Before Dirk Nowitzki played his first-ever NBA game, many executives and analysts didn't believe he'd have a successful career in the league. His first doubter was the Milwaukee Bucks, who traded Nowitzki to the Dallas Mavericks after being selected 9th in the 1998 NBA draft.
Like the Bucks, many thought that Nowitzki wasn't the right franchise player to invest in. He was mainly criticized for his lack of defensive ability and killer instinct.
However, the rookie out of Wurzburg, Germany, stil found a home in Dallas, where he became not just arguably the greatest international player of all time but also one of the best power forwards ever to play the game. How did he do this? By focusing on developing his defensive skills.
How Nowitzki opened people's eyes
In the 1999-2000 NBA Summer League, Nowitzki heard all the talk about his flaws and decided to use this as fuel to go all out in one of his first games as a professional NBA player. One game in particular that caught a lot of attention was his battle against young Shawn Marion and the Pheonix Suns.
Nowitzki was seen playing point-center, which was still a rare sight in the late 90s. The Maverick finished the game with 26 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, and four blocks. As seen in the video above, Nowitzki showed glimpses of his ability to score from all over the floor and get to the free-throw line, passing skills, handles, and, most crucial defensive potential. There were clips of young Nowitzki blocking shots and stealing the ball from his fellow rookie and sophomore players.
Dirk had to prove his worth to the Mavericks.
Despite Nowitzki's impressive pre-season performance, his first year in the league wasn't easy for him at all. True to the scouting report during the draft, he couldn't keep up defensively against more experienced players. His teammates back in 2001 would even call him "Irk," as in Dirk without the letter D because his defense was often missing. He was so bad on defense that he had to be benched by head coach Don Nelson.
"One thing I learned is that you've got to play aggressive every night," Nowitzki said as reported by The Sporting News. "The legs may be tired, but you've got to come out and defend, rebound, do other things to stay on the court and be productive. They'd try to get me going (defensively) in Germany. But I was expected to score," he added.
So after an embarrassing rookie year, Nowitzki took the time to learn how to play defense under Nelson's scheme. He was slid into the power forward and was entrusted to build enough muscle to keep up with tough inside players while maintaining the same production on offense.
Proper to his realizations, Nowitzki did improve every year as he went from averaging just 8.2 points and 3.4 rebounds a game (in his rookie year) to 17.5 points and 6.5 rebounds a game in his sophomore year. Nowitzki just kept getting better after his sophomore year, which eventually made him one of the best players ever to play the game.