Just when you think the NBA’s front-office geniuses have some grand scheme they are following, along comes Shelvin Mack.
If you had never heard of Mack until he joined the Jazz in mid-February, you’re like everyone else. Before that, he wasn’t part of the team's master plan they began implementing when they dumped veteran star players in favor of a youth movement; for that matter, he wasn’t part of anyone’s plan.
Maybe you’ve noticed: Mack — formerly of the Maine Red Claws, a player who had been waived twice and signed four 10-day contracts — is suddenly playing a starring role as the team’s point guard.
The Jazz got him on the NBA sale rack just before the trade deadline. He cost them a future second-round pick, which is where they could’ve found him three years ago. He played his first game for his new team on Feb. 21 and collected 16 points and six assists. He’s been in the starting lineup ever since.
He’s averaging 12.7 points and six assists a game and the Jazz have won five of their last six even with the team’s best player, Gordon Hayward, sidelined with an injury for two of those wins. During that stretch Mack averaged 16.8 points, 8.6 assists and 5.3 rebounds. That includes a 27-point night against Washington and two near-triple-double performances against Cleveland and Phoenix (17-10-7, 15-10-8).
Meanwhile, point guard Trey Burke, the ninth pick of the 2013 draft, is barely seeing the court. He played zero minutes the last two games — and averaged five minutes in the last five. Raul Neto, another 2013 draftee from Brazil, has averaged 14 minutes and seven points.
Dante Exum, their point guard of the future and the No. 5 overall pick of the 2014 draft, is recovering from ACL surgery and the date of his return is uncertain. The Jazz needed support at the position to cover for Exum’s absence. They found it sitting at the end of the Hawks’ bench. He wasn’t even the Hawks’ second option at point guard — he was third string, behind Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder.
He didn’t even leave the bench in 31 of 55 games. The trade for Mack has little downside because he is making “only” $2.4 million this year and he’s playing on a non-guaranteed contract this year and next.
Mack was the second-round pick of the Washington Wizards in 2011. He lasted one season before he was waived. He signed with the Maine Red Claws, an NBA D-League team. A few weeks later he was back with the Wizards and then waived again two weeks later.
He rejoined the Red Claws, which led to a pair of 10-day contracts with the Philadelphia 76ers, followed by a return to, yes, the Red Claws. In the middle of the 2012-13 season, he signed two 10-day contracts with the Hawks before he was given that non-guaranteed contract.
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey is either brilliant or lucky or both in plucking Mack from the end of the Hawks’ bench, but he wasn’t a complete stranger. Mack had played under Jazz coach Quin Snyder when the latter was an assistant for the Hawks. And he was Hayward’s teammate at Butler.
This is not the first time Lindsey has improvised with D-League players to cover holes in the lineup. When the Jazz opted for the youth-movement route, the team preached patience to fans and media; they assured them there was a plan. To the surprise of no one, the Jazz started last season poorly. They were 19-34 at the All-Star break.
They were 19-10 the rest of the season. To do that, Lindsey shuffled and reshuffled the deck. By the end of the season, the Jazz had had 30 players under contract, seven from the D-League. At one point late in the season, all four of those D-Leaguers — Elijah Millsap, Bryce Cotton, Jack Cooley and Chris Johnson — were on the court at the same time. Only Johnson was offered a contract for this season.
Now he is joined by another former D-League grad, Mack. Who knows what his long-term role will be once Exum returns, but meanwhile he’s making the most of this opportunity.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]