It was only about a year ago that Donnie Nelson professed his love for the Mavericks' young nucleus.
At the press conference announcing the signing of Devin Harris to a multi-year deal, Nelson talked of "our future cornerstone": Harris, Josh Howard, DeSagana Diop and Maurice Ager, then aged between 23 and 26.
Harris is now a key part of the Nets’ future. Diop is back in Dallas after first being traded to New Jersey then returning thanks to one of the more generous off-season deals, a $31 million, five year contract. Howard is rehabbing his career, after admissions that he smokes marijuana in the off-season and doesn’t respect the national anthem. The Mavs recently substituted two other talented players with tainted histories: Gerald Green and Shawne Williams.
But what about Ager, a 6’5" swingman who is no doubt the least well known and yes, least promising of the players sent East for Jason Kidd. His scouting report reads a lot like Antoine Wright's did in his third year – plays good defense, has three point range but needs help with ball-handling and strength...not to mention self-confidence.
The Nets were ultimately able to get some value out of Wright, using him as a defensive stopper on some of the league’s tougher swingmen. Can the Nets also get value out of Ager?
When they drafted him in 2006, the Mavs saw Ager much like the Nets saw Wright the year before, a good pick, one they didn’t expect to find so late, or so they claimed. At #28, he was drafted five positions behind Marcus Williams and Josh Boone. Most mock drafts had him going only slightly higher.
Mark Cuban, the Mavs’ owner, recalled how the team’s brain trust reacted as Ager "fell". One reason, he said, was that his scouts had told him they didn’t expect Ager would be around when Dallas picked. In fact, the Detroit native and Michigan State product hadn’t even worked out for the Mavs (he did work out…and well…for the Nets).
Cuban told the Dallas media that around the 15th pick, the Mavs decided to call East Lansing and talk with Spartan head coach Tom Izzo and assistant coach Jim Boylan to make sure they wouldn’t be making a mistake. Boylan is an old friend of Avery Johnson, the Mavs’ coach. The two assured him they saw no reason for Ager’s slide and they should take him.
Nelson said they even considered trading up to get Ager, but knew other teams’ needs well enough and so they waited.
"We feel very fortunate," Cuban said at the time. ESPN analyst Greg Anthony liked the selection as well, "He's not quite as polished as Josh Howard (taken 29th in the 2003 draft by the Mavs) but ... this is a guy who averaged 19 points a game. I mean, you do that in college, you can score the ball."
"He's NBA-ready,'' MSU assistant Boylan told the Dallas papers about the Spartan senior. "And he's Avery's kind of guy. He can shoot the ball, and he's very athletic.
The big reason the Mavs liked Ager was their very recent history: days before, they had lost to Miami in the NBA Finals. Without a big, strong perimeter defender, Dallas had to watch Dwyane Wade dominate the series, averaging 35 ppg as the Heat went from a 0-2 deficit to the O’Brien trophy.
"He fits really nicely into our system," Johnson said. "I had a chance to visit with him and he's all about winning and playing defense."
Ager said he liked the challenge of being seen as a defensive stopper (even if one Dallas writer lost complete control and christened him a "Wade-stopper").
"Even my high school coach was very defensive-minded," he said. "Playing for coach Izzo ... that's the only way you can get out on the floor. After a while, it's something you become good at and something you enjoy doing. It's something I really want to do for myself. If you can be a great offensive player and a great defensive player, that separates yourself."
The Nets liked Ager too. In his draft blog the day before the Nets used their picks at #22 and #23 to take Williams and Boone, Ed Stefanski listed Ager among the shooting guard prospects he had his eye on in the first round.
"In the shooting guard situation, Hassan Adams from Arizona is very good," Stefanski wrote--telegraphing his interest in the player the Nets took at #54 in the second round. "Then there are the Michigan State kids, you’ve got Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown. Both were real good in our workouts here."
Indeed, three of the Nets' beat writers reported the morning of the 2006 Draft that Ager was on the Nets' short list for either #22 or #23 in the first round.
In his interview after his workout in 2006, Ager had told the beat writers that he liked the idea of playing with the Nets and added a line that now has to be considered quite ironic: "It would be a great privilege to be able to play with Jason Kidd. He don’t get as much credit as he used to but at the same time I think he makes everyone around him better and I still think he’s one of the top three point guards in the NBA and I think he would compliment me very well."
What everyone liked about Ager beyond his defense was his athleticism. NBADraft.net described him as: "One of the most explosive athletes in the college game ... Great speed and quickness in the open floor ... Excellent body control, can get some spectacular ally oops and put backs when crashing the glass."
Draft Express wrote about how that translated into game situations: "He runs the floor relentlessly, and fills the lane for slashing, above the rim finishes. Ager is a downright spectacular athlete, and will regularly throw down highlight reel dunks."
He also won plaudits for playing big in big games, working on his game, and his wholesomeness, which sat well with Cuban.
"He's a choirboy who can play," Cuban told the media at an introductory press conference. "We heard the stories about he doesn't have any tattoos because he doesn't want anybody in the NBA to think there's something wrong with him."
Ager admitted asking Izzo if he could reschedule Sunday practice.
"When I was a freshman, I told him that's one thing I wanted to do was be able to go to church,'' Ager said. "Coach Izzo was courteous enough to move practice to Sunday afternoons.''
He also had a "passion for local hospitals and children that suffer from asthma", reported his player profile on NBA.com…contributing his time with area hospitals to raise awareness for asthma.
All well and good, but there were (are) flaws in Ager’s game. His three-point shooting has not panned out in the pro’s and his ball-handling and decision-making are suspect. He hit 5-for-15 from downtown last season, but took a while to make his first this season, going 0-for-8 with Dallas and 0-for-3 in New Jersey before hitting one.
Even his dead-eye foul shooting has not made the transition. After hitting free throws at an upper 70’s, low 80’s rate in college, he shot only 60.6% his first year in Dallas.
The only measure of what he can do at the NBA level was hardly a real measure. At the end of last season he was given his first start, against the Warriors in what was seen then as a meaningless game. Ager played 34 minutes, went 6-14 overall, 2-4 from the arc, 6-6 from the foul stripe, grabbed six boards, had an assist and a steal, putting up 20 points in a losing effort. It was the next to last game of the year.
Three times he has been sent to the NBDL, to the Fort Worth Flyers during the 2006-07 season, and twice this season to the Tulsa 66ers. He was in fact in Tulsa, averaging a mediocre (for NBA second year players) 17 ppg, when destiny called and he was traded to New Jersey.
The first demotion this season, in December, had to have been deeply frustrating for Ager. He had started three games for the Mavs a month earlier, playing next to Harris in the Mavs' backcourt. Back then, Johnson was full of praise for the second-year swingman, praise reminiscent of the pre-draft scouting reports.
"He doesn't really get tired," Johnson said of Ager on November 16. "He has a lot of energy. And we thought he was pretty good offensively and defensively."
Ager hoped for the best as well, and hinted one of his problems was his fear of being yanked. "I'm just glad to be able to get out there and not worry about making mistakes."
His tryout as a starter didn’t work out that well. In his first game, he played 20 minutes and scored three points and passed out three assists. But in his second, he dropped to 13 minutes and two points. Next game he started, he picked up two quick fouls and was pulled less than three minutes in the game. Trenton Hassell replaced him in the starting lineup and soon he was out of the rotation.
By December 17, he was on his way to the D-League. Johnson sounded reassuring about his role and said Ager really only needed minutes.
"Just playing time," Johnson replied when asked why he was headed north to Tulsa. "He needs to play the whole game. He just needs minutes and I don't have any minutes for him. There are a lot of guys ahead of him."
He was back in Dallas by January 6, but then down again on February 10, just as the Mavs and Nets were getting deeply involved in trade discussions. In the last eight games he played for the Mavs, he was a 0-for-14 in 27 minutes.
This time, Johnson sounded frustrated about Ager’s NBA role. Ager, he said, needed to "really just define his game. If he's going to be athletic and play above the rim, let's do that. If he's going to be a 3-point shooter, let's do that. If you're going to be a defender, let's do that. But let's get one thing that we can hang our hat on and know what we can get night in and night out. And that's what we're still searching for."
Although the words were Johnson’s and Lawrence Frank would never be quoted publicly saying something like that about one of his players, you could have pictured those words in a thought balloon above Frank’s head when he talked about Wright before the now departed swingman found himself with the Mavs.
As telling as Johnson's final comments on Ager were those of Cuban as he assessed the trade. He made a clear distinction between the loss of Harris, Diop and Hassell and that of Ager.
"Saying goodbye to Devin, Gana and Trenton. All 3 are great guys in every way. On and off the court. It was far from an easy deal to make," Cuban wrote on his Blog Maverick, adding almost as a postscript, "I also think this will be a great chance for Mo Ager to start fresh."
Ager does have an opportunity now with the Nets…but it could pass. The team has to decide by the end of the month whether to exercise his fourth year option. It seems to be a given that they won’t. Ager’s value to the Nets right now has more to do with him having an expiring contract, ideal to fill out the final forms on a multi-player deal, just as he did in February.
Should he surprise and flourish, it would be real bonus…almost as if they have been given a third pick and a second chance in the 2006 draft. Having traded a player, Marcus Williams, they took just ahead of him, Ager would be a nice replacement.
On arrival in New Jersey in February, Ager sounded hopeful that hard work in practice will pay off and give him a second chance.
Asked by Nets’ scribe Matt McQueeny what he hoped to bring to the Nets, Ager answered: "Honestly, energy. Go out there and bring an extra scorer, outside shooting. Defensively I want to get after it a little bit and really just help us secure that playoff spot and just get the best seed we possibly can get…
"I think it’s going to be a good experience."
Indeed, team brass have been impressed by his work ethic and he’ll get a chance to show what he can do in training camp and preseason. Already, he has had one good game, a 4-for-5 audition that netted him nine points.
Another might not get him that contract extension, but it could get him what he may need more: confidence.