It's not quite right to say that Dirk Nowitzki is envious of Dario Saric. After 20 years in the NBA, after winning a championship and an MVP award, after scoring more than 30,000 points, Nowitzki would be envious of . . . whom exactly?
He moseyed around the three-point line Friday morning at the Wells Fargo Center during the Dallas Mavericks' shootaround, hours before their game against the 76ers. He was smiling, flicking 22-footers through the hoop as if he were tossing coins in a fountain, needling his teammates about the shots they were clanking and one of the Mavs' trainers about the handlebar "porn-stache" that ringed the guy's mouth.
He seemed a man at complete ease, even though the Mavericks entered Friday's game 31/2 games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference - even if, as he reportedly has said, he might retire at season's end.
It's good to be Dirk, and it has been for a while. But it wasn't all that great in 1998, when he became the NBA draft's first European lottery pick. When the Mavericks flouted the conservative and conventional focus in scouting circles on American college players and traded for him. When Don Nelson, then the team's general manager and coach, predicted that Nowitzki would win the league's rookie of the year award.
Saric is the leading contender for that honor this season; he would be just the second European-born player, after Pau Gasol in 2002, to win it. He had been on a remarkable 16-game run ahead of Friday, averaging 20.3 points and 8.0 rebounds and shooting 48.4 percent from the field over that span, and his rapid development into a centerpiece player for the Sixers serves as a reminder of how different things were for Nowitzki two decades ago, how difficult he had it compared with Saric or any international player today.
"I was struggling there for a long, long time," Nowitzki said. "He's playing a lot better in his first year than I did."
Of that, there's no doubt. In his rookie season - the lockout-truncated 1998-99 campaign - Nowitzki hardly seemed destined to mature into what he became: a 7-foot-tall post-perimeter hybrid, one in a wave of versatile big men who moved their games out of the lane and to the rest of the court, including beyond the three-point arc. As Saric did years later, Nowitzki had impressed pro and college scouts at the Nike Hoop Summit, marking himself as a prospect worth watching, but the NBA at the time didn't offer a soft landing spot for him.
Before joining the Mavericks, Nowitzki had never lived outside of Germany or on his own for any significant length of time. He had never found an apartment, let alone in a foreign country. He was hesitant to speak English, afraid that he would marble-mouth the language. Because of the lockout, he didn't go through a normal training camp with the Mavericks, and when the season began, he was ill-equipped for the nightly demand of defending stronger, more seasoned players.
When Nowitzki entered the league, for instance, teams were forbidden from playing zone defense. So possession after possession looked the same: a star player isolated on one side of the court, pounding the ball in the post, backing down a man-to-man defender. The NBA has since changed its rules to open up the flow of play, allowing Nowitzki to flourish over time, but his struggles made Nelson look like a blowhard for that boastful prediction. As a rookie, Nowitzki averaged just 8.2 points and made barely 40 percent of his shots.
"There would be guys who were just backing me down for 10 seconds," he said. "All those things are out now. Once we put the zone in, things were a lot easier for the European shooters to adjust, and it's been fun to watch how many guys come into this league and have an impact and are big-time players."
Saric appears the latest, and he hasn't confronted the same culture shock that Nowitzki did. The Sixers traded for Ersan Ilyasova, who mentored Saric during their 3 1/2 months as teammates, and Saric's mother, Veselinka, traveled with him and the team on a recent road trip. And generally speaking, the league's modern, more fluid style of basketball allows a European player to make a faster transition, which in turn allows him to earn his new teammates' respect more quickly, which in turn makes everything about his experience easier.
"It's hard to play well on the court if you don't feel well off the court," Nowitzki said. "Maybe he's feeling [good] here and the team welcomed him in, because he's playing really well. . . . It feels like they run a lot of stuff to him now. His specialty is that he can go both ways. He's a good driver. He can create contact. He can finish. He can get to the foul line. He's able to step out and knock down that three-point shot, and that really opens up the drives for him. In big situations, they give him the ball to create."
Sounds familiar. Sounds like what the Mavericks have done with Nowitzki for all these years. That doesn't mean Saric is bound to become Nowitzki's equal. The Sixers, or anyone else, would be foolish to expect such a thing. But they'd settle for something relatively close, and the greatest European player in NBA history will tell you himself: He's seen a worse start to a career.