One of the biggest surprises one the season for the Oklahoma City Thunder isn't the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Nor is it the return to All-Star status for Chris Paul, or that the team is headed to the playoffs.
It's that Luguentz Dort has become a reliable lockdown defender.
Dort, who went undrafted in the 2019 NBA Draft, signed a two-way deal with OKC in July. Though he was a part of the NBA and the Thunder, being on a two-way deal had some restrictions for the 20-year-old. Dort was only able to spend a maximum of 45 days with the Thunder's main roster and as a result, the team had been using his days sparingly, even going as far as to hold the Canadian out of practice to maximize his allotted days on the court.
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Which makes what he's been able to do before the league-wide shut down even more impressive.
Dort was called up to play spot minutes with the Thunder in December before earning a full-time starting role in mid-January. He has now started in 21 of his 29 outings and has given the team what it sorely lacked - energy and defence.
Since Dort's insertion into the starting five, he's leading the team in charges drawn, contested 3-point shots and has recovered 75% of defensive loose balls.
"I'm sure Lu doesn't mind not practicing," fellow Canadian Gilgeous-Alexander told the Oklahoman back in February. "He plays so hard.
"He keeps cool and obviously we know the circumstances."
The circumstances are that every team needs a Lu Dort. A glue-guy so to speak, someone who can get in there and do the dirty work. It's also nice if that glue-guy can do more than just throw his body around the court and dive for loose balls. It helps if he can bring an elite skill - Dort been able to do that on the defensive end.
Not known for his defensive abilities in high school or college, Dort has now made a name for himself in the league on that end of the floor. Coach Billy Donovan has not only challenged Dort but trusted him to guard the opposing team's best player consistently.
"Since early identification as an eighth and ninth grader, he's been the guy on his team that's willing to do whatever it takes," Elias Sbiet, Director of Recruiting at North Pole Hoops, told NBA.com. "And that's to win games, get scholarships, to compete at the next level...to win spots over other guys.
"That's exactly what he's doing right now in the NBA, he's doing whatever it takes to stay on the floor, to stay on the team and pick up an NBA contract."
In a chart made up by twitter user Andrew Patton (@anpatt7), which breaks down the percentage a player spends on the opposing team's number one option, Dort stands alone on top of the mountain at 41.5%. A lot of responsibility for a rookie, who doesn't even have a full NBA contract - and currently is held out of practice.
To sum it up in one word - fearless.
How has Dort fared against some of the league's best one-on-one? He guarded James Harden, one of the isolation players in league history, as well as you can guard him in a match-up against the Houston Rockets. In 32.6 partial possessions, Dort held Harden to just eight points on 2-for-13 from the field while forcing two turnovers, according to NBA Stats.
The shifty Trae Young was held to five points on 1-for-5 shooting. Donovan Mitchell? Just eight points on 2-for-7 from the field. Dort's not just doing it against average NBA players, he's locking in on some of the league's best.
Lu Dort on when he is gonna get a full NBA contract: pic.twitter.com/w6ErRPOr9r- Brandon Rahbar (@BrandonRahbar) February 24, 2020
"I think one thing that he'll be able to wear his hat on is going to be the defensive prowess that he's been showing," Sbiet continued. "I don't think that his skill set transition as well into the NBA as other guys at his size - he's a Marcus Smart type mould.
"Marcus Smart has found a way in the NBA by being a grind it out type of guy - started his career by being a defensive guy as well and now he's evolved.
"So I think if (Dort) can hold on to this role for a couple of seasons and then build on his skills set throughout the years - get a more consistent three-point shot, then he'll have a spot in the league for a very long time."
The unexpected halt to the NBA season put a pause on Dort's progress on the floor, but it didn't hurt his chances of converting his two-way deal into a full-time NBA contract.
The Thunder signed Dort to a multi-year deal in late June making him eligible for the postseason.
He's unquestionably proved there is room for what he can bring to the table with the Thunder.
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