The term “fairytale” is often used to describe Lu Dort’s journey from undrafted to NBA starter. One year after not being selected in the 2019 NBA Draft, Dort has clawed his way to a full-time NBA contract. The rookie came to terms on a four-year, $5.4 million deal with the Thunder on Wednesday afternoon, per Royce Young.
The fact is, it shouldn’t have been that difficult for Dort. But he’s here now, and it’s clear the rookie has staying power.
A consensus top-30 recruit in the 2018 high school class, Dort was a star in his one year of college at Arizona State. He set a Sun Devil freshman scoring record in his debut, scoring 28 points to start his collegiate career. He ended that season on the All-Pac-12 Second Team, Pac-12 All-Defense Team, Pac-12 All-Freshman Team, and as the Pac-12 Freshman of the year. He averaged 16.1 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
Just five days before the Draft, most mock drafts had Dort slated either in the late first-round or early second round. One year later, it’s clear the 6-foot-2 guard deserved to be drafted at least that high.
The Thunder are 16-5 in the 21 games Dort started. The rookie regularly took on and succeeded in tough defensive assignments against the likes of James Harden and Damien Lillard. He also averaged 6.2 points and 1.9 rebounds per game on 41.4% shooting and 30.1% from beyond the arc.
His 6’8.5 wingspan, along with quick feet and quick hands, are a weapon on defense.
That begs the question: Why wasn’t Dort drafted?
The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie mocked Dort No. 31, which is the first pick of the second round, a month before the draft.
“Dort is considered by most executives to be in this range, with the potential to rise up into becoming a solid first rounder with a strong process. Particularly, teams will be looking for growth in his jump shot, as it has a weird spin with slightly differing release points. Still, Dort is an elite level on-ball defender, which is something the Brooklyn backcourt could use.”Sam Vecenie, The Athletic
It seems likely that NBA teams were squeamish of Dort’s shooting, which yielded below average results with a form that isn’t easy on the eyes. As a result, scouts across the league missed a talented prospect that became a player equipped to contribute for a long time.
First and foremost, Dort is an excellent defender, and probably second only to Matisse Thybulle in his draft class. He isn’t the same level of a prospect that Marcus Smart was. He will almost certainly never be as good of a player (Smart is really, really good), but the similarities are hard to ignore.
In his first NBA game, Dort had the trust of the coaching staff to play crucial minutes. He rewarded that trust with a clutch steal late in the game and gave up his body to do so.
In a one-on-one interview with Down To Dunk’s Andrew Schlecht, Dort said he thinks of himself as a point guard. According to Basketball-Reference, Dort played just three percent of his minutes at point guard thanks to the Thunder’s talented backcourt, but the rookie showed flashes of being able to handle more ball-handling duties in the future.
He looked comfortable putting the ball on the floor, even in a half-court setting.
Dort also shows his defensive ability here with quick hands to go with a 215-pound frame that stonewalls Daniel Theis before making the steal and leading the charge toward the other end. (This is exactly the type of play Marcus Smart would make, by the way).
He’s also shown a feel for the game and basketball IQ that is impressive for somebody playing in his age 20 season. This cut-and-dunk is something Thunder fans have seen from a guy like Andre Roberson, not Terrance Ferguson, for example. That, along with his ability to put the ball on the floor and at least attack a closeout, can make up for his lack of shooting.
Dort shot 30.1% from beyond the arc on 2.5 attempts per game in the first act of the 2019-20 season. It’s not easy being a wing in the league that can’t shoot, so how good he becomes depends largely on this improving.
As is to be expected with an inconsistent and slow release on his shot, Dort was a streaky shooter but had moments such his 23-point outburst on 5-6 shooting against the Kings. His free throw percentage (77.8%) at least provides hope that becoming a league-average shooter is possible.
However, what is clear is the Thunder got a steal while the rest of the league whiffed. Given his pre-draft pedigree, this isn’t some Cinderella Story, though. Dort absolutely deserves to be here.