Handled with Care

The NBA is no place for patience but, when served in small doses, patience really can be a virtue.

It’s funny how radically different observers’ general perception of two players is when one was taken in the first round and the other in the second. Impatient folks slapped expectations on Shane Larkin (taken 18th overall) and some even declared the Mavericks’ acquirement a bust before he even appeared in his first game, as he spent training camp on the sideline with an injury. The same was not true with Ricky Ledo (taken 43rd overall in the same draft), whom we only wanted to see him in the NBA so he could be #freed.

To a certain degree, the burden of expectation is totally alright. Say Larkin was a lottery pick in a strong draft. In that case, you want him to produce right away. But the 18th pick in a draft that is (hastily) being considered one of the single-worst of the past two decades? Patience can be a virtue!

And while demanding fans might have wanted to see Larkin usurp backup minutes from either Jae Crowder, Devin Harris, or Jose Calderon, the Mavericks were in no rush to throw the rookie onto the floor unprepared for what was in front of him. Fellow rookie Gal Mekel spent the first half of the season as the primary backup point guard while Harris recovered from foot surgery. In hindsight, Mekel wasn’t ready to play significant NBA minutes, either. But that doesn’t mean Larkin was. The former Miami Hurricane played fewer than 500 minutes this season, which is fine. Once Harris was healthy, there wasn’t much room for Larkin to play, anyway.

Dallas smartly recognized that fact fairly early in the process with Ledo. There would be no room for Ledo on the roster as it was, so the Mavericks made use of their D-League affiliate to #free him elsewhere. As has previously been said on MOR, having a D-League team literally right up the road allowed Dallas the flexibility to offer its lesser-used players some precious playing time on an off day. Ledo spent the better part of the 2013-14 season in Frisco, but no other Maverick spent more time with the Legends than Larkin: 143 minutes. Roughly 22 percent of the professional basketball Larkin played this season was spent in Frisco.

And he played generally pretty well with the Legends. In four games, Larkin scored 15.3 points and added 8.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds in 35.8 minutes per game. The reflexive response to seeing any pro baller’s D-League numbers goes like this: Well, if he’s an NBA player, shouldn’t he be blowing up the league? The D-League, after all, is meant for players “worse” than Larkin. Ricky Ledo spent a year away from the game, so the D-League was the perfect way to assimilate him back into pro ball. The other stigma wrongly attached to the minors is that it’s almost a punishment or a slight to players under contract with an NBA team. That isn’t at all what Dallas was intending when Rick Carlisle and Co. assigned Larkin, Crowder, and Bernard James to the Legends for one night in February. Sending players down from a team’s perspective is all about building confidence. You can’t risk losses just to teach a player a “lesson.”

For the sake of perspective, don’t view Larkin as the 18th pick overall. Drafts change so significantly year-to-year that the 18th pick in one draft (last year’s, for example) most likely wouldn’t be taken in the first round of others (this year’s qualifies). Not all drafts are equal, just like not all players are created equal, just like not every team drafts well. So many variables go into who is selected where, and in a majority of drafts the guys taken outside the lottery all have about the same chances of producing as a pro.

The popular comparison for Larkin is JJ Barea. While accurate in some ways and not remotely close in others, let’s roll with that example. Barea went undrafted in 2006 and bounced around the Summer League circuit before landing with the Mavericks. During the 2006-07 season, he played eight games with the now defunct Fort Worth Flyers. His numbers: 27.3 points, 7.8 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 52.3/43.8/78.0. He also led the D-League in offensive rating at 127.6. Those stats are much gaudier than Larkin’s, right? Does that mean Larkin is doomed to a horrible NBA career? Not at all. Barea played against much worse competition in the D-League, while Larkin faced off with guys like eventual Rockets playoff hero Troy Daniels.

The time Barea spent in Fort Worth, above all else, was meant not only to remind Dallas that Barea could actually play, but also to keep Barea’s confidence high. Larkin outplayed his stats with the Legends, if that’s possible. I saw each of the four games Larkin played with Texas, and not once was he the second-best point guard on the floor.

So instead of wishing he played more with the Mavericks or calling him a bust, give the kid a break. If anything, be upset that Dallas didn’t send him down for more work in Frisco. It’s perfectly reasonable that Dallas retained Larkin for most of the season, because having fewer than three point guards on the active roster in today’s NBA is about as dumb a move as one team could make. And Larkin did impact games now and again when his number was called. His cameo against Phoenix in the last home game of the season comes to mind, as does his extended performance against the same club earlier in the season.

No, Dallas handled him well. Young players tend to have fragile makeups, and unless they’re an immediate star, it’s difficult to find a happy medium between providing them necessary minutes to help them learn the game and keeping them on the bench so older, arguably better players can earn their own time. While I would have liked to see Larkin play more D-League minutes, the Mavericks simply needed his healthy body on the roster for most of the season. Between the injuries to Harris and Mekel, the team didn’t have the freedom it might have predicted last summer.

Moving forward, Larkin’s playing time will depend more on who else is on the roster than anything else. If Calderon and Harris are back next season, it will be mighty tough to find a spot for Larkin — unless Carlisle uses Calderon in a Jason Kidd-esque role of guarding the slower perimeter player defensively while Larkin guards the quicker point guard. However, if Harris signs elsewhere, the minutes will be there for Larkin to take. He’s a nice player who could develop into a solid 1 in a pick-and-roll offense, which obviously fits well in Dallas. But until his future becomes his present (never the case after just one or two seasons) don’t rush to judge. Be patient.