Christian Wood Brings Dallas Something New

Pretty much the only thing people talk about with the Mavericks these days is how much better they would be if they had kept Jalen Brunson, the solid combo guard who just signed a $104 million contract with the New York Knicks (to both teams’ fans’ dismay, somehow). Any other chatter is around Luka Doncic’s conditioning and form at EuroBasket, the prestigious European tournament happening right now.

You’ll hear very little about the Mavericks’ major offseason addition: Christian Wood. But it’s Wood who holds the keys to the team’s success this season.

For a guy with eight seasons under his belt (including a lost third year where he never played an NBA minute despite being in the G League), Wood remains an enigma even to close watchers of the league. As we’ll see in a couple of paragraphs, he’s undeniably a superb scorer. But he couldn’t get on the floor for large swathes of his early career due to some admitted maturity issues, and the vast majority of his playing time has come on a Houston team that had no interest in winning games. So nobody knows what Wood will look like on a team that actually has expectations.

For doubters, everything starts and ends with defense, and I understand why. To my eyes, Wood is quite often atrocious. He’s 6’10” with a massive wingspan and has superb lateral quickness for his size. When engaged, he can switch out on the perimeter and hold his own against guards in the pick and roll or in isolation.

But Wood rarely looks like he’s trying on that end, and he offers absolutely zero resistance down low to anybody bigger than him. Many of his issues are correctable: his arms are often down by his knees instead of splayed out in a defensive stance, and he gives a half-hearted effort at best on many closeouts to shooters. He’s inattentive off-ball, and there are entire games where he floats around doing nothing but waiting to get back on offense.

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Christian has the physical tools to be an average to above-average defender in a switching scheme, which the Mavericks utilized more heavily after trading away Kristaps Porzingis last season. Wood is a little stiff in the hips and is vulnerable to a quick crossover (like almost all bigs, to be fair), but he has flashed excellent recovery speed at times in hustling back and utilizing his length to bother shots:

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At his best, Wood is a swarming menace to opposing ballhandlers, with active hands and just enough shotblocking to be a problem. At his worst, which we’ve seen far too often, he rolls around like a car in neutral.

The Mavs have three reasons for optimism, however. First, advanced stats from a variety of sources paint Wood as a perfectly average defender — he doesn’t foul much, he’s a solid rebounder, and he gets his mitts on the ball a decent amount, which are things the algorithms like. Second, Coach Kidd has a track record of getting buy-in from his players on defense, and it’s possible that a combination of Kidd’s tutelage and playing games that matter will be enough to motivate Wood.

But the last, more basic consideration: this is a contract year for Wood. The $41 million, three-year deal he signed with Houston (based entirely on a promising 15-game stretch with Detroit in 2020) is coming to an end, and Wood wants to get paid. Of course, the easiest path to big buck$ is to prove he can be on the court in high-leverage playoff moments, and Wood will almost certainly have that chance for the first time in his career.

The defensive questions remain, but the Mavs hope he’s the answer on offense. Wood is a uniquely well-rounded scorer who can attack in every way imaginable.

In his last two seasons with Houston, he averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds per game, shot 51% from the field, and hit over 38% from three on five triple attempts per game — an excellent combination of accuracy and volume from a big man. But he’s not just some spot-up shooter camping out at the three-point line.

As I mentioned, Wood is shockingly quick for his size and possesses a mean face-up game. He loves to attack forwards and centers off the dribble (particularly to his right), utilizing a guard-like first step to get an inch on them and then extending his arms for acrobatic finger rolls and dunks.

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Despite his slight build, Wood is not afraid of physicality (on offense, at least), and he’s as apt to lower a shoulder and bulldoze defenders out of the way as he is to Eurostep around them. Sometimes, he’ll do both!

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Wood shoots almost five free throws per game, a solid mark (although poor FT shooting is his biggest weakness — something to watch down the stretch of close games), and also draws an inordinate number of non-shooting fouls. His speed is too much for most lumbering centers and forwards to deal with, so they get caught reaching, and his heads-down drives create a surprising amount of contact. Wood doesn’t utilize his post game much, but if he gets a smaller defender on him, he will work for position, seal off the littler guy, and then dunk on his ancestors:

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Wood has a pure stroke from deep, and he can shoot off the dribble, a rarity amongst bigs:

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He even has a beautiful floater game, rainbowing in teardrops from eight feet away and demoralizing defenders who were proud of themselves for finally keeping him from the hoop.

According to Synergy, Wood is almost exactly as likely to pop for a jumper as to roll after setting a screen, and he will give Luka Doncic a pick-and-do-whatever partner like he’s never had before. The Dallas duo will give Philly’s Harden and Embiid a run for their money as the most dynamic pick combo in the league this season.

Without Jalen Brunson, their second-leading scorer last season, the Mavs have a gaping hole in the bucket-getting department. The return of Tim Hardaway Jr. from injury might help, and Spencer Dinwiddie will take on more of a role, but Dallas is counting on Christian to plug the breach. I think it’s a good bet. Wood could easily average 20 points per game on breathtaking efficiency next season if things break right.

But how will Wood be utilized? Early reports from reliable Dallas reporter Tim Cato stated that Wood would start the season as a high-minutes sixth man, relieving some of the offensive burden on Luka when they’re together while also shouldering the main load when he rests. If Wood is playing against more backups, his defensive inconsistency may not matter as much, and his scoring abilities should be enough to keep Dallas afloat offensively.

Dallas already has three guys to fill the center minutes: classic centers Dwight Powell and JaVale McGee (a surprise free agent signing who will likely be the low-minutes starter ahead of Wood to start the year) and power forward/small-ball center (and Basketball Poetry favorite) Maxi Kleber. Wood will likely share the court at least a little with McGee and Kleber, both of whom are better defenders but more limited offensive players, but Kidd is certain to give lineups with Wood as the only big man some run to see if they can survive. A lineup of Doncic, Wood, Hardaway, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Dinwiddie would be absolutely bonkers on offense, although DFS would be the only above-average defender on the court.

I had previously said that Jordan Poole is a lock for Sixth Man of the Year, but that was before I knew this was coming. If Wood is going to come off the bench for the entire season, he may take that title for himself. But the Mavericks don’t care about Wood’s regular-season accolades. This team made it to the Western Conference Finals this past season, and they’re hungry for more.

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While most of the league’s pundits have written Dallas off after the loss of Brunson, I think Wood’s addition might have improved the team compared to last season. But we need to see it in action, particularly in a much-improved Western Conference.

The Warriors and Suns will be very, very good again. The Clippers might be, on paper, the most talented roster in the league. The Nuggets are everyone’s favorite dark-horse championship contender, the Grizzlies were the regular-season two-seed last year, the Wolves swung for the fences, the Pelicans were a playoff team without Zion Williamson, and the Lakers still have LeBron and Anthony Davis. Even the Blazers substantially improved. That’s nine other teams that project to be legitimate playoff threats. Including Dallas, at least two of those teams are missing the playoffs.

If Wood is as smooth a fit as I think he will be (and if he can stay healthy; he’s missed chunks of time in each of the last couple of seasons), Dallas could find itself with home-court advantage in Round 1. Doncic can be the best player in any playoff series, so Dallas will always have a chance.

I am optimistic that a motivated Wood will compete harder on defense and be the perfect offensive partner for Doncic. Wood is possibly the biggest X-factor in the entire league this year, and I can’t wait to see what he looks like. If nothing else, I know he’s confident:

Dallas is still one player (a two-way wing, preferably) away from being a championship favorite, but Wood’s play this season will determine how big of a piece they need. We already know Luka is That Dude. So can Wood be the second-best offensive option on a playoff team? The Mavs are betting yes, and the answer might change the course of the conference for years to come. 

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.

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