December 15, 2017, 12:56 pm
After a rough 1-10 start the Mavs have figured out a winning formula with a starting lineup that no one would have predicted at the beginning of the season. Just before Dennis Smith went down with a hip injury, Dallas deployed a starting unit of him, Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki, and Maxi Kleber. And while coming into the year those first four names were virtual locks to start, once Seth Curry was diagnosed with a tibial stress reaction, the question simply was where would that fifth spot go to. Nerlens Noel felt like the much needed rim protector that could play next to Dirk but he has been a complete disappointment and his future with the organization looks murky.
Enter Maxi Kleber, an undrafted 25-year-old rookie who played professionally in his native Germany from 2009 to 2014, moved to Spain in 2014-15 and then returned to his hometown from 2015 until 2017 without drawing much NBA interest, largely due to his inability to stay healthy. Kleber didn’t play in Summer League as he struggled getting himself physically ready but he’s a great worker, knows how to play the game and has earned his minutes after impressing enough in the Mavs training camp to make the final roster, earning more than a two-way contract.
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A Promising Career Derailed by Injuries
The 6’11” forward had been on the radar for NBA scouts but missed out on playing for Germany at the U18 European Championship in 2010 when he injured his cruciate knee ligament. He was hoping to play at the U20 European Championship in 2011 but a broken finger also kept Kleber from playing with his national team, one major way many international scouts get a good look at talented players.
Even though he was unable to participate in these tournaments Kleber showed up at the Nike Global Challenge games in Portland, Oregon. He made a name for himself after holding his ground with 9 points and 6 rebounds against a USA Midwest team that featured stars like Jabari Parker and Gary Harris. Kleber then scored 17 points against Puerto Rico and collected 15 points, 5 rebounds and 6 blocks against Brazil, earning a spot in the All-Tournament-Team. Most foreign players at this stage are a big question mark for scouts and while they might have great highlights from their home leagues the competition against American kids is a major test as to whether they can be equally competitive at the highest level.
He put his name into the 2012 NBA Draft as an early entry and after missing the entire 2012-13 campaign with another injury he went undrafted in 2014. Moving to Spain and the Liga ACB in 2014-15 with Obradoiro, he averaged 12.6 points and 6.6 rebounds but more foot injuries forced him to return to Bayern Munich and the German BBL where in the 2017 EuroCup competition he was named to the Second-All-Team-Tournament.
Some people see a little bit of Dirk Nowitzki in Maxi Kleber and before you dismiss that statement out of hand, consider that both players are skillful big men born in Würzburg and have suited up for the German national team. Kleber of course is smart enough to quickly dismiss these comparisons. “Many times people want to compare me to him [Nowitzki],” There is no way you want to compare me to Dirk. I just want to be Maxi Kleber and play my game.”
The Rim Protector That The Mavs Have Been Looking For
Simply put, Kleber has been able to provide some much needed flexibility defensively and the results are 6 wins in the last 14 games that he has been starting for the Mavs. Rick Carlisle hasn’t been shy about his rookie and you can’t really blame the coach because he does a little bit of everything, he’s smart, and understands the importance of good basketball decisions.”He’s been one of our better defenders. When you add a guy like that, that can guard people individually and can switch liberally and keep little guys in front of him, that helps.”
The main defensive issue with the Mavs at the beginning of the season was how they fell behind early in the games and had to play catch up for the rest of it. That put a lot of pressure to their bench unit which had to do more than provide a spark of energy. After experimenting with Noel and Mejri, both of which have defensive deficiencies, Kleber was inserted in the lineup and has done a terrific job holding his ground against a few of the most skilled bigs in the NBA like Karl-Anthony Towns, Al Horford, Marc Gasol, and Steven Adams. The Mavs have been able to get off to a good defensive start both at the beginning of the games as well as during the third quarters. Instead of playing from behind to begin games Dallas is playing even with opponents, making the second unit’s job much easier.
Here is some exceptional one-on-one defense by Kleber who forces KAT to a tough contested shot close to the paint. Notice how early in the shot clock the Wolves threw the ball to Towns who thought he had an easy shot.
Kleber needs to get a bit stronger on the block to be able to defend at this level consistently but the tools are most definitely there and his presence makes things a lot easier for Dirk and Harrison Barnes. Not only don’t they have to guard bigger, stronger and more athletic guys down in the post but they are able to rebound better. Look at Harrison Barnes in the following play. Guarding Andrew Wiggins who is just waiting for the ball in the corner he is able to slowly crawl into the paint and secure the defensive rebound for his team while Kleber is trying to contain Towns without any help.
Totally forgotten in Kleber’s scouting report has been the fact that he has an athletic and fluid body with solid agility. He has exceeded expectations and has been more than an adequate rim protector, giving the Mavs what they hoped they had into Nerlens Noel. Maxi has a 35 inch vertical jump and is still a ridiculous athlete even though he was slowed down by injuries early in his career. Most of his blocks have been really impressive as he either stops his man using verticality or comes out of the weak side and provides help defense. Here is an impressive sequence with Al Horford and Daniel Theis unsuccessful at finishing around the rim.
The Mavs have decided to stick with Dirk Nowitzki until the very end of his career and that obviously puts some limitations on their ceiling as a team. They have been looking to pair him with an athletic big who can protect the rim in recent years but the DeAndre Jordan fiasco and the Noel experiment have left a gaping hole in their paint. Kleber, even though a rookie, has enough experience to understand rotation switches and avoid unnecessary fouls, as evidenced by his low fouling rate at only 3.5 fouls per 36 minutes. He hasn’t fouled out this year yet further validating his value as a viable rim protector.
Versatile Offensive Game
Kleber is a modern stretch forward who has good size and solid agility but lacks superb speed which he is able to compensate for with his length and quick feet. The Würzburg native has good ball-handling skills for his size, giving him the ability to dribble the ball and open up the perimeter shot for his teammates. The Bucks are all over Dirk Nowitzki in the following segment trying to prevent a pass to him down the block where he is pretty much unstoppable. Kleber is standing in the corner but rapidly moves towards the basket as soon as he receives the ball, identifying how John Henson cannot keep up with him. Kris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe have to rotate and act as pseudo rim protectors preventing the easy layup from Maxi who finds an open Wes Matthew in the perimeter.
On that same play look at how Dennis Smith fails to capitalize on a back screen set by Matthews that would have left him wide open in the corner. Even though the Mavs scored in that possession these are the little things that make coaches go crazy with their rookies and bench them.
Maxi does not shy away from contact and posts up opposing players with solid moves. He doesn’t get knocked around, he knows how to play strong, he moves his feet and plays the angles extremely well. He can finish strong at the rim and has the hands to catch and put down alley-oops as well, something that the Mavericks do increasingly often in their pick-and-roll offense.
The key to Kleber’s development will be whether he is able to unlock a consistent three point shot. With the NBA three-point line being longer than the Euro line, Kleber hasn’t quite made the adjustment as he is just 11-of-34 for the season. His shot is somehow slow but it’s hard to block since he is almost seven feet tall and there is hope as he shot 44 percent from behind the arc last year in Germany.
“The difference between the European three-point line and the NBA three-point line is something that he’s working very hard on,” Carlisle said. The coaching staff worked with him on some minor tweaks to his shot but the most encouraging part is that he’s being asked to keep shooting when free.
His positional flexibility is another part of his game that Carlisle likes, as he can have him play the small forward position without clogging the paint. This enables the Mavs’ multiple ballhandlers to set up pick-and-roll action on top of the key which occasionally opens up the corner three. And what Kleber can take advantage of is that most times he will be matched against less athletic bigs who won’t be able to close out quickly on him. Here is a play where Jamal Crawford and KAT play some atrocious defense on a pick-and-roll action initiated by Matthews leading to Kleber hitting the corner three after Dieng fails to recover on time (and even though the pass was not textbook material).
And when Kleber plays as a power forward next to Dirk, Carlisle will run a lethal high-low action with a double screen on the top. Notice how after the screen is set the Bucks rotate but are scared to leave Dirk open even for a nanosecond while he is able to find the cutting Kleber who finishes with authority.
Kleber Exceeding Expectations But Needs to Prove He Can Stay Healthy
Kleber has been a pleasant surprise as he’s more athletic and talented than anybody envisioned but he will not fill up the stat sheet and his usage is at just 12.6 percent. Even in December where he’s averaging over 25 minutes a game, he’s scoring just 7.7 points per game while grabbing 5.3 boards. While his ceiling has been just making the team and sitting at the end of the bench he now finds himself as a regular part of the rotation and the Mavs should be smart to keep developing him in what looks like another lost season. Owners in deep leagues should put him the radar as he projects to be a nice source of rebounds, threes and blocks, a combination of stats that is rare but rewarding.
As always, thank you for reading and please don’ t hesitate to let us know about an international prospect that you would want to learn more about in the next weeks.