A lot can change in five years. In 2007 Josh Howard and O.J. Mayo were both on top of the world. Howard was Dirk Nowitzki’s clear No. 2 on a team that won a team-record 67 games. Mayo was the country’s premiere high school prospect. Five years later, they are journeymen at a crossroads. Howard is still seeking employment, and though the Mavericks have had plenty of roster openings, they’ve displayed no interest in their former star. Instead, they’ve placed their hopes in the hands of the enigmatic Mayo, who arrives in Dallas with much to prove in what may be his last chance to cement a starting role. Mayo weighs in at precisely the same 220 pounds as Josh Howard but many doubt his ability to hold the same weight of responsibility that once rested on Howard’s shoulders. Can Mayo fulfill his promise and become the second option in Dallas? It’s a tall order but one that Mayo can meet.
Mayo’s career arc thus far has taken a steady decline. He arrived in the NBA after a solid but unspectacular campaign for USC. Viewed as a distant draft consolation prize behind Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley, he was dumped before the dance ended, traded by the Timberwolves for Kevin Love. Things only got worse in Memphis. The 38 minutes a game he was afforded by the Grizzlies in his first two seasons transformed to 26 minutes a game and a sixth-man role behind rookie Xavier Henry. Asking whether Mayo has fulfilled expectations yields an unflinching “no.” The better question is where his ceiling currently stands; what should Mavs fans reasonably expect from Mayo?
In the best-case scenario, Mayo can emulate Howard’s value in Dallas, if not his specific production. He won’t explode for 47 points in a single game or play more minutes per game than Dirk, as Howard once did, but he also won’t be asked to. Rick Carlisle has different plans for Mayo than Avery Johnson had for Howard, and understands that Mayo’s optimal role will be to replace aspects of what Jason Kidd and Jason Terry brought to the table. Offensively, Carlisle will look to Mayo to replace Terry’s perimeter shooting and to aid Darren Collison in distributing the ball. Defensively, Carlisle hopes Mayo can provide some of the same versatility and assistance off the boards that Kidd once did. These expectations, as opposed to those that have chased him since draft day, are the ones Mayo needs to meet.
Mayo knows that his outside shooting will be vital to the Mavs’ success, and has been hard at work on his jumper. But will those efforts alone be enough to turn Mayo into a more reliable scorer? Shooting accuracy relies on shot selection, and one would hope that Mayo’s will improve. He’s returning to a prominent role that features designed looks (particularly during Nowitzki’s absence) instead of desperation shots at the end of broken plays with Memphis’ second team. Mayo shot 36.4% from behind the arc in a less featured role with the Grizzlies and needs only to return to his early form (38.3% and 38.4% in his heyday) to cleanly surpass Terry’s 2011-2012 mark of 37.8%. That’s a fair target for a capable player in a de-facto contract year, even if his debut season with the Mavs will call for some adjustment.
Mayo’s passing abilities will likely help ease that transition. Neither Collison nor Mayo will ever be mistaken for Kidd as a passer, but Mayo has shown signs of being an able distributor in the right context. The most recent example came when Mayo did his best Kidd impression by posting a 13-9-10 line against the Charlotte Bobcats in the preseason. Exhibition numbers always come with a grain of salt, but that game was nonetheless a useful experiment to see what Mayo can do with the ball in his hands. Collison is a below-average distributor, with his assist percentage (an estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while he was on the floor) dipping to a career low 24.6% before he left Indiana. Mayo is certainly not plan “A” as a point guard, but his presence does help off-set some of Collison’s limitation.
Defensively, Dallas has lost one of the best rebounding guards of all time in Jason Kidd, but to say that Mayo isn’t the rebounder Kidd was is hardly an insult. Kidd was historically great and had unique vision in all aspects of the game. He defied age and gravity in grabbing 5.4 boards per 36 minutes last season, compared to the more athletic Mayo’s 4.3 rebounds per 36. Total rebounding percentage, an estimate of the percentage of available rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor, also reveals Kidd’s advantage (8.1% to 6.9%).
Mayo’s success shouldn’t be judged on whether he reaches Kidd’s numbers but whether he can improve on his own. In that regard his progress is a bit more heartening; Mayo’s 4.3 boards over 36 minutes represented a huge improvement over his previous season’s total of 3.3. His total rebounding percentage of 6.9% represented an even more remarkable improvement over his 5.4% mark.
Can he sustain that momentum? There are strong reasons to believe so. His role in Dallas is far more clearly defined than it was in Memphis, and he’ll be placed into a system that asks guards to perform an outsized rebounding role. Mayo might not reach Kidd’s totals, but his ongoing improvement (and a change of scenery) suggests he’ll likely set new personal bests as a rebounder.
Mayo will need time to grow into his role, but Mavs fans should be patient and hopeful; this is a talented player regaining his form and confidence, and now at home in a new scheme that will offer him ample opportunity. Mayo ultimately won’t imitate Kidd, or JET, or even Howard. But provided that he can build on the skills he’s demonstrated in his young career thus far, he’ll make for a welcome addition on a team strapped for the very contributions he provides.
Brian Rubaie is a high school teacher, debate coach, and full-time Mavericks fan. Follow him on Twitter: @DirksRevenge.