If you're looking at the future of this Dallas Mavericks team, three young players stand out — Justin Anderson, Salah Mejri and Dwight Powell. Now, these guys may not become superstars, but successful NBA teams have players that fill unique niches outside of their stars. For the next few weeks, I'll examine each of these three players, where they fit in the future and where they must improve for next season. Here's the piece on Justin Anderson. Today, we continue with Salah Mejri.
Technically Mejri was a NBA rookie. But as he closes in on his 30th birthday the 7-foot-2 Mejri has some tread on the tires due to his play internationally in Tunisia, Belgium and Spain. He also didn't start playing basketball until he turned 20. So to maximize Mejri's remaining years, the Mavs need to get him in the right role and Mejri needs to improve in some key areas.
It's hard to project Mejri as a starting center. In fact, for the foreseeable future I can't see Mejri as a starter unless it's due to injury or due to a particular matchup that head coach Rick Carlisle thinks he can exploit.
Mejri did start six games in 2015-16 and played in 34, but he averaged just 11.7 minutes per game, scoring 3.7 points and grabbing 3.6 rebounds per game. Mejri's rebounding did register among the Top 20 NBA rookies last season, putting him No. 14. He also registered in the Top 10 in blocks per game at 1.06 per game, good for No. 5 overall. In fact, Mejri had two more blocks (36) than games played (34).
Mejri does have some things to offer these Mavericks. First, he's the tallest Mav on the roster. In fact, sometimes, he's the tallest player on the court. For 7-foot-2, 245 pounds, he moves his body well in the paint. He's certainly not quick, and he's not athletic enough to consistently go from one side of the paint to the other for a rebound. But he can run, jump, and has intensity. And on his side of the court he has good footwork and a decent physical foundation (despite a thin frame) to block out defenders and clear the glass.
This is an area where the Mavs need improvement. Last season they were right in the middle of the NBA, ranked No. 19 with 43.1 rebounds per game. The rebound differential doesn't look too bad — opponents only outrebounded the Mavs by 2.7 rebounds per game. In the postseason that differential went up to more than 12 rebounds per game against Oklahoma City. It exposed the Mavericks as a team that simply can't keep up with teams that feature athletic big men in the middle.
That's one area Mejri can impact next season. Imagine if Mejri can become a 15-to-20 minute per game player and can double his rebounding output from last year? That would be more than seven boards per game. I think that's feasible.
Next there's rim protection. The Mavericks were last in the NBA last season in blocked shots per game at 3.7 per game. Teams knew the Mavs lacked a player that could consistently turn back shots on drives to the basket (think Tyson Chandler). Mejri is probably the Mavs' best chance at finding a consistent rim protector. What if he could double his output of a year ago? That's two blocks per game and that would push the Mavs from dead last to the middle of the pack in that category. It would make the Mavs more formidable in the paint, something they need.
Mejri's value will never be wrapped in scoring. Sure he may have a few games where he hits double digits. But his real value will be wrapped up in rebounding and shot blocking, a pair of areas where the Mavs sorely need someone to step up and improve both areas.
Where does Mejri need to improve? First, there is his footwork and floor spacing in the middle. He showed last season that he has the foundation. Now he and the Mavs' coaching staff must refine it. He needs to improve how he moves laterally and his anticipation of where the ball will come off the rim. Second, you wonder if he can improve his body type. He can't gain a wider base. Can he gain muscle? Or, under the supervision of trainer Casey Smith, do you examine going the other way, maybe even dropping just a few pounds? Playing at 235 or 240 isn't going to sacrifice his physical play. But it would improve his movement in the paint, shave down his closing speed on potential blocks and enhance his ability to log more minutes on the floor.
In truth, Mejri doesn't have to improve a whole lot to have an impact. I see him as a 15-20 minute player and if you look at his per 36 averages in 2015-16 — 11.3 points and 11.2 rebounds — he only needs marginal improvement in his game to reach half of those totals, especially when it comes to rebounding. Now, Dallas needs somebody else to be the starting center in order for Mejri to slide into this role. Fish handles the truth about Dallas and Dwight Howard here. We touch on some free-agency big-man warts here. And in Mavs Premium, some smart folks are wondering about Tyson Chandler here. Oh, and the Mavs always liked Joakim Noah ... at least back when he could stay healthy.
But Mejri can only worry about Mejri for now. And ... If he and the Mavs can refine his fundamentals, improve his positioning and get him in a bit better shape then I think his natural size and movement inside will take care of the rest.