Mavs Inside Story: The Trouble With OJ
It's been 45 years, a raft of Oscars, and one decidedly above average line of salad dressings since Paul Newman played "Cool Hand Luke'' and endured the most enduring refrain, "What we have here is a failure to communicate," but it may never ring truer than it does when describing one Ovinton J'Anthony Mayo.
Indeed, the trouble with O.J. Mayo – and the reason he lasted as long as he did on the free agent market before falling into the Mavs' laps on Monday – isn't due to some failure of his own creation but rather his failure to live up to an impossible mythology written for him so many years ago.
We were told that O.J. Mayo, Sports Illustrated feature and SLAM cover boy at age 19, was the heir to LeBron James as the next dominant athlete out of high school. What he became was an outstanding amateur player with a strong feel for the game, but one without the physical gifts to dominate.
Mayo was expected to sign with a college superpower like North Carolina, Kansas, or Duke and lead them to a college national championship. Instead, he signed with USC and helped march them into NCAA probation.
O.J. Mayo, NBA player, was intended to be the savior of the Memphis Grizzlies. Rather, he became a key cog in their evolution from NBA also-ran to Western Conference cruiserweight, but one who left the heavy-lifting to the likes of Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol.
He didn't do all the heavy-lifting ... but he did do alot of the heavy-shooting, not all of it in a way that pleased coaches.
Even your Dallas Mavericks have long given up the notion that OJ Mayo is the star-caliber talent who will launch the team back into title contention the way a top-three pick from four years ostensibly would.
Mavs personnel people have whispered to DB.com for years that Mayo's issue is that he looks in the mirror and sees a superstar ... sees "The Next LeBron.''
But if that narrative hadn't been penned in the first place and if O.J. Mayo hadn't fallen short of those impossible expectations and if the Memphis Grizzlies hadn't decided to deem the resulting byproduct expendable, then Dallas wouldn't have just acquired its most physically gifted traditional shooting guard since Michael Finley.
You heard us.
To be clear, there are several things Mayo doesn't do particularly well. Namely, he can't reliably shoot a 15-footer; he's never been much more than an above average athlete by NBA standards; and if you're big into PER, then Juice isn't the most efficient cat around.
But as for things that he does particularly badly – well, there aren't many things either.
Here's what Mayo can do.
He can, when given the opportunity, score, as evidenced by putting up 18.5 and 17.5 points per game in the first two years of his Memphis career.
He can also hit the three, at a clip over 38% those inaugural seasons before regressing to 36% in limited minutes the past two campaigns.
He can defend -- at least when he is fully willing -- something that has set him apart at every level both for his natural capability. If you turned on a Memphis game last season, chances are you sometimes saw him at his best and noticed him tag-teaming with Tony Allen to clamp down on opposing perimeter players like a pair of pitbulls on a porterhouse.
He doesn't do that on every possession, however. In that sense, he's not DeShawn ... when, by all physical rules, he really should be better than DeShawn.
O.J.'s an able-bodied distributor, someone who initiated a large chunk of USC's offense at the collegiate level and did so at a high enough rate that upon entering the draft, many teams viewed him as a possible point guard at the next level. The assist numbers don't reflect that at the professional level. And they probably won't in Dallas, with Darren Collison expected to be the preferred catalyst. ... though Carlisle is on record as wanting Dallas to continue to be the NBA's most proficient passing team and Mayo can help there.
The overall end product is he can handle the rock for stretches and not kill you in the process.
Combine all of those things together and the Mavs have something they haven't in an achingly long time: a starting shooting guard whose game isn't a mosaic of inadequacies nestled among one standout attribute but rather one who does a lot of things right and very few wrong.
So no, O.J. Mayo isn't the defender Stevenson is or the shooter that Michael Finley was or the slasher that Jerry Stackhouse became for Dallas. But he isn't the trainwreck D-Steve was off the dribble, nor the defensive sieve Finley and Stackhouse were in the latter part of their Mavericks tenures, either.
Even the most cursory glance at his yearly stats reveals another dichotomy that ought to work in Dallas' favor; namely, the more Mayo plays, the better he'll be. And on a team that is desperate for offense, youth, and a two-way guard who doesn't take more things off the table than he brings to it, bringing in 24-year-old Mayo to play heavy minutes is a move that ticks off all three of those boxes.
There are other issues to be sorted out in this story. "Welcome to the family O.J.!'' Dallas owner Mark Cuban tweeted on Monday night. "We are fired up! MFFL Mavs/Mayo Fan For Life!'' And "life'' might be a stretch, as Dallas' "Plan Powder'' logically prohibits this contract from being a long-term one. (We're hearing it's a two-year deal.) But a new lease on a basketball life? That, O.J. is getting.
O.J. Mayo never will be the player he was once ascribed to be. Good thing for him, all the Mavs need is for him to be is the best version of player he's evolved into instead.
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