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Dallas Finds a Diamond in the Second-Round Rough


Being a selection in the second round of the N.B.A. draft is both a dream come true and a cruel tease; being picked on draft night brings prospects close to the big leagues, and yet comes with the astoundingly low probability of playing regular or meaningful N.B.A. minutes. Many are in the N.B.A. only technically, as they ride out unguaranteed contracts on the bench or on lengthy assignment in the D-League before drifting to the N.B.A.’s fringes.

All of this makes it remarkable when a second-round choice makes a legitimate breakthrough on the N.B.A. stage. The 2011-12 season saw Isaiah Thomas (60th pick), Chandler Parsons (38th pick) and Lavoy Allen (50th pick) find their way to relevance, and if N.C.A.A. performance and the Las Vegas Summer League provide any precedent, then we should expect Jae Crowder — selected out of Marquette by the Dallas Mavericks with the 34th pick this year — to do the same.

Crowder enters the N.B.A. as a defensive big repurposed as a wing stopper — a transition that, while tricky, informs his approach to team defense in a unique way. Some talented wing defenders have a hard time making an impact beyond their individual matchup, but Crowder, after working so effectively as a back-line defender at Marquette (and before that, at Howard County Junior College), is quick in his help defense and efficient in his rotations.

“[Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle] knows that I can bring a lot to the table defensively,” Crowder said. “And that’s what I try to do. I try to do a lot of different things on pick and rolls and switches and stuff like that, and just try to get involved on the defensive end as much as possible.”

He may be 6 feet 6 inches as listed, but Crowder had a tremendous showingon the bench press at the predraft combine — a performance indicative of the kind of upper-body strength that allows him to switch onto opposing bigs and contest at the rim. It’s early, but those hints of defensive flexibility make Crowder an intriguing prospect in spite of his second-round selection.

The summer league offered a glimpse of how Crowder might play in his new position, and he made an immediate and obvious impact through kinetics alone. Rarely can Crowder be caught standing still, as his defensive possessions are spent in oscillation between getting a hand on his assigned man on the perimeter, digging down to help in the post, locking and trailing around screens, and roving to contest penetration.

That energy isn’t lost on the offensive end, either, where Crowder has a knack for the well-timed cut, the well-placed spot-up, and the hard-earned rebound.

“It’s all instincts and trying to get a good feel for the guys you’re playing with,” Crowder said. “Knowing their instincts and what they like to do. We’ve had a couple days of practice [for summer league], so I got a good feel for each guy on the court that I played with.”

In passing, Crowder provided an interesting thought: If he was able to develop the kind of chemistry necessary to work off the ball effectively on offense and shade his teammates on defense after just a few short practices in Vegas, what might he be able to accomplish with training camp, a preseason run, and a regular N.B.A. schedule? Summer league basketball is notoriously sloppy, and yet Crowder performed far beyond the Las Vegas standard; through effort, skill, and instinct alone, Crowder created a semblance of order out of the considerable chaos.

Through the complications of a position switch, a stylistic shift, an unfamiliar system and a roster full of new teammates, Crowder was remarkably unfazed. That bodes well for his full conversion to the N.B.A., where he’ll be asked to contribute in all kinds of capacities for the Mavericks. Crowder’s lack of a signature skill may have cost him on draft night (one can only imagine where he might have been drafted had he the simpler game of a specialist), but it’s that same multipurpose appeal that makes him so perfect for Dallas.

The Mavericks are creative enough to see Crowder as the unique talent he is and wise enough not to be swayed by what he isn’t. Some players simply thrive in a team setting, and what Crowder lacks in traditional appeal and the ability to create shots, he makes up for with his uniquely informed defense and his agreeable offensive style.

“He’s a guy that everybody in our league likes as a prospect,” Carlisle said. “He’s got skill: he can shoot mid-range and we’re working with him on the three, he makes plays better than you think, and he just plays a straight game of basketball that doesn’t get you beat. Guys like that are going to be in the league a long time.”

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