DALLAS – Just be Jameer Nelson.
That’s the job description for the new Dallas Mavericks starting point guard in the simplest terms.
The Mavs signed Nelson because they wanted a smart, tough floor leader who could provide some penetration, knock down open shots and get the ball where it needed to go. That’s what Nelson did throughout his 10-year tenure with the Orlando Magic.
But Nelson is in the beginning stages of a major transition. He’s learning the Mavs’ schemes on the fly – and they’ve still installed only about half of their offensive sets – and getting accustomed to operating an offense that features a pair of wings who thrive as pick-and-roll initiators and the sweetest-shooting power forward in NBA history.
“Most importantly, I just have to be aggressive in whatever I do,” said Nelson, who has career averages of 12.6 points and 5.4 assists per game. “I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to mess some things up, but just staying aggressive will help myself and the team.
“The system is new. Things are different. Learning on the fly is a little tough, but I’m smart enough, picking it up pretty fast and learning guys’ sweet spots on the floor, learning when I need to shoot more. All that stuff will come.”
Coach Rick Carlisle, who raves about Nelson’s intangibles, knows that Nelson is feeling his way in a new system with all new teammates. The feeling-out process is about becoming familiar with when and where teammates want the ball and Nelson can get his scoring opportunities in the Mavs’ movement-intensive offense.
“Get comfortable and give us the right balance of penetration, scoring off pick-and-rolls, scoring off spot-ups and he’s got to give us tough defense,” Carlisle said. “He’s very capable of all those things.”
Breaking in a new starting point guard is becoming old hat for the Mavs. Nelson will be the fourth point guard to start opening night for the Mavs in four years, following in the footsteps of Jason Kidd, Darren Collison and Jose Calderon. And who could forget the starting stints for Derek Fisher and Mike James during the 2012-13 campaign? Oh, right, you’d rather forget.
The Mavs very well could be in the market for a premier point guard again next summer, when Rajon Rondo and Goran Dragic should be available in free agency. But Nelson, who has a player option for next season on the two-year, cap-room-exception deal he signed this summer, should be a fine fit to lead a committee that also features veterans Devin Harris and Raymond Felton.
Nelson provides at least reasonable facsimiles of some of the best attributes of the Mavs’ last few opening-night point guards. He’s not among the precious few in NBA history who are on Kidd’s level as a leader, but the muscular, 6-foot Nelson provides toughness, a take-charge personality and would score high on any basketball IQ tests. He’s not as quick as Collison, but Nelson has a knack for getting in the lane and finishing or finding a teammate for an easy bucket. Nelson isn’t as accurate a long-range marksman as Calderon, but he has shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range four times in his career.
In other words, the squatty, 6-foot Nelson is capable of doing anything the Mavs ask of their point guards.
“He’s been around for a long time now and he always plays with certain poise,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “He’s a great shooter, so you can never leave him open. And if he gets in there he’s a good passer – I love his penetrations.
“So with the lineup we’ve got out there, he should get his fair share of pick-and-rolls, he should get his fair share of open shots. And if he’s open, I’ll take a shot up any time.”
In summary, here’s what the Mavs need from Nelson: Be aggressive. Be smart. Be tough. Be yourself.