O.J. Mayo: Hype and Hope
Bryan Gutierrez writes from Dallas on O.J. Mayo and how hype and hope have gotten Mayo to where he is with the Dallas Mavericks.
O.J. Mayo: Hype and HopeDALLAS — O.J. Mayo’s potential is something that has been well-chronicled. Since his days in high school, Mayo has been considered a prodigy. His natural skill helped win multiple state titles in high school. There was a general buzz around Mayo’s game and that put him under the microscope. Fast forward to his NBA career, after four up and down years, the Memphis Grizzles refused to pick up the $7.3 million qualifying offer to keep Mayo this past summer, thus allowing him to become a free agent. At just over a little over $4 million this year, Mayo has been one of the best bargains, if not the best one, in the entire league. While Dirk Nowitzki was out of the lineup due to his knee injury, Mayo was once again under that microscope in Dallas as he has had to carry the responsibility of being the number one scoring option. That hype has now turned into hope for the future.
Hype and hope met in Houston. The game against the Rockets on Dec. 8 was some of the most exciting basketball fans have been able to see this season. Mayo tied his career-high with 40 points in the team’s 116-109 victory. Mayo scored 16 first-quarter points. It was the second-most points he’s scored in the opening quarter of a game in his career, 20 at Denver Nov. 9, 2008. In addition, Mayo had 22 points in the first half. It marked just the second time in his career that Mayo tallied 20-plus points in the first half of a game, 26 in 1st half at Denver 11/9/08. It was Mayo’s second-highest scoring half of the 2012-13 season, 24 in 2nd half vs. Detroit Dec. 1.
When it came down to crunch time, Mayo scored 16 points in the fourth quarter against the Rockets, including 12 of Dallas’ final 14 points. It marked the third time in his career that he scored 16-plus points in the fourth quarter of a game, 19 at Phoenix Nov. 10, 2008, 17 vs. Utah Apr. 14, 2012. Mayo had totaled 16 points in a quarter just once all season prior to scoring 16 in the first and fourth quarters at Houston, 16 in 3rd quarter vs. Detroit 12/1.
Mayo out-dueled Houston’s James Harden, who finished with a team-high 39 points on the night. He outscored Harden 16-3 in the fourth quarter. During crunch time, Mayo rose to the occasion. When reflecting on that game, Mayo told Mavs.com, “Whenever the game is on the line, you want the ball and you want to make all the plays.” Clearly, he made those plays and put his name is the history books for the franchise.
Only one other Mavericks starting guard in the last 18 seasons has scored 40-plus points in a game: Michael Finley dropped 42 at Detroit on Nov. 27, 2002. Mayo totaled 30-plus points for the third time in Dallas’ first 20 games of the season. Before Mayo, no starting guard had even reached that plateau in a game for Dallas since Jason Terry on Feb. 8, 2010, 36 at Golden State. Mayo also became the first Maverick not named Dirk to score 40 points in a game since Rodrigue Beaubois tallied 40 off the bench at Golden State on Mar. 27,2010.
The fact that Mayo was able to have his performance as he was battling Harden was fitting. The former sixth man for the Thunder was a major catalyst in the Thunder’s success over the Mavericks last year in the playoffs. The Thunder swept the Mavericks in the opening round, marking the first time in the Dirk Nowitzki era that a team led by him was swept out of the playoffs in any round. Harden was a major factor, but Dirk realized what ultimately killed the Mavericks that season.
"If you want to be an elite team in this league, you got to have two or three guys who can go off at any time and I just thought they had more weapons than us," Nowitzki said. The Mavericks made it a point of emphasis during the offseason to find a person who, in a best case scenario, could start the transition for Dirk to become the second option for the team. It could be that Mayo is working his way into becoming that guy.
It’s been fun to see the ups and downs of Mayo’s ride this season. It has also been incredibly refreshing. Dallas has been successful over the years because they’ve surrounded Dirk with veteran guys who have plenty of experience. Through free agency or through trade, the Mavericks were a team that relied heavy on veteran leadership. That being said, fans have seen some young guys come and go.
Names like Devin Harris, Josh Howard, Marquis Daniels come to mind. They showed flashes of greatness, but nothing that could be deemed sustainable or something that could develop into something more. Outside of the time where Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash were finding their games together around the year 2000, fans and analysts haven’t seen what they’re seeing out of Mayo. They haven’t seen a young player that has shown the ability to be that number one option. That’s what makes Mayo’s run this year so unique and special.
One reason for his success has been a new sense of dedication to learning and growing through watching film. When you speak to him and he talks about his game, he’ll usually mention that he’s seen something by watching film and he tweaks something. I recall seeing a time earlier in the season where Mayo was asked by teammates if he wanted to join them on a night out on the town. He declined by saying he was going to watch some film.
At 19.8 points per game, the work has paid off as he has the third biggest points per game improvement in the league from last year at 7.2 points. James Harden is first at 8.8 and teammate Omer Asik is second at 7.5. With his work this summer and during the season, teams have been locking in on Mayo as their primary defensive assignment. Even with that extra attention, Mayo has found different ways to attack. That’s another fun part of the development, seeing Mayo struggle and trying to adapt to it.
Even with the growth, it hasn’t always been sunshine and daffodils. He’s had rough games recently against elite teams such as the Miami Heat, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs. Those teams were out to specifically take Mayo out of his game. They did their job as he combined to score 25 points on 9-of-33 shooting and 12 turnovers in the three games. There have been rough patches, but it’s still a whole new experience for him. He is still learning how to be patient when defenses are geared towards stopping him.
“He’s a gamer. He’s like Dirk where he’ll come in early and work his way out of a slump,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said of Mayo. “He’ll stay late and come back to the gym. He’s a gym rat. He does everything possible to work through that stuff. I think he’s still learning a lot about the game. He continues to get smarter because he works so hard at it.
“He’s worked to become one (an efficient scorer),” Carlisle continued. “That’s the key thing. He’s put the work in. He’s studied the game and studied his game. He’s worked at it. He’s done a lot of good things. He’s worked to become a better shooter by being in the gym. He comes in here at night all the time.” You have to go back to Terry and Nowitzki to find players who have been at relentless at working on their shot. Now, it appears Mayo has taken on that workload. “You love guys that have that gym rat love of the game,” Carlisle said. “He’s on a mission this year to get better and to help us win games.”
Work is exactly what he’s doing. When he arrived in Dallas, he heard about Dirk’s tireless workout routine that he goes through. He wanted to soak in what Dirk was doing and try to add that to his workout routine. Mayo uses different members of the coaching staff to help him out to ensure he has the gym available at night or an open gym is available when they’re out on the road. "I put my work in before the game and hopefully it'll pay off during the game,'' Mayo said.
Coming to the Mavericks this year, the hope was that Mayo would help space the floor and bring the team a perimeter shooter that could possibly fill the void of Jason Terry’s departure. While he hasn’t made people forget about Terry, Mayo has held his own in that department. He ranks fourth in the NBA with 69 3-pointers this season. New Orleans forward Ryan Anderson (88) and Golden State’s guards Stephen Curry (83) and Klay Thompson (74) are the only players with more threes this year. Mayo ranks second in the league in 3-point field goal percentage at 48.6 percent (69-of-142).
Hubert Davis shot 49.1 percent (82-of-167) from beyond the arc for Dallas in 1999-00 and holds the franchise record for the highest 3-point field goal percentage in a season. The highest 3-point field goal percentage Mayo has posted for a season in his career was 38.4 percent (145-of-378) in 2008-09.
For the Mavericks, it’s simply been a case of riding or dying with Mayo. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Mavericks are 11-6 in games in which Mayo was their leading scorer (either outright or tied), and that includes each of the team's four overtime losses. He has averaged 25.2 points on 55.5 percent shooting, 62.5 percent from 3, in Dallas’ 12 wins this season compared to 14.9 points on 39.3 percent shooting 34.3 percent from 3, in the Mavericks’ 16 losses. Dallas is 7-1 this season in games in which he scored at least 25 points and 3-0 in games in which he scored at least 30. Mayo has 14 games with 20-plus points this season, after he recorded only six 20-point efforts with Memphis last year.
That doesn't sound so bad for someone who is still trying to learn. There have been obvious ups and downs, but it appears his teammates understand what Mayo has to go through. After the double overtime loss to Boston, Vince Carter told reporters, "This is all new for him. It's just that every situation that he's being put in or seeing now is a learning process, and we're expecting him to learn on the fly. …
"When you play against good teams, the goal is going to be to stop the leading scorer. I say, 'Well, that's going to be you. The attention is on you. What do you do about it?' He'll be fine. Let me say this, he's just a competitor. All these things bother him, which is a good thing. He wants to succeed."
Mayo is doing everything he can to make sure he can put himself in a position to succeed. In addition to the additional nightly trips to the gym, he’s enlisted the services of Holger Geschwinder, Dirk’s mentor. Mayo confirmed that he’s had three sessions with Holger while he came into town earlier in December. “It’s good,” Mayo said of working with Holger. “It’s a little different. He focuses on little movements. He’s a great guy and he has a knack for the game. He has a knack for making things easier out there on the court.”
Dirk is certainly going to make things easier on the court. Mayo has had to do so much with extra attention directed towards him. He will be able to play free and relaxed when Dirk is on the floor. Dirk has never had a player with Mayo’s proven and sustainable mixture of athleticism and shooting prowess, so it will be incredibly interesting to see how they work together. Even with Dirk back, there may be times where Mayo will still have to be “the man” on the floor. It’s scary to think of what Mayo has been able to do without him and what he will be able to do with him.
Mayo is working on taking that leap to the next level. It was a step that many people figured he couldn’t take. He’s gone from being projected towards stardom, to having to come off the bench in Memphis, to being made into a scapegoat and considered a floundering bust. For whatever reason, it didn’t work out in Memphis for Mayo. Things like that happen all of the time. Whether it’s a bad relationship at work or with a loved one, things happen. The good ones learn from those situations and grow from them.
At 25-years-old, O.J. Mayo is has found a new home and is really beginning to scratch the surface on his potential. We have to remember he is still young and trying to find his way in his new position. It’s scary to think what Mayo can do, now that he’s locked in and focused. Guided by a coach he completely trusts, the sky is once again the limit for Mayo. Hype and hope are back on the same trajectory. If they unite, the game changes for everyone.