As a new NBA season approached, Spencer Dinwiddie felt the time was right. Time to take what he’d accomplished on the basketball court and let it translate to an impact off the court.
Coming up on three years since his NBA debut, he was feeling like he’d found his place with the Brooklyn Nets and looking forward to contributing for a full season for the first time. This was an opportunity.
So he launched the Dinwiddie Family Foundation with the goal of providing college scholarship support to students in need. For scholarship recipients, the foundation covers the remaining expenses beyond any other financial aid that has been received in order to provide a full scholarship.
For Dinwiddie, whose mother owns a preschool and whose great uncle initiated and administered a small scholarship program at their church, supporting educational ambitions was a natural instinct that had a personal impact.
“I think with the state of our country right now, shifting away from the divisive nature and rhetoric and being able to do something that truly is helpful to people and further a cause you support, for me it’s education, and just being able to help people,” said Dinwiddie.
He also came up with a novel approach to fundraising, tied to his newfound comfort zone and his ambition to play a full 82-game season for the first time. For every Nets game, Dinwiddie’s goal is to acquire a game-used, autographed item from himself, a teammate or an opponent and auction it off to support the scholarship fund.
“I was trying to think of something that would create awareness,” said Dinwiddie. “I already knew that I was going to infuse a certain amount of my own dollars into the program. I wanted to do something that created awareness and created another little revenue stream for the foundation that could potentially send another kid to college or raise awareness.”
The foundation is a milestone on Dinwiddie’s journey, borne out of his feeling that he had finally found some stability in his NBA career. It’s been a year since Dinwiddie became a Net, signed out of the G League last December. At the time, Jeremy Lin was sidelined with a hamstring injury. Greivis Vasquez, signed to be Lin’s primary backup, was gone a week into the season, hobbled by an ankle injury.
Dinwiddie had played 46 games for the Detroit Pistons over the previous two seasons, been traded to the Chicago Bulls and waived after training camp, then played for the Windy City Bulls.
“We were looking for a point guard,” said Nets coach Kenny Atkinson. “I will say I did have good memories of when I saw him play in Detroit. The little that he played I was intrigued by the athlete, 6-6, I said, ‘this guy is pretty good.’ Most of the credit goes to Sean (Marks). (The front office) identified him. He was No. 1 on the list and we went and got him.”
The early returns were uneven as Dinwiddie worked to acclimate himself and the Nets sought to sort out their own lineup. Rookie Caris LeVert had made his NBA debut the day before the Nets signed Dinwiddie. Lin returned in mid-December, was injured again, and didn’t get back until the end of February.
Dinwiddie has said he’s always been confident, always believed in his talent. But to Atkinson, he wasn’t necessarily playing that way.
“Indecisive,” said Atkinson. “And when a guy’s indecisive, is he really a point guard? Does he really want to run this team? He was playing not to make a mistake, instead of being aggressive and confident.”
That was a product of his experience in Detroit, where Dinwiddie didn’t feel like he had the luxury of making a mistake and playing through it.
“The biggest thing this coaching staff has done for me,” said Dinwiddie, “besides obviously helping me develop skillwise, they’ve also just basically said, ‘look, we believe in you. We believe in your talent. You’ve got to go out there and play.’ I miss a shot, they’re like, ‘shoot the next one.’
”Sometimes you’ll see Kenny yelling at me, and oftentimes it’s telling me, ‘shoot the ball. Go get a layup.’ He’s not yelling at me saying what were you thinking, what’s wrong with you. It’s, ‘Spencer, go shoot the ball.’ Whenever you have somebody, that’s their message, that’s what they’re preaching, go be aggressive, go make plays, it really unleashes you as a player.”
The start of the 2017-18 season has featured Dinwiddie unleashed, and making a greater impact than anybody expected. With the acquisition of D’Angelo Russell over the summer to pair with Lin in the backcourt, there appeared to be little room in the rotation for Dinwiddie. During preseason, Atkinson expressed a desire to have either Russell or Lin on the court at all times.
But on opening night, there was Dinwiddie on the floor for 16 minutes against the Pacers. To earn a spot in the rotation, he had to have played well enough for Atkinson to be willing to cut into the minutes for Lin and Russell a little bit. That was the indicator of how far Dinwiddie had come.
“He gave us no choice,” said Atkinson. “I knew for us, when you’re looking at your top eight players, he’s in there. And he earned it. There’s a certain trust when you see a guy do the work. He played Summer League when he didn’t have to. He had enough years in the league where he could have said, ‘hey I don’t want to play.’ And then he played Summer League. That showed a lot to us. It came time to make the lineup, we’ve got to play him. We’ve got to find minutes for him, even though it’s going to be on the wing position. He left us no choice really.”
When Lin was injured on a drive to the hoop in the second half against the Pacers, Dinwiddie’s season changed. He took on a bigger role as the primary backup point guard, and then stepped into the starting lineup while D’Angelo Russell was sidelined. By Thanksgiving, Dinwiddie was playing 24.3 minutes per game while averaging 11.7 points and 5.7 assists and shooting 42 percent from 3-point range. Dinwiddie scored a career-high 25 points against Utah, and with his ability to avoid turnovers was among the NBA’s top five in assist to turnover ratio.
“He’s got the physical tools. He’s got the skill level,” said Atkinson. “He’s smart. He’s young. It’s like he’s got everything in his favor. But I think the hardest step to make now is that next step, to really break through. He’s kind of poked a hole in the ceiling. Now, to bust through it with both fists and really break out, that’s a harder one. But how diligent he is, and it’s not just on the floor.
“He eats up film, he eats up the performance. There’s no days off for him. He’s got a smart approach to development. He doesn’t overdo it. As much as anybody we have, he understands the balance you need in terms of improving. He just gets it.”