Who is Lu?
Luguentz “Lu” Dort sat in his locker, holding a blank piece of white paper after wrapping up a whirlwind 72 hours. He snatched a game-altering steal to help the Thunder win on Friday before playing 19 critical minutes in the team's 14-point win over Portland on Sunday and then notched a career-high nine points on Monday against the Jazz.
Scratched in the middle of the paper was “11” in big handwriting. He held up the paper and smiled proudly for a selfie that Thunder teammate Terrance Ferguson snapped celebrating Dort's first NBA points over the past two games, a continuation of a playful homage to Wilt Chamberlain’s historic picture after his 100-point game in 1962. A day earlier, the pair snapped a very similar photo with a big "2" written on it for Dort's first two points in his NBA career. This time, the photo grew to include proud Thunder teammate, Abdel Nader who held up both hands, hiding one thumb to symbolize the nine points that Dort scored on Monday.
Only a year prior to this moment, the Montreal native spent a year at Arizona State putting up big-time numbers as a freshman with 53 points in his first two games as a Sun Devil. After garnering Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, Dort declared for the NBA Draft, where he was projected to get picked up, some predicted as early as the first round. However, things played out a little differently for Dort.
“I went undrafted. I knew that a team would still want me," he said. "The fact that OKC was the first one, for me I took it right away. I’m really excited to play with the guys on the two teams – the Thunder and the Blue. I’m excited to get better.”
Dort was granted a two-way contract with the Thunder. As a two-way player, Dort spends most of his time with the Thunder g-league affiliate, the OKC Blue with the option for the Thunder to call him up at any moment. Taking full advantage of the development opportunity with the Blue, Dort averages 22 points, six rebounds and 2.6 assists in 32 minutes per game.
“There’s never a moment when you look out there that you don’t think he’s playing extremely hard and challenging himself to dominate the game physically, especially on the defensive end,” Blue Head Coach Grant Gibbs said. “He obviously has that build and mentality where you always feel him out there.”
I was ready. I’ve been working hard for moments just like this.
A bulldog mentality coupled with a 6-foot-4, 214-pound frame equals a recipe for a juggernaut. When asked about Dort, both Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan and Gibbs vaunt his physicality on both ends of the floor.
“He’s invested in the day and trying to get better and obviously he has an identity in the way that he plays that I think feeds off his teammates because you can feel his physicality and how hard he plays,” Gibbs said.
“I’ve always really liked him. I think he has an opportunity to be an elite defender,” said Donovan. “He’s physical, he’s tough.”
However, Dort’s dominating physical presence on the floor contradicts his demeanor off the floor. The 20-year-old is fairly quiet and according to Coach Gibbs, “much goofier than he initially gives off”. His quiet disposition gives way to a focused workman’s mentality as he approaches his unique two-way role.
He has a thirst to soak up as much as he can while playing for the Blue and the Thunder. As a rookie navigating the dynamic between two teams, two coaching staffs, he has impressed many with how he approaches each day as an opportunity to learn in order to grow as a player regardless of if he is on the NBA or G-league stage.
“Mature is the first word you think because he just doesn’t seem his age and he plays with such a motor and physicality but that’s not really his personality,” said Gibbs. “He’s ready to learn, he wants to know more about what’s going on and then with the Thunder to us, that hasn’t trailed off at all. He doesn’t seem like a different person when he’s here.”
Dort’s opportunity arose when the Thunder called up both of its two-way players (Dort and Devon Hall) for its game against the Timberwolves at home on Friday. The Thunder was down three guards giving Dort the perfect chance to showcase his ability and obtain valuable playing time in live NBA setting and in Friday’s case, get called up for vital crunch time minutes.
With the Thunder down two points with 17.7 seconds, Coach Donovan made a defensive substitution. Taking out Danilo Gallinari and inserting the ace up his sleeve, Lu Dort into the lineup.
Josh Okogie stood on the left sideline looking for an option inbounds. He whisked a risky pass along the left sideline intended to Shabazz Napier that resulted in a tumbling scramble on the floor for the loose ball. The Thunder called a timeout with 14 seconds remaining and emerging from the floor with the ball cleanly secured in both hands was the two-way rookie from Canada.
Dort only recorded three seconds of playing time in the fourth quarter which proved to be all the time the rookie needed to make a game-altering impact. As a result, Coach Donovan entrusted Dort in the Thunder’s very next test against Portland on Sunday where he recorded 19 minutes guarding C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, one of the highest scoring backcourts in the league.
“Just playing hard, we always talk about it, but guys don’t realize that that’s a talent. Playing hard and competing is a talent and Lu is giving himself up,” said Thunder point guard Chris Paul. “He doesn’t complain if coach says, ‘Go guard Dame, go guard CJ’ and he just says ‘alright’.”
Not backing down, he spilled every ounce of energy in defending the high-powered offensive attacks of Lillard and McCollum resulting in spending all six of his fouls by the fourth quarter. That wasn’t before he got the opportunity show off his offensive potential.
After grabbing a rebound, Dort surveyed the floor and took off down the floor gaining a full head of steam. One crossover at the 3-point line past Lillard gave him all the room he needed to finish on the left side of the floor and notch his first two points in an NBA game.
Dort’s window of opportunity grew wider in the second half of the Thunder’s road back-to-back against Utah on Monday. Playing without Danilo Gallinari, Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo, Coach Donovan relied heavily on the few reserves at his disposal. This meant an uptick in minutes for Dort who totaled 29 on the night that came with the tough defensive assignment to check yet another backcourt powerhouse in Donovan Mitchell.
“Lu, you wouldn’t know he was a rookie from the way he’s competing defensively. That’s big time,” Paul said. “He’s been unbelievable.”
The rookie showed extreme discipline, keeping his body square to Mitchell’s all night and helping to force three turnovers from the Jazz’s point guard. On the offensive end, he fearlessly attacked the basket to en route to a career high nine points.
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Dennis sets up the RK for the emphatic dunk pic.twitter.com/EIaCDY6h7n
“I was ready. I’ve been working hard for moments just like this,” Dort said. “When I heard my name called, I was ready to go.”
In the NBA’s grueling 82-game season, Dort’s number could be called at any point. The rookie might not know when, but one thing is certain, he will be ready.
LU DORT - A BULL DOG MENTALITY
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