NEW YORK -- J.J. Barea is an underdog story. A 5-foot-10 player from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico probably shouldn't be in the NBA, let alone playing 14 seasons after going undrafted.
But Barea has had quite a career, winning a championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and, after three seasons in Minnesota, returning to Dallas to lead one of the league's best benches of the last few years. It's also rather amazing that, at 35, Barea is feeling strong just 10 months after suffering a torn right Achilles.
He's healthy, but he's not playing. Barea provided a big spark for the Mavs in his first appearance of the season -- scoring 11 points and dishing out three assists in 16 minutes in a win over Orlando on Nov. 6 -- but went right back to being DNP for the last six games. Luka Doncic is the team's primary playmaker and Jalen Brunson is emerging as the backup point guard. With the Mavs also adding Seth Curry and Delon Wright in the offseason, Barea is out of the rotation.
Barea spoke with NBA.com last week about the worst injury of his career, his chemistry with Dirk Nowitzki, accepting a diminished role, playing pick-and-roll, and his work -- for which he won the PBWA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award -- toward the long recovery for Puerto Rico.
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John Schuhmann: How are you feeling at this point?
J.J. Barea: I feel good. Surprisingly, my body feels great. I feel quick. I'm shooting the ball awesome. I couldn't move much, so I worked a lot on my shot this summer. But surprisingly, after the injury, I feel great. My quickness is there. My explosiveness is there. I'm excited about how I feel and I just got to keep working.
Was this the toughest injury you've ever had?
Yeah, this was the toughest. It's like starting from scratch. You got to learn how to walk, how to jump, how to move again. With this injury, you never know how you're going to feel, and I was a little nervous throughout. But then when I started getting better and started playing, I was like, "Oh, I should be OK."
You grabbed your Achilles right away. Did you know it right there on the floor?
A couple of plays before, it bothered me a little bit. But like always, I'm like, "I'll figure it out after the game. I'll put some ice and I'll talk to the trainer. We'll get some some treatment." And then when I came down on it, I knew I felt something weird and it wasn't the ankle. And when I touched it, I knew automatically.
It was weird. I landed awkward and somebody hit a little bit of my leg.
When did it set in that you would never again run pick-and-pop with Dirk?
Pretty quick. That was a tough night. It was a quiet locker room when the game ended. Dirk came over, talked to me, gave me a hug, and I knew that was it for us. So it was a tough night. But we had an amazing year, so I was like, "You know what, we had a good run, and it was all good."
I just got to be ready. I was ready the other day, they put me in, I did a good job. So I just got to stay ready and wait for my time."
You guys may have had the best chemistry among any pairing in the league over the last several years.
Really, really hope we haven't seen the end of the Barea-Nowitzki 2-man game... pic.twitter.com/Na0bHXsgRA— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) January 12, 2019
It was unreal, man. The thing we had going when we came off the bench ... Well, he started and then he subbed out pretty quick, and then came off the bench with me for the end of the first quarter, and we were on. Just "high four," automatically.
With his look, I knew when he wanted the ball and when he didn't really want the ball. I knew some games, he wanted it 100% of the time. I knew some games, 75%. And I knew some games, 50. Sometimes, he would look at me like, "Just go, go." And if I was making shots, he'd make sure I kept being aggressive.
But it gave me so much confidence playing with him. It was amazing.
You're out of the rotation since your first or second year in the league. How tough is that to deal with?
It's been tough. I'm coming off an injury, so maybe it's a good thing that I get a little more time to get ready. But it's definitely tough. I'm used to grinding and being in the fight with my teammates. But it's a different situation and I understand that we got a lot of guys here, a lot of young, good talent. I just got to be ready. I was ready the other day, they put me in, I did a good job. So I just got to stay ready and wait for my time.
It is part of an evolution toward being a coach somebody?
Yeah. I definitely keep learning. Obviously, I got a great relationship with [Mavs coach Rick Carlisle]. I just keep learning and I want to be on the coaching staff some day.
In that Orlando game, there was one vintage J.J. Barea pick-and-roll, where Nikola Vucevic was in drop coverage and you kept the ball until the precisely right moment to throw the lob to Dwight Powell. What are you looking for on those plays?
Dwight is super quick, so as soon as he gets a little behind the guy in front of me, it's over. I just got to mix it up. If they're too back, I got to look for myself. And if I make one, they're going to guard me the second time, so the lob is going to be open. Or if it's the lob [first], then I get my layup.
I read it, because after the pick-and-roll, I know my guy is done. They're going over. So I read the big guy.
And is that just years of experience?
Yeah. That's experience. I've been running the pick-and-roll since my second year with Avery Johnson. And every time I go in the game, as soon as I get in the game, the first play is a pick-and-roll for me. Over the years, I've just gotten better and better at it.
Are you trying to pass that on to these other guys?
Oh, no question. Brunson can be really good. He's got the body. And Luka is just big, man. So I don't have to do too much with him.
But the thing I've learned, like I told the young guys, it's the setup. If I want to go right, I got to do something going left first. Anything. Look left, pump fake left, spin move left, and then go right.
Where is Puerto Rico at in its recovery?
It's taking some time. It's still a lot of work ... streets, electricity. We were not doing that good before the hurricane, so the hurricane really hit us and it went all the way down.
It must be frustrating, because you've done so much, and there's still so much more to do.
Yeah. And we had the politics problem. They were stealing a lot of money for years. But the hurricane, what it did, I think it woke up people that we need to get a little bit better. But we're delayed. We're like 10, 20 years delayed.
And you're still pushing forward?
My foundation is doing a good job. We stopped the sports [work] for a minute, but now we went back to sports. My foundation is doing basketball courts at public schools. That's our biggest project. So we just keep helping where we can.
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