Rookies get used to not being “the man” when they get to the NBA, unless they’re lucky enough to get drafted into a situation in which they’re needed to play immediately.
Midway through his rookie season, Dallas Mavericks first-round pick Shane Larkin has figured out as much.
“You go from being the man [in college] to being on a team with future hall of famers and great veterans who have earned their minutes,” Larkin says. “You have to start at the bottom and earn trust with coaches and players to get consistent minutes.”
The Mavericks sent Larkin to their D-League affiliate in Frisco so he could play a game. He took it as an opportunity to get consistent minutes and work on his game.
A few weeks ago, it looked like Larkin had a breakthrough. An in-game injury to starting point guard Jose Calderon created a spot for Larkin to play against Phoenix on January 17. Larkin played 27 minutes, scored 18 points and dished out five assists.
But, just as quickly, the playing time went away. Calderon returned and Devin Harris — the veteran signed to help give the Mavs another option at point guard — came back from his injury and started siphoning off Larkin’s potential time.
It became so bad that Larkin played 11 total minutes in the final four games of January. That led to the Mavericks sending Larkin to their D-League affiliate in Frisco so he could play a game with the Texas Legends before returning to the Mavs at the beginning of this week. Larkin scored nine points and had six assists in 33 minutes in the contest last Sunday.
Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle characterizes Larkin’s performance as “aggressive” and admitted the team might look for more chances to send Larkin to Frisco for playing time if that doesn’t materialize with the Mavs.
“It’s good to see him develop that attacking mentality,” Carlisle says. “We need that from him, and we need him to keep his speed in the game all the time.”
The points actually don’t matter as much right now to Larkin’s development. Even he admits as much. The Mavs have plenty of players that can fill the basket. His 3-point shot needs to improve. Larkin calls it inconsistent, and Carlisle says that today’s NBA guard has to shoot the three well.
“If you can’t, [defenses] won’t respect you,” Larkin says.
Larkin may find himself in Frisco more often as the season winds down. The Mavs would be strategic in getting him minutes when they can.
What the Mavs need right now are facilitators, guards that can consistently drive the lane and get the ball to players like Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. That means the Mavs want Larkin in the lane driving, dishing and distributing, not standing passive on the perimeter and deferring to older teammates.
So Larkin didn’t take the assignment to Frisco as a demotion. Rather, he took it as an opportunity to get consistent minutes and work on his game. The fact that Larkin went to Frisco and didn’t try to make every play says as much about what the Mavs want from him as it does about his demeanor on the court.
“[Frisco] has a good team, and I didn’t want to throw them all out of whack by hogging the ball,” Larkin says. “I wanted to fit into what they were doing. We have so many scorers [in Dallas], and if I can get in the lane and kick it out, we’re going to score.”
Larkin’s talent isn’t the issue. The Mavs seem confident that in a couple of years, Larkin has the makeup to be their starting point guard. But right now the drive is to give Nowitzki one more shot at a ring.
For that, owner Mark Cuban and team president Donnie Nelson signed Calderon and Harris this past offseason. Calderon is in Dallas on a four-year deal. Harris is here on a one-year deal. Gal Mekel, another rookie point guard, has a three-year contract.
So the Mavs have options. But to give Dallas the best chance to reach the playoffs, Carlisle is leaning on players like Calderon and Harris, who know the NBA game well. There is less leeway to give a talented rookie like Larkin playing time when the Mavs are on the Western Conference playoff bubble.
Which is why Larkin may find himself in Frisco more often as the season winds down. Carlisle said the Mavs would be strategic in getting Larkin minutes in Frisco when they can.
That may be Larkin’s only shot at immediate playing time due to the logjam in front of him. After Larkin returned from Frisco, he played four minutes in his first two games.
“They sent me there to get my rhythm, and my next practice was great,” Larkin says. “If I’m called upon, I want to get in there and cause problems. I know I can bring a lot of energy.”
The Mavericks are looking for every way possible to let Larkin bring that energy.