Fortson could be really big deal

Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Dallas Mavericks.

DALLAS -- They have made two major trades in a span of three months. They have added an Antawn and an Antoine to make it a full boat. They now have five bombs-away scorers to finish games, and so they have outsiders befuddled already.

Consider the reaction of Tim Duncan, the game's reigning MVP, to the Mavericks' decision to sacrifice a 7-footer who can block shots (Raef LaFrentz) for another 3-point specialist (Antoine Walker).

"That's ... weird," Duncan said. "Unless Dallas is trying to score more points, I don't know. Wow. That's incredibly weird."

Of course, weirdness depends on your perspective. To the Mavericks and the people around them, the idea of putting Walker on the floor with Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Michael Finley and Antawn Jamison isn't strange at all. Especially since the Mavericks, for all their shooters, have been concerned about their curious shortage of good passers. Since 'Toine can make plays when he's not taking 3s, Dallas sees its latest acquisition as the epitome of sensible.

If you're looking for strange, from a Mavericks perspective, it's what they're getting from the new guy who no one from the outside has even noticed. That would be the stocky bruiser who is ramming into teammates in practice and -- get this -- making the rebound his No. 1 priority.

The Mavericks haven't had many guys in the Nellie Ball era like Danny Fortson, and here's another weird idea: He might be the hidden key to Dallas' offseason remodeling.

OK, that might be overstating it. At the very least, though, Fortson should be the Mavericks' starting center, starting next Tuesday in Los Angeles. In their dreams, Mark Cuban and Don Nelson would have been sending Alonzo Mourning into the center circle against Shaquille O'Neal. In the Mavs-at-Lakers season opener, they'll instead give Fortson the opportunity to see if he can be more imposing than Shawn Bradley or the departed LaFrentz ... and to see if he can back up his bravado after more than a year of hibernation in Golden State.

"I'm a physical player, and I'm pretty sure (O'Neal) knows that I can probably give him a little trouble," Fortson said. "As a matter of fact, I'm not going to say probably. I know I can. If I can go out there with the right mind frame and watch my fouls, I know I can give him fits. I'm going to work as hard as I can so, October 28th, I can prove it."

Although Shaq, like most large men, has never enjoyed the sensation of smaller, pluggy defenders getting underneath him -- he calls them "tree stumps," referring to guys like Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley and Charles Barkley -- the Mavericks are realistic. They have lost 25 straight road games to the Lakers, largely because Shaq is usually at his angriest against them, enraged mainly by Nelson's Hack-A-Shaq defenses or the mere sight of Bradley. No one sane would count on Fortson, generously listed at 6-foot-8 and 260, to be a Shaq-stopper.

Yet Dallas does have some expectations for Fortson, who's shorter and heavier than what the program says. If you allow Nelson to be greedy, he's hoping the new environment sparks a similar reaction in Fortson to what the Mavericks saw the last time they brought in a reportedly moody sort who played his college ball at Cincinnati.

Fortson, like Nick Van Exel, joined his new team on an all-time low, as a secondary element in a big trade. Van Exel wound up outshining LaFrentz to emerge as last spring's playoff hero and the big prize in Dallas' February 2002 swap with Denver.

From Fortson? Nelson would settle for 20-plus good minutes a night of banging -- some of the nastiness that these Mavericks have always needed. Some smarts would help, too: Fortson has averaged only 23.6 minutes per game in his six seasons in part because he has averaged nearly four fouls per game in his career. Per 48 minutes, Fortson averages 17.7 rebounds ... but also 7.3 fouls.

He has also struggled to stay healthy, or keep the weight off, and tends to run afoul of coaches because he ends up wanting to pound dribbles and take shots instead of focusing on the rebounds. Nelson believes he can get Fortson to stick to the board work, hoping that a winning atmosphere sparks an agreeable attitude. Fortson's teams in Denver, Boston and Golden State were a combined 136-324 since his rookie season with the Nuggets in 1997-98.

"He's an undersized power forward, but guess what?" Nelson said. "For us, he's a center.

"We're really happy with him, He's done everything we've asked him to do."

Fortson's new teammates are pleased, too, that the Warriors couldn't wait to move him. They know they needed somebody tough after Mourning reneged on an oral commitment to sign with Dallas, opting to join New Jersey instead, and after a deal with Miami for Brian Grant fell through.

Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki: "Danny's a beast."

Guard Steve Nash: "It's nice to have a guy around here who's devoted to getting rebounds."

And Jamison, Fortson's fellow former Warrior: "We've just got to get him to calm down sometimes when he's out there on the court."

That's because a crafty pivot man like Duncan figures to draw fouls on Fortson as quickly as those weird Mavs can score points. Ditto for Shaq. It's too early to say whether Fortson will indeed be an X-factor, albeit on a smaller scale than Van Exel.

But the guess here is that you're going to notice him, because Fortson stands out from a group of sleek, fast-breaking bombardiers. Nash has made the analogy that, with Antawn and Antoine, the Mavericks would be trying to "go around the mountain" -- meaning O'Neal or Duncan -- "if you can't climb the mountain." Turns out they also have a mini-mountain of their own now to throw into their quirky mix.

"Right now I'm nowhere near where I know I have to be," Fortson said. "I'm just working hard as hell trying to get back to how I know I can play. I'm just trying my best to make everyone happy. I know the best way for me to be successful is continue to work hard in practice ... and stay out of foul trouble."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.