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Who is Dirk Nowitzki? According to the Mavericks he's part Larry Bird, part Boris Becker and part Randy Moss.
"He's a 20-year-old kid who six or seven months ago nobody in the basketball world knew anything about," says Donn Nelson, the Mavs assistant coach and player personnel director. "It's like a Larry Bird story, a kid from this small podunk town who grows up to be a great player."
Except that Nowitzki's town is Würzburg, Germany. Last June he was the property of a small local club that until this season had played in the German second division. The coach of Germany's national team had recently declared that Nowitzki might be ready to play for his country after three more years of seasoning. The Mavs, meanwhile, deemed him an NBA lottery pick, cutting a draft day deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, who drafted Nowitzki ninth and immediately shipped him, along with the No. 19 pick, Pat Garrity, to Dallas for Robert (Tractor) Traylor, the sixth selection. For a player who hails from a country with so little basketball tradition it was a Beckeresque leap.
Nowitzki is a slim, 238-pound 7-footer with the hands, athleticism and marksmanship of a small forward. By the 2000-01 season, when Donn Nelson is scheduled to replace his father, Don, as coach, the Mavs believe Nowitzki will have added muscle, learned to knock down the three-pointer with regularity and become a tremendous passer as well as a defensive force. Dallas believes that, like the NFL's Moss, Nowitzki had the talent to be drafted much higher. If his accent sounded more like Bird's and less like Becker's—i.e., if Nowitzki were an American—"he would've been the Number 1 pick in the draft," Don Nelson says.
Nowitzki won't help the Mavs much inside, where they lost Kurt Thomas, a 6'9" enforcer who signed with the Knicks. Nelson responded by beating out 10 teams for John (Hot Rod) Williams, who at 36 wijl be Dallas's starting center, flanked by 35-year-old A.C. Green and backed up by 7'6" Shawn Bradley. Newly acquired tough guy Gary Trent and 6'9", 258-pound holdover Samaki Walker are also in the mix.
Nelson hopes the Mavs will contend for their first playoffs since 1990, building their success around 25-year-old scorer Michael Finley. Steve Nash, whom the Mavs picked up in another draft day trade, will be expected to prove that he's a 40-minute player after backing up Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson last season in Phoenix.
But Dallas's biggest X factor is Nowitzki. "We've got to convince Dirk how good he really is and of the skill level he possesses," Donn Nelson says. "In the last five to eight years it's kind of been the opposite with young players. Everybody has come trash-talking his way into the league. It's nice to deal with somebody who's a bit modest."
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