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The Secret of Spencer Dinwiddie’s Success

His teammates call him Siri, fans are trying to make him an All-Star, and Nets coach Kenny Atkinson is just trying to get a word in edgewise. Meet Spencer Dinwiddie, the fourth-year guard who knew he had a breakout season in him — he just needed a chance.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Wilt the Stilt. Air Jordan. The Answer. King James.

What about Siri? Yes, as in Apple’s digital “personal assistant.” That’s the nickname the guys in the Brooklyn Nets locker room have given Spencer Dinwiddie, the team’s fourth-year point guard. Whether debating in-game strategy, interrupting a coach’s lecture to correct that proverb about catching more bees with honey, or tearing into the referees for a perceived lack of respect, he always has an opinion.

“Yeah, that’s what they say,” Dinwiddie told me earlier this week. “It’s a little bit exaggerated. They just have certain questions that, I think, have fairly basic answers. So I offer them a solution to the problem. They’ll ask off-the-wall things, like what’s this math equation? Or something random, and I answer it. And they’re like, ‘Oh, of course you know.’”

On a Tuesday afternoon after the Nets’ practice at their gleaming waterfront facility in Sunset Park, coach Kenny Atkinson was asked about Dinwiddie’s temperament. “How should I say this? Sometimes they have all the answers,” he said. “But in a good way. He told me last night, ‘I wanted to go against [Serge] Ibaka one-on-one instead of having him wait at the rim for me.’ We could argue that, but I thought it was an interesting take. He challenges you as a coach, and I appreciate it. But his intelligence is evident.”

Halfway through the season, the 24-year-old is having a breakout year as an unexpected answer in the Nets’ injury-ravaged backcourt. Since inheriting the starting job from D’Angelo Russell after the former Laker went down in mid-November, Dinwiddie is averaging 14.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 7.0 assists per game (which is 10th in the NBA in that span). Stunningly, for the season, he ranks 13th in the NBA by ESPN’s real plus-minus, just ahead of Chris Paul and Joel Embiid. The Nets have been gamely rebuilding without the trove of precious draft picks surrendered to the Celtics in that malingering 2013 trade, and their youthful cadre of guys like Dinwiddie, Russell, Caris LeVert, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is slowly maturing into a respectable foundation.

It’s dangerous to erect bronze statues for guys who rack up splashy stats on middling teams—Brooklyn is currently 15-26—but Dinwiddie’s numbers have intriguing depth. With a stingy 1.4 turnovers an outing, he is near the top of the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio among players who earn substantial minutes, despite helming an offense that sprints the hardwood at the fifth-fastest tempo in the league. Maybe most telling: In the 1,114 minutes Dinwiddie has been on the floor, the Nets have an offensive rating of 105.4; when he’s on the sideline, it plunges to 99.2. That’s essentially the difference between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Sacramento Kings.

“I didn’t just wake up a month ago, like, ‘Hey, I can play basketball really good now, guys!’” Dinwiddie says of his surprising success. “It took the coaching staff’s belief in me. They didn’t go find a vet or sign another guy. That’s what’s producing this.”

In Monday’s last-second, 114-113 heartbreaker against the Toronto Raptors, Dinwiddie notched a career-high 31 points, buttressed by five rebounds, eight assists, and two steals while running the show with poised aggression.

His late-game heroics were stymied when a two-handed dunk attempt in overtime was snuffed out by Ibaka, who, upon replay, appeared to deflect only Dinwiddie’s wrist. When Dinwiddie again failed to draw a call on the game’s final play, he turned to the baseline camera and cynically muttered, “This exactly what I’m talking about,” referencing his recent gripes about officiating.

“He’s got a little bravado about him, which is fine,” said Atkinson, who attributes Dinwiddie’s performance to the hard work he put in during the offseason. “That’s what the good players have. When you shake his hand before the game, he’s coming to work. He’s not saying, ‘Oh, jeez, I’m a little timid about playing Kyrie Irving or all those other big-time guards.’ I think the challenge to become a starter in this league is to do it consistently. He’s put his finger through the ceiling of development; now he’s trying to punch it with his fist.” (To Atkinson’s point: In Wednesday’s loss to the Detroit Pistons, Dinwiddie delivered a clunker, scoring two points on 1-of-5 shooting, with three rebounds and three assists.)

Dinwiddie plays with a lanky languidness in the Nets’ pace-and-space offense, patiently wheeling the ball to perimeter shooters and using his height to finish at the cup. More than half of his shot attempts are 3-pointers (which he’s banging at a 36 percent clip). But since moving into the starting lineup, he’s been 13th in the league with 13.1 drives per game, finishing those possessions at 51.4 percent. As the ball handler in pick-and-rolls, he’s had similar usage and effectiveness numbers to guys like Mike Conley Jr. and Lou Williams. Combined with his size, demeanor, and vaguely Jimi Hendrix–circa-Woodstock appearance, Dinwiddie doesn’t exactly resemble a scrappy underachiever.

“You look at him, he passes the eye test, for sure,” said teammate Joe Harris, another Nets reclamation project. He ticked off attributes: 6-foot-6 frame, mobility, tight handle. “When you see a lot of really good guards in the NBA, their change of pace is what separates them,” Harris said. “Spencer is really good at creating space. His first step is really quick. Oh, man. He does this kinda hesitation when guys are on him, and honestly, it’s really hard for some of the quickest guys and best defenders in the league to stay with him.”

Dinwiddie was born in South Los Angeles. His mother, Stephanie, was a professor at USC and now owns a preschool. His father, Malcolm, is a real estate agent who once owned a Subway sandwich shop. Spencer describes his parents as “entrepreneurs who stressed education, early and often.”

Dinwiddie became a schoolboy basketball star at William Howard Taft High School, the Woodland Hills institution that produced Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Lisa Kudrow. After averaging 11.2 points and 7.7 assists a game as a senior, he was named one of the winners of the 2011 John R. Wooden California High School Player of the Year and became regarded as a top-25 national point guard recruit.

But Dinwiddie was the rare bird—a star athlete who also scored 1400 on his SATs. (When this was related to Atkinson, he laughed, “Did he really? That explains a lot.”) While his family urged him to attend Harvard, Dinwiddie worried that the stigma of playing at a college renowned for academics would make a professional basketball career more challenging. So he chose the University of Colorado instead.

“If you’re going to Harvard, you’re not considered a good enough athlete to be in the NBA,” said Dinwiddie. “I wanted to go into the league in two years. Granted, this is an oversimplification. I loved the guys that recruited me and the vibe of Boulder and the whole nine. I saw that if I went to the Pac-12 and made an impact, it would afford me that opportunity. I didn’t see myself doing that in the Ivy League.” (In an odd twist, the only Harvard player to make the NBA since 1954 is his teammate Jeremy Lin, whose season-ending injury in the Brooklyn opener created a backcourt void).

Going into his junior year with the Buffaloes, Dinwiddie was considered a potential lottery pick in the upcoming 2014 NBA draft. But his season crashed to a gruesome halt only four games into conference play, when he suffered an ACL injury in his left knee. His draft stock cratered by the summer, and he was selected by Detroit with the 38th pick (the next time your favorite GM cravenly sells off second-rounders for walk-around cash, remind them that Nikola Jokic also went 41st in the same draft).

On the Pistons, Dinwiddie was buried in the rotation behind point guards like Brandon Jennings, Reggie Jackson, D.J. Augustin, and Steve Blake. After two seasons in which he mustered only 614 total minutes and shot 17.3 percent from 3-point range, he was traded to Chicago for Cameron Bairstow, who currently plays for the Brisbane Bullets in Australia. The only Bulls team Dinwiddie would ever play for was its Windy City D-League affiliate. In December 2016, he signed a three-year, $2.9 million contract with the Nets. It’s now one of the sweetest bargains in the NBA.

“My rookie year, I had some big games against John Wall and Derrick Rose,” Dinwiddie remembered. “Those were plenty of validation back then—I was only 10 months removed from a catastrophic injury and I was 21. There were times when I would have a big game and then, if I followed it up by an ehhh game, then I was benched.”

When the subject of opportunity comes up, Dinwiddie is reflective, sounding more like a life coach than a player. “You have to be on the floor. You have to be allowed to fail. Bron had 10 points the other day and they got blown out. But nobody is gonna sit here and say, ‘Maybe they need to make a change, maybe they need to move on from LeBron James, guys.’ But, often times, that’s how it works for guys who are in that tumultuous situation. How are you going to build consistency if you aren’t given consistency?”

There’s a disconcertingly thin line between NBA role players and the desperate hordes of guys populating rosters in Europe or the G League, a market inefficiency that progressive teams like the Rockets and Spurs have (and Hinkie-era Sixers had) exploited to unearth dirt-cheap nuggets. But that same precariousness can inhibit how those borderline players approach the game, especially the ones without the safety net of a guaranteed contract, lottery-pick pedigree, or established NBA résumé.

“It’s almost more of a psychological thing,” said Harris, who ricocheted between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Canton Charge from 2014 to 2016. “Say Jeremy and D’Angelo don’t get hurt. Then Spencer is probably thinking in the back of his mind, ‘OK, my role is to be backup point guard; my job is to run the second unit,’ versus being like, ‘I’m the guy, I’m gonna run this team.’”

Dinwiddie agreed: “It’s not lost on me that I very easily could have been overseas right now and not here,” he said. “Do I want to come out here and pass and cut and stay in the league and hope for my moment? Or do I want to take this shot, miss it, and everything goes up in smoke? That’s a tough thing to look in the face. I don’t know any other profession that’s like that.”

Dinwiddie has found both stability and opportunity on a team starved for more recognizable faces. He’s a young talent with an engaging personality who plays in America’s biggest media market. There’s a brewing, small-batch campaign pushing him as an Eastern Conference representative in next month’s All-Star Game. After Nets practice, Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia ambled by to briefly say hello. Later, Dinwiddie chucked up 3s in the gym with Jace Norman, the 17-year-old star of Nickelodeon’s Henry Danger.

A final query for Siri: Might some people be threatened by a brainy basketball player with a ton to say? “In every facet of life, we have to encourage growth and possibility,” Dinwiddie said. “That’s the only thing that’s going to drive the human race forward. If we all just sat here in huts and said, ‘Planes aren’t possible,’ then we never get to travel. It takes that higher-level intelligence, that dreamer, in whatever fashion of life it is, to advance us and make things better.”