The score was knotted up at 99 with 3.9 seconds remaining on the clock between the Thunder and the Spurs. Luguentz Dort settled into position in the right corner, wide open after his defender rotated to help in the lane. The ball zipped out to the perimeter to the open hands of Dort who was in his stance, ready to fire before the clock expired.
As the ball dropped through the hoop, Dort did too. Before he knew it, his teammates were piled on top of him on the floor celebrating the game-winning play.
It was the first buzzer beater of Dort’s young career and one of the many new experiences the Montreal native encountered in his second season in the league. The undrafted wing went from being known solely as a defensive ace to becoming an offensive threat on opposing scouting reports, logging a 42-point game and even being named a 2020-21 NBA Rising Star. All the while, he continued to layer onto his identity as a defensive power by checking the league’s best offensive players each night.
“I don't know that anybody's role changed more from one year to the next than Lu Dort,” said Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti. “He was always guarding the best player, but then he went from guarding the best player to having the best player guard him. And so just the amount of load and the change in the mentality coming into the game for him, I am not sure it could be more drastic in a year's time.”
As a two-way rookie, Dort joined the Thunder midway through the season and was asked to learn and fill a very specific defensive role which he dove into headfirst. Heading into year two with a full-time contract, the scope widened on what was asked of him on both ends of the floor each night. It was an increase in responsibility that Dort expected and prepared for. He approached the opportunity with the same workman’s mentality that earned him a starting role as a two-way player and eventually a full-time spot on the roster – with competitiveness and humility.
Dort capitalized on the various opportunities to elevate and stretch his game. For instance, with the Thunder’s primary ball-handler in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the sidelines for the second half of the season, it opened up the door for Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault and his staff to test the waters with different players taking on some of those ball-handing responsibilities – including Dort.
“It was one of the things that before the season, the coaches were talking to me about just developing that, and I feel like they did a great job with me, and I feel like I did a good job handling that, too,” said Dort. “It's not an easy position at this level, and it took some time, but I feel like I can still improve.”
By the end of the season, it was clear through the numbers that Dort’s focus on offensive improvement paid off. After averaging 6.8 points per game in his rookie season, he averaged 14.0 in Year Two while shooting 34 percent from the 3-point line and starting in all 52 games that he played.
“Obviously, a really good player, super hard worker, super high-character guy, and we always say, when you have those things, life works out for you, and you guys saw that for Lu this year,” said Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “He got better in so many areas. He deserves it, and he works for it.”
Perhaps the biggest offensive milestone for Dort was his career-high 42-point performance against the Utah Jazz in April. His seven made 3-pointers on 11 attempts would have been eye-catching enough, but layer on four steals while defending Jazz All-Star Donovan Mitchell – who had at the time logged four straight games with 35 or more points – and Dort’s career performance takes on a whole new tone. The Thunder’s defensive ace combined the energy to fight over screens, contest jumpers and deter easy looks from Mitchell with the energy to attack downhill, get to the basket and knock down 3s.
“There’s guys that get 40 in the NBA on certain nights but I’m not sure how many of them guard a guy like Mitchell as effectively as Lu did,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault following Dort’s career performance. “When you start looking at who can do that on the defensive end to compliment it, the list gets much shorter.”
As his offensive game grew, Dort continued to take steps in his defensive prowess throughout the season. As a rookie it was his low center of gravity, quick feet and hard-working mentality that kept him in front of his opponents each night. While effective, Dort was also prone to picking up fouls considering he was defending some of the most high-usage and crafty players in the league. The following season, Dort worked to layer on more IQ plays into his defense – to anticipate players’ moves and beat them to the punch.
The game study and anticipation resulted in a different type of foul trouble, but not for Dort. The 6-foot-3 wing developed a knack for drawing charges on his opponents. Staying in legal guarding position, moving his feet and keeping his chest square to the offensive player, Dort managed to draw 57 offensive fouls drawn during his 52 games in action.
“My main thing was to stay out of foul trouble,” said Dort. “That was a big thing kind of last year, and really doing more, like studying more on my opponents, watching really a lot of film just to know their best tricks.”
"He was always guarding the best player, but then he went from guarding the best player to having the best player guard him.”
While Dort took significant strides in his second season, there’s still a long runway and much room for growth for the 22-year-old. After taking advantage of the experiences afforded to him in his sophomore campaign, Dort looks forward to the opportunity to continue layering on that growth in his all-around game. It’s off the floor, however, where Dort aims to take the biggest steps. As a natural introvert who has quietly led by example with his professionalism, energy and consistent approach, being a more vocal leader has become a goal of his heading into his third season.
As Dort continues to raise his own bar, his formula for improvement remains consistent. It’s the same approach he followed as an undrafted player, as a two-way rookie, as a starter and it’s what he’ll continue to adopt as he enters into Year Three.
“I'm going to keep doing the same stuff, play the right way, and be the same person that I am and always try to compete really hard,” said Dort. “That's just me. I'm humble and grateful for that, and I'm looking forward to the next season.”