Dallas Mavericks

Mavericks’ Salah Mejri plays with emotion, wants to win and he’s trade bait

There are days Salah Mejri takes a deep breath to make sure his life is real.

When you consider that as a young Tunisian kid, the NBA, the Dallas Mavericks and playing at the American Airlines Center was a dream at best, it’s easy to appreciate what the 7-foot-1 big man has accomplished in a relatively short amount of time.

However, the NBA is a business and Mejri is potential trade bait as the Feb. 8 deadline approaches.

The Mavericks (16-35) begin a four-game road swing Wednesday that includes stops at Phoenix, Sacramento, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State. Ironically, the NBA trade deadline falls on game night against Golden State.

Mejri has been described as the sweetener in several rumored discussions that could benefit the Mavericks’ long-term health.

Some of them might be opportunities for the 31-year-old Mejri to be a back-up center on a potential title team or to fill-in for major injuries (hint: Cleveland). A big man with energy who can score and rebound is always in demand in the league.

“It was when I moved to Belgium that people started talking about me playing in the NBA,” Mejri said recently. “They pointed out that my skills were developing. I was tall, could block out and I could run the floor at league pace.

“When I got the call about coming to Dallas, I couldn’t believe it, because this is what I wanted. It was a long time coming and sometimes in the middle of workouts or whatever, I just look up and ask myself if I’m dreaming.”

His dream is for real and features the kind of physical play in the middle that has been missing in Dallas since the Tyson Chandler days.

He also has a championship pedigree in professional basketball, having won titles and a triple-crown with Real Madrid.

But life in Jendouba, a sleepy farming town about 80 miles west of Tunis near the Algerian border, wasn’t about basketball for Mejri.

“Some of my Dallas teammates are impressed by my footwork,” he deadpanned recently. “But that’s because I grew up playing soccer.

“In Tunisia, as a kid, you grow up wanting to do something that another Tunisian has done. And nobody had ever played basketball, so when they came to me when I was 18, I just kind of shrugged and agreed.”

That led to work with Tunisia’s national team where a string of firsts began for Mejri and Tunisia.

The national team qualified for the World Cup and the London Olympic Games in 2012.

He blocked 17 shots in five Olympic games despite the Tunisians going 0-5 in their debut.

But Mejri’s physicality in the NBA is already the stuff of legend.

He appears regularly in referees’ pre-game notes and, in a blowout win over Washington recently, Mejri was tossed after arguing a foul call.

In trying to plead his case, several teammates including Wes Matthews tried to hold back their center.

That, and the fact the Mavericks were already playing with a skinny roster, sent head coach Rick Carlisle into a rage toward Mejri.

“You’ve got two points tonight,” Carlisle screamed. “Get the [expletive] out of here.”

Carlisle later apologized to Mejri for his on-court reaction.

Last season, Houston’s Trevor Ariza was ejected after an altercation with Mejri.

Then, with police keeping a watchful eye, Ariza waited outside the Mavericks locker room in an attempt to confront him.

All of the above, but mainly his play on the floor, are reasons why other teams are taking an interest.

“I’m just trying to help this team to do the best we can,” Mejri said. “Early on, it was me coming off the bench for Dirk (Nowitzki) or Nerlens (Noel) and then with (Noel) getting hurt, that’s expanded my role.

“My job is to protect the rim, play defense and then, on offense, work hard in the pick-and-roll. And that’s what I do every night. I play hard, I try to play hard and try to give us some energy.”

Where he lacks, though, is an ability to step out on the perimeter and defend the long-range jumper.

That’s left Carlisle shuffling between Mejri and Dwight Powell to try and eliminate that as an issue.

“There have been stretches where I’ve gone against the match-up or prototype and played him and he’s been effective,” Carlisle said. “There was one recent game where I had him in there and it didn’t work out so well.

“But look, he’s been effective generally speaking. Big minutes haven’t been a friend to him just in terms of game to game, recovery, those kinds of things, although he’s gotten stronger each year, which is what I’m really impressed with as far as the job of our trainers and strength and conditioning people have done with him.”

Mejri is averaging 12.3 minutes, 3.5 points and 4.3 rebounds.

“It took some time for coach Carlisle to figure out the rotations this year,” Mejri said. “Every night, it’s a different guy stepping up to help the team, whether it’s Harrison [Barnes] or Dirk, and that’s good.

“This isn’t a team that we depend on one guy and really I think that’s our strength and is going to make us better. But I’m a part of that system and we’ve struggled, but we’re finding ways to win games and stay close.”

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