Justin Dentmon receives the 2012 NBA D-League MVP award from President Dan Reed (left) and Austin Head Coach Brad Jones.
Chris Covatta/NBAE/Getty Images
CEDAR PARK, Tex. -- In most sports leagues, winning the MVP is the ultimate individual achievement. A clear-cut sign that you are the very best at what you do.
In the NBA D-League, however, where the true definition of success is not always so black and white, the award, while prestigious, comes with a bit of a stigma.
That is: While you were good enough to dominate the league and win the MVP award – like Austin’s Justin Dentmon this season – you also did not convince an NBA team to give you an extended stay in The Show.
If you ask the man at the heart of this issue this season, however, you’ll see a different perspective being cast.
“I wouldn’t do it any different,” Dentmon said of spending the majority of the year in the NBA D-League, which, by default, propelled him to the award. “I think everything happens for a reason. Not many people can say they won an MVP and a championship in the same year, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Dentmon leads the Toros against the L.A. D-Fenders in the NBA D-League Finals, a matchup he calls, “the clash of the titans.” Game 1 is Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET in Austin’s Cedar Park Center and you can watch live on FutureCast.
On the season, Dentmon, who averaged 22.8 points and 5.5 assists, actually did earn two GATORADE Call-Ups, one with the San Antonio Spurs and one with the Toronto Raptors, but the 6-foot guard was not able to stick. Instead, he was sent back down to the NBA D-League after each of his 10-day stints, where the Toros were waiting with open arms.
In six NBA games, Dentmon averaged 4.3 points and 1.7 assists in just over 15 minutes per contest. Dentmon, however, appears to be on the rise, is constantly improving and seems ready to make a big push for a spot on an NBA roster next season, something not many MVPs in the past can claim.
Only three former NBA D-League MVPs, and none since 2005, went on to spend substantial time in the NBA after winning the NBA D-League MVP. In fact, some never made it to the NBA at all. The cream of the crop in that group is probably Devin Brown, who won the MVP in 2003 and, for his NBA career spanning parts of eight seasons, averaged 7.6 points and 2.8 rebounds. Brown actually played four games in the NBA D-League this year after last playing in the NBA in 2009-10, and the only former NBA D-League MVP currently in the NBA is Charlotte’s Matt Carroll.
Why have MVPs had such a tough time making the next step to the NBA? Logic implies that if you are not able to earn a spot on an NBA team during the course of your best NBA D-League season – your MVP year – then it’s likely that teams are just not interested.
So, what makes Dentmon different? He appears to be just scratching the surface of his immense talent. This season Dentmon, 26, has dedicated himself and learned a position that doesn’t come all that natural to him, and that’s why he looks at the MVP as a positive thing.
“I think that it’s a testament to the hard work that I put in,” Dentmon said. “I have to give credit to the coaching staff for training me and preparing me to play at the point-guard spot. I take it as a great accomplishment. Any time you can win MVP in anything, it’s a great thing.”
The Toros acquired Dentmon in a draft day trade from the Texas Legends. Teams could see his talent then – he averaged 19.0 points, 4.0 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 2010-11 – but there were still questions about his overall game.
“The rap on him coming in here was that he was not a true point guard,” Austin Head Coach Brad Jones said. “He emerged quickly, not just as a nice point guard, but also the leader of our team.”
Dentmon, for all his physical ability, has always been more of a combo guard – an unquestioned scorer who lacked the control and discipline to be an elite distributor as well. This is where Dentmon focused most of his efforts so that he could become a more complete point guard, the position the Toros were asking him to play.
Dentmon on the Raptors (Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty Images)
The University of Washington product turned the ball over five or more times in 11 of his first 19 games this season, including nine turnovers on Jan. 15 versus Reno. Even for someone who constantly has the ball in his hands and who is a primary scorer, that is the kind of stat line that will keep NBA teams away. But, once February hit, his poise started to match his explosiveness. In only seven of the next 26 games did he hit the five-turnover threshold (his highest total being six), and in six games he recorded exactly zero turnovers.
“I think I improved taking care of the ball,” Dentmon said. “I think early on I was doing a lot for our team and I was turning it over. As the season went along, I cut back down on the turnovers. I was still able to do a lot offensively, but I took care of the ball.”
That has always been the key for Dentmon, harnessing his aggressiveness and balancing it with control. In the playoffs, he has been at his finest in that regard, with only four turnovers in four games. It is the evolution of a new Dentmon, one who returned to the team in the first round of the playoffs after his four-game stint with the Raptors.
“He’s just focused,” Austin forward Eric Dawson said of Dentmon upon his return to the team. “He’s making the right plays and making the right decisions. He’s the leader. He carries us and he makes everyone on the team better. We want him to make the NBA, but being selfish we need him to be here.”
Sure, the NBA D-League is a league all about Call-Ups. While in its most simplified state it’s a team game, the pipeline to the NBA, which values individual performance, sometimes trumps wins and losses. But for some, like Dentmon, once you get to this stage of the game, winning is actually the main focus.
“Last couple of years, I’ve proved all I could prove through my play,” Dentmon said. “All I can do now is do all that I can to win a championship. Whether that’s scoring more, defending more or doing both more. I’m going to do whatever I gotta do to win.”
The Toros will need a lot out of Dentmon if they hope to knock off the top-seeded D-Fenders, winners of 42 games and losers of only 12 so far this year. One thing is for sure, in a Finals series that pits the two best teams in the league, the action figures to be hotly contested.
“I’m expecting a physical game,” Dawson said. “In the playoffs, it’s go hard or go home. There’s gonna be biting, kicking and scratching down there, but that’s what you expect in the playoffs.”
Talking with Dentmon, he appears very content with the season that was. He has the MVP trophy, which he says is now in the past, and he is, as opposed to some other past MVPs, an intriguing prospect for NBA teams next year. As a result, he is just focused on winning a championship to round out his spectacular 2011-12 campaign that also saw him receive his first two GATORADE Call-Ups of his career.
“The motivation came from being sent back,” Dentmon said of returning to the NBA D-League from the NBA twice this year. “I want to keep getting better, but I think I showed that I can play at the highest level. I think it’s only a matter of time before a team likes me enough and gives me a chance.”
Yes, success in the NBA D-League isn’t always so black and white, but with continued improvement – and a potential championship – Dentmon is slowly eliminating any shades of gray in his game.