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Dorian Finney-Smith is the type of player every team needs

After five years in college and six years in the NBA, Dorian Finney-Smith is still getting better.

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NBA: Playoffs-Dallas Mavericks at Utah Jazz Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Dorian Finney-Smith has a thankless job on most nights. The Dallas Mavericks are Luka Doncic’s team, and Finney-Smith’s main directive is to support Doncic in whatever ways he needs.

The brunt of Finney-Smith’s work comes on the defensive end, where he’s expected to guard the opposing team’s best wing scorer. Typically that means chasing stars around a maze of screens, playing through contact, avoiding fouls, being counted on to clean the glass, and knowing when to rotate at the perfect time to help defend someone else’s assignment. It is no surprise that Finney-Smith led Dallas with an average distance of 2.43 miles traveled per game this year.

Finney-Smith has to support Doncic on offense, too. That means rarely touching the ball until he gets a split-second open to fire a spot-up three. Doncic led the NBA in usage rate this season. Of the 27 players to play for Dallas this year, Finney-Smith ranked 22nd in usage rate despite leading the team in total minutes played. If he’s dribbling the ball, something has probably gone horribly wrong. Instead, his job to space the floor and make sure he hits the damn shot when the ball finally comes his way no matter how big and fast the defender closing out on him is.

When Dallas wins, Luka usually gets all the credit. When they lose, the role players like Finney-Smith are typically the first ones to get blamed. This is just how it goes in the NBA, and Finney-Smith is so good at his job in part because he fully understands the deal. But as the Mavericks captured a thrilling Game 4 victory, 111-101, over the Phoenix Suns to tie their second round series at 2-2, Finney-Smith finally got his moment in the spotlight.

Finney Smith finished the night with 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting from three-point range. All eight makes were assisted (five of them by Doncic) and he didn’t dribble the ball once on any of them. He missed the only two-point field goal he attempted. He also grabbed eight rebounds and defended Devin Booker for most of the night. Per the tracking data, Booker was 2-for-8 when defended by Finney-Smith.

While the NBA will always be a star’s league, basketball remains a team game. From a certain point of view, Doncic’s legacy can feel like the biggest thing at stake in any game, but so much of it is determined by teammates like Finney-Smith doing the dirty work and hitting tough shots. In many ways, the league’s most underappreciated players are its most important.

Finney-Smith isn’t going to complain, of course. He was an undrafted free agent out of Florida in 2016 who grinded his way to this opportunity. He’s been rewarded handsomely for it: Dallas locked him up to a four-year, $52 million extension before the start of the playoffs. He is one of the league’s great success stories among undrafted free agents, and his play has set a road map for how other UDFAs can carve out a career.

Finney-Smith just turned 29 years old. He’s now in year six of his pro career after spending five seasons in college. Somehow, he keeps getting better.

Finney-Smith hasn’t always been seen as a diamond in the rough. He was considered a five-star recruit coming out of Portsmouth, VA in the class of 2011 after winning back-to-back state championships at Norcom High to end his prep career. He picked Virginia Tech over Florida citing his tight bond with Hokies head coach Seth Greenberg and his desire to win a national championship in his home state.

But when Virginia Tech went 16-17 overall in his freshman year, Greenberg was canned and Finney-Smith was looking to transfer. Florida coach Billy Donovan called again, and this time he finally ended up in Gainesville.

After being forced to sit out the season as a transfer, Finney-Smith debuted for Florida in 2013-14 on a veteran team coming off three straight Elite Eight appearances. The Gators quickly shot up to No. 1 in the polls by running through the SEC with a perfect 18-0 record. Finney-Smith would be named SEC Sixth Man of the Year as the team was named the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The Gators eventually lost in the Final Four to Shabazz Napier and UConn, but his debut season with the program was a success. It also gave him a notable area for improvement: three-point shooting, after he hit just 29.5 percent of 132 attempts.

As Florida’s veteran core graduated, Finney-Smith was something like the last man standing. The Gators missed the NCAA tournament the next year, and then Donovan bounced to the NBA to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder. Finney-Smith stuck around for Mike White’s first season, but by then both he and Gators were irrelevant in the national picture. Finney-Smith had quietly turned into a good shooter, hitting 39 percent of his triples on 4.8 attempts per game across his last two college seasons, but pro scouts still didn’t take notice.

The NBA saw him as a five-year college player who rarely created off the dribble and wasn’t a knockdown shooter. Finney Smith would go undrafted in 2016 before signing with Dallas Mavericks.

The Mavericks were going through a period of transition when Finney-Smith joined the team: Dirk Nowitzki had retired over the offseason, the team was coming off three straight first round exits, and they just signed Harrison Barnes to a $94 million contract. The Mavs knew they were going to have to develop some young talent for the future, and Finney-Smith did enough in Summer League and training camp make the team.

It’s unexpected for an undrafted free agent to even make a team. Finney-Smith ended up leading the Mavericks with 81 played games as a rookie, including 35 starts. Again, he had to work on his three-point shot after only hitting 29.3 percent from deep.

Finney-Smith suffered a knee injury that limited him to 21 games the next year. The Mavs tanked. Dallas landed the No. 5 overall pick in the lottery, but on the night of the draft they traded the pick and a future first rounder for the rights to Doncic.

Barnes was traded midway through Doncic’s rookie year, opening up a starting spot for Finney-Smith, who again led the team with 81 games played. After the season, he agreed to a three-year, $12 million extension that secured his place in the league and stamped him as a true UDFA success story. He still needed to get better as a shooter, though. Through his first three years in the NBA, Finney-Smith was shooting just 30.3 percent from three on 512 attempts.

Finney-Smith embarked on overhauling his jumper, as detailed here by The Athletic. The hard work paid off: over the next three years, Finney-Smith would make 38.9 percent of his threes on 1,040 attempts while maintaining his very good defense.

Every team in the league needs Dorian Finney-Smith. Not him specifically, but players like him.

Winning on the margins was essential for the Mavericks after trading a their 2019 first rounder to go up and get Doncic. Luka was so good so quickly that the team didn’t have the luxury of staying bad and trying to hit on other lottery picks. The team struck gold in the early second round when they selected Jalen Brunson the same year they picked Doncic. They found another gem by signing Maxi Kleber out of Europe after eight pro seasons. Then there’s Finney-Smith, the five-year college player the Mavs molded into the consummate ‘3-and-D’ wing.

Finney-Smith always had the athletic attributes to play a role in the NBA. He’s 6’7, 220 pounds, with a 6’11 wingspan, and moves well for his size. Those that knew him saw he always had the mindset to do the dirty work, too. Finney-Smith played for the legendary Boo Williams AAU program in high school, and this quote from Williams on the day of his commitment to Virginia Tech feels poignant to this day.

“He’s a really talented kid,” said Williams, who attended Tuesday’s announcement. “The one thing about Dorian is he’s a great kid. He’s low maintenance, and these days, if you can get talented, low-maintenance kids, you’re better off.”

Williams has seen Finney-Smith’s game blossom over the past couple of years.

“He’s capable of doing a lot of things,” Boo said. “But he’s such a good kid, sometimes I think he defers too much. You almost want him to be a little more aggressive.”

Wing stopper has become an essential role in today’s NBA. You aren’t winning anything without one or two of them. Simply defending the NBA’s biggest and brightest stars isn’t enough: wing stoppers need to be able to space the floor and hit a contested three-pointer, too. It can be incredibly difficult to stay in a rhythm when you’re not touching the ball much on offense, and that’s especially the case playing next to a superstar as ball dominant as Doncic. Just know that the work doesn’t go unnoticed. Doncic himself said he wants to play his entire career with Finney-Smith earlier this season.

“He’s just Doe Doe. That’s my guy,” Doncic said in his postgame interview on ABC. “I’ve played with him for four years. I hope I play with him until the end of my career because he’s an amazing player, but most importantly, he’s a humble guy, [hard]-working guy, and a great person.”

Finney-Smith knew he wasn’t going to be able to make the NBA by trying to create off the bounce. That simply isn’t his game. Instead, he worked to improve in all the ways supporting players are expected to be great. This year, Finney-Smith hit 40.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes. He was particularly good from the corners, both in terms of volume (26 percent of his field goal attempts came on corner threes) and in terms of accuracy by making 45 percent of those shots, per Cleaning the Glass. The work never stopped on the defensive end, either. He graded out in the 86th percentile of all defenders according to trusted all-in-one metric EPM. He probably won’t make an All-Defensive team this year, but he’ll be a serious candidate next season if he maintains this level of play.

Five-star recruits like Smith are expected to dominate college right away and then jump to the NBA. Players that don’t follow that linear progression tend to get lost in the shuffle. It happened to Finney-Smith, but he never stopped getting better. After five years in college and six years in the NBA, he’s still becoming the best player he can be.

Everything in Dallas still orbits around Doncic, but their success in the 2022 NBA Playoffs couldn’t happen without Finney-Smith. His moment in the sun in Game 4 was a long time coming.