Spencer Dinwiddie Stars in Front of Idol Kobe Bryant

Dinwiddie among top 10 NBA scorers in his 18 games as a starter

Spencer Dinwiddie was giddy in the locker room on Saturday night, and it wasn’t his 39-point performance or even Brooklyn’s big comeback win. It was the courtside presence of an NBA legend that had Dinwiddie wearing the smile of the century.

“I’m a real mellow guy for the most part, yeah, no, not with Kobe,” said Dinwiddie. “By far my favorite player of all time. His career was basically my childhood. I was juiced. That’s probably why I missed the first three off the backboard.”

Dinwiddie was growing up in Los Angeles while Bryant was winning five championships with the Lakers and posting the 12th highest scoring average in NBA history with 25.0 points per game. They connected briefly before the game, where Bryant told Dinwiddie he was “playing like an All-Star.”

“I don’t know him personally, but I guess kinda now I do. We’re best friends,” said Dinwiddie jokingly. “Casual. Real casual. We’re best friends.”

With his Brooklyn visit, Kobe caught the latest ladder-climbing performance that has that All-Star talk swirling around the Brooklyn guard. It was the third straight 30-point game by Dinwiddie, and it would have matched his career high if he hadn’t gone for 41 two nights earlier in San Antonio.

Over the Nets’ last 18 games, Dinwiddie is averaging 26.1 points and 7.2 assists per game. That makes him eighth in the NBA in scoring since Nov. 15 and 13th in assists. Only four other players in the league — Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Bradley Beal and LeBron James — have hit both those numbers over that stretch.

The run has elevated scoring average for the season to 22.7, a jump over last season’s career high of 16.8.

“Even last year when he was playing well I felt like he deferred too much and would kind of shift the focus to other guys often, which is a good trait, but when you’re as talented as he is I think having a more dominating mentality is really where he’s made big growth,” said Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson. “Another thing, I think he’s physically gotten better. If I had a rating of who takes care of his body on this team the best, he’s maniacal about taking care of his body and improving his physical state and in terms of recovery and all the little things guys do off the floor, he’s tops. I think he’s taken that to another level from the first time, and completely bought into our performance team and how they approach, so I think that’s really helped him.”

This latest elevation of Dinwiddie’s game coincides with his insertion into the starting lineup after a shoulder impingement sidelined Kyrie Irving. It’s produced the latest iteration of Dinwiddie’s Brooklyn experience, much of it a tale well told since the Nets signed him out of the G League in December 2016. The following season, injuries to Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell elevated Dinwiddie to the starting lineup, where he averaged a career-high 6.6 assists while playing 80 games and starting 58.

Last season, Dinwiddie was Brooklyn’s second-leading scorer while coming off the bench in 64 of the 68 games he played, looking like a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year before a thumb injury cut into his season.

“Every year I’ve done the role that they’ve asked of me,” said Dinwiddie. “This is just now the new role. My first year, they said run the offense, figure out, pick your spots and get acclimated to the system. That’s what I did. The second year, everybody went down and they were like hey, run the team. Try to expand your game, especially getting guys in involved, because we were kind of a carousel at that time. I was figuring out my way as kind of a passer and a leader of a team that wasn’t expected to win. And we didn’t win, but fortunately, I did kind of play well. And then last year they said, come off the bench, score a lot. That’s what I tried to do. They set the lineup the way they had it with Ed and DeMarre and Jarrett and it was like, try to get DeMarre a couple of looks but for the most part we want you to be aggressive and we want you to get a layup every single time, so that was basically how I tried to play last year. And then this year, it was a little bit up in the air. With the injuries obviously they’ve said, try to lead the team to as many wins as possible.

“So it’s trying to strike a balance and do again what’s asked of me. It’s not this crazy mentality shift or anything. It’s literally, as cliché or as boring as that is, it’s what’s being asked and I just try to do it to the best of my ability and fortunately we were able to win.”

With Dinwiddie in the starting lineup, the Nets have won 12 of their last 18 games. Ask him about his All-Star possibilities, and those are the kinds of numbers he’ll point to. Team wins are necessary to propel him to Chicago in February.

“We’ve had four years together, and it’s amazing how you end up saying less because you know each other, you kind of know what each other is thinking,” said Atkinson. “We have, sometimes, a humorous relationship. We get each other. I will say he’s more confident and more vocal. When we’re doing something he doesn’t agree with, he’ll tell me. I think the first couple years, whatever you said, that was fine. Which is a really good thing that he’s progressed to that level. He’ll make suggestions during the game, and that wasn’t the case early on. That’s real growth in the relationship. He’s like one of your first kids, right? We’ve been through a lot, a lot of losing quite honestly. So, I’m really proud of where that relationship has gone in the four years we’ve been together.”

Eventually, the Nets will get Irving and Caris LeVert back, and the Nets will have to sort out the mix between the three guards.

“Keep (Spencer) on the ball more? I think that’s his comfort zone quite honestly. But we don’t always get to be in our comfort zone,” said Atkinson. “So then the next thing for Spencer is, well, you’re going to have to play off the ball. I think Kyrie, he likes playing off the ball because he’s such a great shooter coming off screens. It’s just a good problem to have. We’re going to have to figure that out, because all three of them can’t have the ball in their hands all the time. It’s a luxury, but on the other hand, you want catch and shoot guys around those guys. We’re just gonna have to find that balance. I do know it’s great having two of them on the court at one time, two ball-handlers. Three, that presents another situation that we’ll have to figure out.”

In the meantime, Dinwiddie is leading the way for the Nets, meeting his idols along the way. The rest of Bryant’s family took in a Broadway show, but Dinwiddie figured it was his daughter who was more interested in catching an NBA game.

“Thank you Kobe’s daughter,” said Dinwiddie. “You made my night. And my Christmas. Appreciate you.”

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