Let’s Go Lu

By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter & Digital Editor | mailbag@okcthunder.com

For any 20-year old kid, NBA Draft night can be an absolute maelstrom of emotions. For a French and Creole speaking Montreal native of Haitian ancestry who shipped off to Florida for high school and then zipped across the entire United States for one year of college, draft night would naturally be even more chaotic and concerning.

Despite sitting higher on many mock drafts and projections, Lu Dort, who had only in the previous few years learned English, listened to the American broadcasters on television wrap up the NBA Draft on June 20, 2019 without any mention of his name.

Then, moments after the draft ended, a phone call came from a 405 area code.

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On Tuesday June 22, just over a year after what was likely one of the most turbulent emotional nights of his life, Dort was wrapping up conversations with the same Oklahoma City front office, inking a long-term contract with the Thunder organization.

A year ago, when the Thunder reached out to Dort to sign a two-way contract that would allow him to spend 45 days with the parent club and the rest of the season with the G-League’s Oklahoma City Blue, Dort didn’t hesitate.

“I went undrafted. I knew that a team would still want me. The fact that OKC was the first one, I took it right away,” Dort said.

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The burly, 6-foot-3, 215-pound guard arrived in Oklahoma City and joined the Thunder’s Summer League squad without much fanfare. In his one season at Arizona State under legendary NCAA point guard turned head coach Bobby Hurley, Dort was charged with lead guard duties but was more of a scorer and slasher than playmaker. He racked up 16.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game, but his shooting splits were hovering around 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from three.

So what was he? A ballhandler? A slasher? A cutter? Just a defender? Thunder assistant coach Dave Bliss soon found out first-hand, and the rest of the coaching staff noticed it had something special.

“Lu just has that bulldog mentality. Really hawking the ball,” said Bliss, who coached the Thunder’s Summer League team in Las Vegas. “He has a great frame, really can stay in front, keep his hands off and even block some shots. A switchable guy who can go down there and hold his own if guys try to walk him in the post.”

In a league going smaller and smaller, a guy with Dort’s width, muscle and lateral quickness at the age of 20 made the Thunder staff raise its eyebrows. Over the first couple months of the season though, with a new-look Thunder squad loaded up in the backcourt with fresh faces like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and returning wings like Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo and Abdel Nader, there weren’t many minutes for a rookie with limited experience.

Aside from brief appearances in seven games in December, Dort spent most of the season across the street from Chesapeake Energy Arena, at the Cox Convention Center with the Blue. His time with the Thunder was mostly fun and games. He got in there, racked up a bunch of fouls and flew around on defense. He was trusted to engineer a crucial last-second steal against Minnesota that helped set up the sensational game-tying heave and score from Steven Adams to Dennis Schröder — but was hesitant to attack or shoot.

After a game in Utah, teammates held up a sign with the number 2 on it, an homage to Dort’s first two NBA points and Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain’s famous 100-point game in Hershey, PA. The next game, in Portland, teammates rushed to Instagram to post another sign, this time with the number 11, noting his nine-point “explosion” against the Blazers. It was clear Dort was fitting in from a personality standpoint. He hit all the marks a rookie should — work your hardest, push your teammates and be humble about it all.

“That's my Hatian brother, I know he can hold his own,” laughed center Nerlens Noel. “He's a worker. It's becoming more natural for him.”

Dort even got rewarded for his attitude at the end of December, when the shorthanded Thunder went into Toronto and defeated the defending champion Raptors. Dort played 16 minutes in the game, and his family traveled from Montreal to see him play professionally for the first time.

With the Blue, Dort really got to stretch his wings as a defender, but also as an all-around contributor. He saw action in 13 games with averages of 19.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists. Even with the NBA 3-point line, his shooting percentages overall and behind the arc ticked up three percentage points from college. Those moments prepared him and injected him with the requisite swagger to rejoin the Thunder during a demanding 17-game month of January.

“It's been great,” Dort said of the experience with the Blue. “Since I left college, it's a different game. I've learned a lot.”

“We really get a chance to see how much the G League is really developing them,” added All-Star point guard Chris Paul. “The confidence Lu plays with now when he’s up with us is totally different than earlier in the season.”

Dort came off the bench in a home win over Portland on Jan. 18, as the Thunder finished off a home stand with a crucial win. The next game, however, with the Rockets’ James Harden and Russell Westbrook on the docket, Head Coach Billy Donovan turned to Dort as the starter. The young rookie hasn’t relinquished his starting spot since, making 21 consecutive starts. That’s the most total NBA starts for any two-way player ever.

“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.”

While helping to hold Harden to 1-of-17 shooting from three, Dort drew a perfectly executed charge in the final minutes. He recognized that a screen was being set higher on the court than usual, so he shot the gap and planted himself right in the path of the driving Harden. Just a few months on the job, Dort combined his quick feet, muscular frame and instincts with the scouting report.

“If the screen is high, I'll shoot the gap and go under, but if the screen is low, I'll fight over the screen and go over the top. I try to be physical,” Dort said. “That's how the Thunder teaches it.”

“(Dort) does a great job of pursuing and competing,” Schröder said. “He’s tough. Defensively, he’s a dog ... I always tell him you’re going to be really, really good in this league for a lot of years. Just keep playing and stay the course.”

In Houston, Dort played a season-high 32 minutes and took part in a 41-point fourth quarter eruption to seal yet another double-digit come-from-behind win for the Thunder. He had made a massive statement. The challenge ahead was whether he could back it up. Pleasantly for Thunder fans, he has. Dort’s energy and effort have been remarkably consistent for a youngster. He was in position more often, he stopped fouling as much and learned some team and opposition tendencies.

“The refs are learning him as well, how legal he really is,” said center Steven Adams, who knows a thing or two about having to win over referees in the first few years of an NBA career. “When you first come in, you kind of get a bit discouraged, and you get a lot of fouls called against you, and you feel like you’re legal. Most of the time you are legal. They just got to learn you.”

From mid-January through March 8 in a road win at Boston, the Thunder’s final game before the hiatus, Dort has consistently guarded the opposition’s best offensive wing player. Luka Doncic, Buddy Hield, Devin Booker, Jamal Murray, Zach LaVine and CJ McCollum have all been on his assignment list, in addition to the aforementioned Harden. He’s gone against the best of the best and held his ground.

“He does all the little things, all the things guys don’t want to do: dives on loose balls, a tenacious defender,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “(Dort) wants to defend the best guys on the other team all the time.”

“Playing hard and competing is a talent and Lu is giving himself up,” Paul added.

One night in January, he even emulated one of the all-time greats, at least that’s how it looked to Chris Paul. Just three days after the devastating, tragic loss of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, with seven others in a helicopter crash outside of Los Angeles, Dort and his reeling Thunder teammates found themselves a few hours north, in Sacramento to play the Kings.

Paul, a dear friend of Bryant’s, spent the previous two days grieving with his and Bryant’s family and rejoined the Thunder with a heavy heart. At the end of the game, a 20-point Thunder blowout, even Paul was able to crack a smile when he saw Dort’s stat-line, an unusual one for a defense-first rookie: a career-high 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting, with, and here’s the kicker — no assists.

“I actually told Dort towards the end of the game [that] Kob would’ve been proud of him because had 23 points and no assists,” Paul chuckled wistfully. “Kob was all about being aggressive and staying aggressive.”

In the victory against the Kings, Dort knocked down a career-best five 3-pointers, including some catch-and-shoots from the corners and a pump-fake, one-dribble three from the left wing. For the season, the ferocious defender has also had a bit of a scoring streak to him, averaging 6.2 points on 41.4 percent shooting and 30.1 percent from three.

“I'm just trying to see if the defense collapses and if so, I hit the open man,” Dort explained. “If not, I’m trying to get all the way to the rim and finish. I feel more comfortable out there.”

They’re not earth-shattering numbers by any means, but Dort’s willingness to shoot a clean, open shot created within the flow of the offense and to attack off the bounce as either a driver, cutter or playmaker for others ensures that OKC’s offense continues to hum as planned.

“People don’t understand how important that is that he’s not just a defender,” Paul said.

“Sometimes young guys are scared to mess up, scared to make mistakes and scared to take shots,” Paul continued. “Earlier when he first got to us he wouldn’t have taken the shots he takes now. It’s just great because everybody on our team respects how hard he competes and how hard he plays.”

Dort’s two-way contract would have carried him through the remaining 16 games of the regular season on the Thunder’s initial 2019-20 schedule, but he would not have been eligible for the playoffs without a full-time NBA contract. As the NBA and the NBPA negotiated roster rules for the resumption of play in Orlando, teams were notified that two-way players would now be eligible to play in the postseason.

Despite that, on Tuesday the Thunder signed Dort to a full-time contract anyway, as a sign of what is to come in his bright future. From deeply understanding personnel to honing his skills as a shooter and playmaker, there are plenty of opportunities for Dort to improve as a player within the Thunder’s system. Not only will he get a chance to do so in the eight remaining seeding games this year and the 2020 playoffs, but for years to come as well.

“Lu is an elite defender. He’ll have to get better in other areas,” Donovan said. “You’re looking for reliability, especially defensively. When to shoot, drive, pass are decisions that will come over time, but if you get a guy who early just gets it on defense, it’s a good thing.”

Dort would have still been able to play out the remainder of this season and had the chance to test free agency and explore other options if he hadn’t signed this contract. However, when an NBA career like Dort’s was threatened from the very start on draft night, a player may find that the team that gave him his first chance is also very likely to be the one to give him his best chance.

“He's a conscientious guy,” Donovan said of Dort. “He knows what the other side looks like. There's a drive and an appreciation for the opportunity that's been given to him.”

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