career. In fact, his eFG% is ranked 11th in the league for players qualified for the min/g leaderboard. His TS% is ranked ninth in the entire league. Not only that, he’s doing efficient scoring while using a little under 25% of his team’s possessions while he is on the court. This means OJ Mayo is combining efficiency with usage — a rare skill. How is he doing this? One thing — 3 PT shooting.

As of publishing, OJ Mayo is making 51.9% of his 5.3 attempts from downtown. To put that in perspective, since the introduction of the 3 PT line in 1979-1980, there have only been 68 players who’ve made 40% of their shots while attempting more than 5.3 PT attempts. The list is populated by well known 3 PT assassins like Peja Stojakovic, Ray Allen, Glen Rice, Mike Miller, Voshon Lenard, Ben Gordon, Sean Elliot, Kyle Korver, etc..

Only ONE PLAYER enters the 50% 3PT FG% — his name is Ovinton J’Anthony Mayo.

To be honest, watching Mayo, it seems like he’s still the same player he’s been since his rookie season – a jump shooting scorer. His ball handling is still suspect – he’s currently averaging a TO% of 15% – the highest rate of his career. His pick-and-roll ball handling is still suspect – a play type where he turns the ball over 24% of the time. His shot distribution is still divided almost the same as it’s been in his career – a shot distribution that’s dominated by shots from 16 and beyond with a few sprinkles of at the rim shots.

In fact, if we take his career 3 PT shooting % and assume that he’ll regress there at some point in the season, Mayo is basically the same player. The question now becomes – can he sustain this hot shooting?

As much as I like Mayo to succeed, the odds of him transforming from a marginally good spot up shooter to a HoF shooter in the mold of Allen overnight is near impossible. It’s just not feasible for him to continue this type of success from downtown. Does that mean Mayo is still doomed?

No, because he will receive the same environment he was placed on when he was a rookie – a player who’s totally capable (and actually fits nicely) as a secondary scorer but would rather be the primary scorer AND is given both the opportunity and the leeway to just play basketball. For a supposedly budding scorer, this is the type of environment he needs – an environment that allows for innovation while accepting mistakes judiciously. So far, Coach Rick Carlisle has done an incredible job of putting Mayo in the best position to succeed – his team is playing at the 2nd fastest pace behind HOU. That plays perfectly into Mayo’s hands as he’s been involved in a transition possession 20.8% of the time and he scores at a rate of 1.28 points-per-possession which is good for 34th in the league. For a player that’s been exposed, athletically, playing in a more loose system is a great way to get his confidence back.

In the NBA, the ability to jump start/curtail your career starts and ends with the team and whether they give you the opportunity to do so. Lots of players have been part of both sides i.e. players who weren’t given opportunities to shine on their first few teams, but found niches when they were traded/left (Chauncey Billups, Tracy McGrady, Gilbert Arenas, Carlos Boozer, etc..) AND players who were given opportunities to shine on their first few teams but found themselves lost after the novelty and the charm of “potential” was lost (Joe Smith, Beasley and Dajuan Wagner are a few names that come to mind).

Memphis decided to pigeon hole Mayo into the role of shooter. Was it warranted? Of course. Mayo clearly had chinks to his game that would be hard to remedy on a team that wanted to compete soon. But was it the right move? We may never truly know. Memphis would eventually become contenders, so their decision making looks sound (in theory). Dallas and Mayo, on the other hand, were lucky to find each other at just the right time. One needed the desire to pursue more than he could in his first stop while the other is looking for a foundational piece that can hopefully turn to something more in the future.

Sometimes, all it takes to succeed is time and opportunity – find the right opportunity at the right time. At 12-13, missing their superstar and a team that should have looked like a glued gun project is now looking like passable work. Whether they can move higher is on the shoulders of Dirk and of course, the newest star in Mayo.

Should Dallas curtail some of their financial flexibility to resign Mayo? Yes. Because clearly, Mayo, despite his unsustainable season, still has a lot of “oomph” in him. Who knows, maybe he can follow the career of Billups — unspectacular before arriving in Detroit – where he found just the right opportunity to showcase his skill. A few years later, Finals MVP, consecutive East Finals appearance, All Star appearances.

OJ Mayo could be next.

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Topics: Chauncey Billups, Dallas Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki, Mark Cuban, NBA, OJ Mayo, Rick Carlisle

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