Ferrell grows into leader at point guard for Mavericks

Ferrell grows into leader at point guard for Mavericks
Dallas Mavericks guard Yogi Ferrell, right, and forward Dirk Nowitzki react after Ferrell made a three-point basket against the Portland Trail Blazers during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

By Ian Thomsen, NBA.com

He’s only 24 years old with a half-season of NBA experience, which makes his future hard to predict. Those forecasts become ever more promising when you consider Yogi Ferrell’s recent path.

He has packed four careers into the last 18 months -- as a household name at Indiana University, an undrafted rookie who couldn’t stick with the NBA’s worst team, a midseason surprise in Dallas and, most recently, a “veteran” mentor among the rebuilding Mavericks. In basketball years, Ferrell is older than he looks. “Yogi was 30 years old the day he was born,” joked Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

He has seen the basketball world from a wide range of viewpoints over a short time. In the curious case of Yogi, it is best to begin his story at the end.

Rookie becomes a mentor of sorts

Last month at Las Vegas Summer League, the Mavericks introduced 6-foot-3 rookie guard Dennis Smith Jr. as if he were the explosive second-coming of Russell Westbrook. The Mavs had spent the No. 9 pick on Smith -- their highest draft choice since 1998, when they came away with Dirk Nowitzki -- in hope that he will emerge as their point guard for the next decade.

Helping to guide Smith throughout his opening days was Ferrell, who months earlier had been lauded as the exciting new point guard in Dallas.

“You’re talking about a guy that is 100 percent professional,” Jamahl Mosley, the Mavericks’ coach at Summer League, said of Ferrell. “A lot of guys would take certain things personally when you’ve got a guy coming in and he’s a guard who gets the ball. But Yogi is helping Dennis get better. He is teaching him, and telling him, ‘If you see this, do this.’ I can’t tip my hat enough to his growth and leadership abilities.”

Ferrell shared the Vegas backcourt with Smith without an appearance of friction. There was no need to lecture Ferrell about roles or hierarchy or deference. Whenever he was asked about Smith’s impact on his own career, Ferrell responded by talking about their team.

“That’s just more weapons for us,” Ferrell said. “He can get into the lane and create. He’s got great athleticism and he can play defense. I can get off the ball little bit and move. I don’t have to create everything. It’s great for me that he’s on the team.”

In 36 games with the Mavericks last season, Ferrell had averaged only 4.3 assists over 29.1 minutes while making the All-Rookie second team.

“He’s still got to learn how to play point guard,” said Cuban last month in Vegas. “At Indiana he was the scorer -- he would dominate the ball, he had to do everything. Now he’s going through that adjustment of when to keep it, when to pass, how to create, how to find guys. But you’re seeing here he’s gotten a lot better. He’s looking to score a lot less and making everybody else better.”

While Smith was generating 17.3 points and 4.2 assists in 25.8 minutes in Vegas, Ferrell was complementing him with 13.3 points and 3.3 assists. With J.J. Barea and Devin Harris also available for next season, the Mavericks’ weakest position may suddenly become a strength. Their young backcourt can work because Ferrell’s experiences have taught him to focus not so much on his needs, and more so on what the team needs from him.

A midseason surprise in Dallas

Last February, as he was preparing for his third game with the Mavericks, Ferrell’s agent told him that Dallas had decided to offer him a multi-year contract. “That was pretty amazing,” Ferrell said. “A couple of hours before the game, my agent said that they wanted to sign me. It was a burden lifted off my shoulders. I felt like they valued me.”

He had signed a 10-day contract with the last-place Mavericks on Jan. 28, learned the playbook the next day and assigned to start that night at San Antonio. Ferrell made two free throws with 7.3 seconds left to clinch a 105-101 win against the Spurs. One night later he was scoring 19 points in an upset of the champion Cavaliers. His new team clobbered the visiting 76ers as Ferrell overcame an 11-inch deficit to block the shot of center Jahlil Okafor. Then he went to Portland and scored 32 points as Dallas won four straight with its new rookie point guard.

“He hit nine 3s -- and he hit the game-winner with Dirk standing right next to him,” said Cuban of their win against the Blazers. “Yogi has that killer in him. Sometimes it’s not just talent, it’s circumstances. The circumstances were right for him and right for us.”

They needed his attacking skills, his confidence and, above all, his self-awareness. Ferrell was assertive without confusing his strengths with his weaknesses.

“I like to play chess,” he said. “I actually play on my phone a lot against real people -- I don’t know them, it’s online. Just try to think a couple of moves ahead. I’m trying to win and also find different ways to make my mind better.”

He started 29 games for Dallas without assuming that he had earned the same role for next season. To stay for the long term, he would have to keep improving while also helping his new team grow.

Which is where Smith comes in. “He’s going to be a big part of that success for us,” Ferrell went on. “So, we want to try to help him as much as possible.”

Undrafted, but undeterred in NBA dream

It is burying the lead to point out that Ferrell is only 6 feet tall. For the first time in his basketball life, his height was relevant. It was June 23, 2016, the night of the NBA Draft, and his size prevented him from hearing the announcement of his name.

“I did hear something great once,” Ferrell said. “Somebody said, ‘You know, they can’t stop you from practicing.’ So not being drafted and not getting any attention, it’s fine. I still got in the gym and worked. That’s all I knew to do, that was what I was blessed at. If I did that, everything else was going to fall into place for me.”

As a senior, he had generated 17.6 points and 5.6 assists while driving Indiana to the Big Ten championship and the NCAA Sweet 16. He had started all 137 games for his local school. He had become the first Hoosier to lead the program in points and assists over consecutive seasons since Isiah Thomas.

Weeks later, at the end of the 2016 Draft, he was out of work and looking for a job.

“You appreciate the dark days when things aren’t going your way,” he was saying one year later, from the position of strength that he had gone onto earn in Dallas. “You can look back and say how you got here, and now you want to stay here and continue to do the same things that got you here.”

He signed with the rebuilding Nets on Nov. 9, who were destined to finish last in 2016-17. Even with them, however, Ferrell couldn’t earn more than 151 minutes over 10 games. He was shuttled back and forth between Brooklyn and the G League until the Nets waived him in December. He was in Erie, Penn., getting ready for his next game with the Long Island Nets, when he was told that the Mavericks had chosen him for a 10-day contract.

“He was an Indiana guy, right? That made it fun,” said Cuban, who also graduated from Indiana. “I remember when Pierre (Jackson) got hurt and we had to fill the point guard spot, they gave me a list of names. I was like, ‘Tie goes to the Indiana guy.’

“I’m excited for him. He’s going be great for us and for Dennis Smith -- he’s going to push him. He loves to play D, he loves to work on his game, and those are all things you look for.”

Stardom always a long road for Ferrell

The pressure of staying at home to play for Indiana had never appeared to be too much for Ferrell. As a McDonald’s All-American in 2012, he had led Park Tudor High School in Indianapolis to back-to-back state championships while approaching a triple-double in his final game.

“I’ve always worked hard and tried to take it up to the next level by watching film of some of the great point guards,” Ferrell said. “The other night I was watching Steve Nash’s passes -- his pace, how he plays, how he finds different guys. How is it so easy for him? You’re trying to get inside his head, because success always repeats itself.”

As much as he was studying his elders, Ferrell was also aware he was being watched. He was 10 years old when he received national attention as a 4-foot-10 fourth-grader who was rated No. 1 nationally in his class, such as it was. The newspapers referred to him as Kevin Ferrell back then. His father, Kevin Ferrell Sr., wanted no part of premature celebrity for his son.

“I had a bull's eye on my back from being ranked early,” Ferrell said. “It was too much attention. I remember I was on the front page of the newspaper back home. So, my dad kind of stepped me away from basketball. I wanted to play, you know? I was a young kid. But now that I look back on it, it was a great idea.”

His father pulled him out of AAU basketball until he was in high school. Until then, during the summers, Ferrell was on public courts playing with friends. “I wasn’t on the AAU circuit,” he said, “so I wasn’t in front of the cameras or media or anything like that.”

That was relevant to everything that had become of him. Whether he was the big-name college star or the undersized NBA scrub who had to work his way up from the bottom, he was drawn back to those years when his father had put everything into perspective.

By the time he made his AAU “comeback,” so to speak, he had learned to never take his love of basketball for granted, which is a lesson that many don’t learn until it’s too late.

“It’s been a fast year,” Ferrell said. “I was just looking back on it. I was in Brooklyn, then I had our first game here. I feel like it’s becoming a lot easier -- making the right reads, knowing the defensive coverages. I just want to keep getting better.”

He has learned how to cover a lot of ground in a short time.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.

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