NEW YORK -- Spencer Dinwiddie knows how to make an argument. The Brooklyn Nets guard will state his case without a hint of doubt, presenting counterpoints and swiftly debunking them. Months ago, before most Americans had even heard of COVID-19, long before Barclays Center had turned into a hub for protests against police brutality and anti-black racism, he made an argument that seems more poignant now: When you get to know people, it's not as easy to typecast them.
To be clear, the interview was about basketball, not racism in America, although at one point he started to quote Malcolm X and decided it would be too harsh. We were at the Nets' practice facility, a few feet away from where he had told me, during his breakout season, that people don't understand the mentality of a player who has been told he wasn't good enough at every step of his basketball life. Dinwiddie was getting more praise than ever, but he said it's like hearing that he went from an F to a C and he still feels in his heart he's an A.
Dinwiddie kept the Nets afloat this season by putting as much pressure on the opposing team as possible. When they were without both Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert, their entire attack was predicated on him driving downhill and drawing in the defense. In a 22-game stretch, he averaged 25.7 points, 7.1 assists and 3.4 rebounds. He dropped 41 points on the Spurs and 39 on the Hawks in back-to-back games, the latter in front of his idol, Kobe Bryant.
This didn't get him an All-Star berth, which he would've appreciated as validation for his family and vindication because "that shit's in Chicago," where he was cut before the 2016-17 season. And his positive press usually came with a side of speculation about his future: Next year, with Kevin Durant and Irving in the picture, is there a place for a pick-and-roll guard like him in Brooklyn?
Dinwiddie's answer is yes.
"First, I'm a basketball player," he said, "and I try to have the most well-rounded game possible. But people forget when I was recruited out of high school, I was recruited as a passer." He continued by walking me through his career, explaining that he only became a scorer in college because that's what the team needed. The same was true in Brooklyn. He cited his 4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in 2017-18.
"With Kyrie and KD, if you're telling me I get to come out here and pass to two phenomenal scorers and get 10 assists a game and maybe be in second gear a lot of times with my scoring, I'm fine," he said. "If I average 14 and 10 and we win a title, but KD averages 35 and Ky averages 25 or whatever it would be, like, I'm good with that. I'm more than fine with that. That's more in line with how I played the game growing up than it is a lot of the other spurts and seasons that I've put together since I've been older."
Four years ago to the day, the Detroit Pistons traded Dinwiddie to the Chicago Bulls for Cameron Bairstow, who hasn't played in the NBA since. Dinwiddie fell to the G League months later, and to hear him tell it, he is being underestimated again. He knows analysts have cited his 3-point percentage (30.8) as a reason he won't fit next season, and he said that "you" -- me, in this case -- "can either make it seem like I'm a horrible shooter or you can put it in context and tell people how good of a shooter I actually am."
Dinwiddie said he was forced to take contested stepbacks late in the shot clock because he spent so much time as the Nets' sole creator. He is not afraid of missing tough shots, and he accepts that his numbers will suffer for it. The alternative is "putting my teammates in a disadvantaged position just so I can save my percentage." His halfcourt heaves at the end of quarters rarely go in, but one did in Denver in 2018. Dinwiddie remembers that Brooklyn won by two.
On catch-and-shoot 3s, the shots that would become more important next to Durant and Irving, Dinwiddie is shooting a perfectly respectable 37.3 percent. "You" -- all of us -- "can always find a reason" to not like someone, he said.
Dinwiddie spent the first month of the 2019-20 season as the Nets' sixth man. Then he was the leading man for a while, Irving's backcourt mate for a bit, briefly a bench scorer again and finally a starter splitting playmaking responsibility with LeVert, a role he'll reprise in Orlando in late July. This shape-shifting is a microcosm of Dinwiddie's career.
Olin Simplis, Dinwiddie's skills trainer, has been working with him since he was 11 years old. "All he did was shoot," Simplis said, but together they developed his point guard skills. Soon he "became a pass-first guard to the point where I thought he passed too much. And so did his high school coach and so did his college coach."
A 12-year-old Dinwiddie was just playing at the park when Derrick Taylor told his father, Malcolm, "Holy cow, you got something here." Taylor, the coach at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, California, saw he was easily the smartest player on the court and thought that private schools would be all over him. But "they kind of blew it with him 'cause he didn't look the part," Taylor said.
Dinwiddie measured 5-foot-9 and weighed 108 pounds the first time he took a physical at Taft. His lack of strength was an obvious issue, but "his mind was already there," Taylor said. By his junior year he was tall enough to play on the wing, a concession he made to accommodate Mark Jackson Jr., the son of the ABC/ESPN analyst. "Spencer was the better point guard, we all knew it," Taylor said, and by the end of the year he was "on that doggone basketball." Dinwiddie led the team to a city championship as a senior, but, as he pointed out, he created more points with his assists than his scoring.
Taylor and Christian Aurand both called Dinwiddie a chameleon. When Aurand first coached him with the Double Pump Elite AAU program, he was a rail-thin sophomore playing with a bunch of older teammates he didn't even know. The team was short on players for a tournament in Hawthorne, California, and Dinwiddie filled in.
"He didn't score a lot," Aurand said, but he "made all the right plays," a rarity in AAU ball. The summer before his senior year, Dinwiddie would win MVP of the Adidas Super 64 in Las Vegas, leading Double Pump Elite to the title. Colorado coach Tad Boyle vividly remembers Dinwiddie dominating one game by scoring in the high 20s and barely shooting the next game but dominating anyway.
"You could just see," Boyle said. "To me, he oozed with potential."
At Colorado, Dinwiddie played off the ball as a freshman so Nate Tomlinson could run point. Dinwiddie took over as a sophomore and started to show off what he now calls his "trickery." No one in the Pac-12 got to the free throw line more frequently.
"The thing that I loved about coaching Spencer is when the ball was in his hands, you just felt good as a coach," Boyle said. "He's going to shoot it when he should shoot it. He's going to pass it when he should pass it. He's going to make the simple entry pass when that needs to be made. He's not looking to make a home-run play every time he's got the ball."
Colorado was 14-2 when he tore his ACL, MCL, lateral meniscus and medial meniscus in his junior season. Stan Van Gundy, then the president and coach of the Pistons and now a Turner Sports analyst, told me his size, playmaking and "tremendous court awareness" jumped out on film. If not for the injury, Van Gundy never would have had the chance to draft a first-round talent with the 38th pick.
Hours before calling a Nets-Celtics game on TNT, Van Gundy said he still second-guesses himself about Dinwiddie. "When he got opportunities for us, he had some very good games," Van Gundy said, but he never stayed in the rotation for long.
Dinwiddie can imagine all the previous versions of himself lined up next to one another, year by year. He'd like to tell all of them not to worry, that "you'll be who you think you are," as long as you "keep the process right." The one who needed that pep talk, he said, is Detroit Spencer. At 22 years old in his second season, he played 159 minutes in 12 games.
"That was a moment where I was like, f---, am I ever going to play?" Dinwiddie says. "Like, this shit don't make no sense. Steve Blake is a great vet, but when I'm sitting behind him it's just like, c'mon, guys.'"
Dinwiddie stayed late after every practice. The Pistons were "running me to death," he said, and it wasn't as if they were telling him his chance was just around the corner. "It's like, guys, y'all are killing me. And there's no end in sight."
It was a classic conundrum: The young, unproven player wants minutes and freedom, so he can play with confidence; the coach wants to see consistent production before giving him more minutes and freedom. Virtually every time Van Gundy watches Dinwiddie now, he ruminates.
"I wonder two things," Van Gundy said. "Could he have really helped us if I had given him more opportunity as a coach? And should we have been more patient and hung onto him for longer? So I certainly have those doubts about my approach when I see him playing this well. I'm not going to tell you that I don't. I mean obviously I do."
Van Gundy also wonders, though, if Dinwiddie would have developed the same way had he not fallen out of the league. "Maybe he would have played well for us and changed our organization's trajectory had we given him more opportunity," he said, but "quite a few people" who were with the Pistons think that he needed the experience of fighting his way back from the G League.
"I don't know the answer on that," Van Gundy said. "But I do wonder about it every time I see him. I know the player's answer will always be that all I needed was the opportunity if he'd given it to me there. So, I know the player's answer to it. And maybe it's right. Maybe that's right."
The day the Bulls cut him, Dinwiddie was "just like f---, this sucks," he said. The G League season wouldn't even start for three weeks, so training was the only outlet for his frustration. "I was mad, I was hurt," he said, but his mindset was that he just had to make it happen. "I was really giving it that last go at it before I was like, f--- it, let's just go overseas and try to make some money or whatever."
Simplis, Dinwiddie's trainer, thinks the G League was good for him. All along, Dinwiddie had been bearing the burden of every cerebral player: He could be an overthinker. With the Windy City Bulls, Dinwiddie knew that he needed to put up numbers to get attention. He averaged 19.4 points and 8.1 assists before Brooklyn called him up.
"Sometimes, you need to get your back against the wall," Simplis said.
There is irony in how the book on Dinwiddie has been rewritten. When he first arrived in Brooklyn, coach Kenny Atkinson told him to be more assertive. This season, before a one-on-one film session with Dinwiddie -- and before interim coach Jacque Vaughn took over in March -- Atkinson told me his next step is becoming a better quarterback.
Atkinson said the two of them were about to break down some of Dinwiddie's decisions. "He can be stubborn," the coach said, laughing. "Very prideful. Which is a good thing. He's got a chip on his shoulder. He'll talk about how he got slighted in high school, he got slighted in Detroit." Some of their conversations and film sessions were hard, but Atkinson called him coachable.
Nets wing Joe Harris said Dinwiddie "drove me nuts" at first. He had an answer for everything, to the point that his teammates nicknamed him Siri. But at the practice facility, no one was more diligent. On the court, he knew when a player needed a touch. Last season, Dinwiddie quietly gave his playoff share to team staff.
"You spend enough time with Spencer, you love him," Harris said. "He's like my brother now. I love that guy to death and I would do anything for him."
Taylor said Dinwiddie "really at heart cares about people." The Taft coach used to drive him to school, and "had withdrawals" after his graduation put an end to their wide-ranging conversations. In the car, Dinwiddie would offer advice about communicating with his teammates, tailored to each of their personalities.
Moments after Taft won the city championship, one teammate had what Taylor called an emotional breakdown. The player's family had been fighting at the game. Dinwiddie was the only person who could console him, who could get him to stop crying and talking about suicide.
Dinwiddie has learned, in basketball and life, to adapt when the situation calls for it. Simplis calls him a "researcher" because, whether it is cryotherapy or cryptocurrency, he wants to know everything about any subject that interests him or might help his career. There is no step-by-step guide to bouncing between roles on a team or moderating your aggressiveness during a game, but there is an art to both. According to Dinwiddie, you must gauge the skills and tendencies of the other players on the court, understand the game plan and adjust based on flow.
"That's so much more of just a feel thing," Dinwiddie said. "It's like a car. You try to go into second gear when you need to, and third gear, and then you crank it up to fifth gear and then you bring it back to third."
On Jan. 23 at Barclays Center, Dinwiddie had 11 assists in the first half against the Lakers and finished the game with only nine field goal attempts. In a rematch on March 10, the Nets' last game before the hiatus, he had 23 points, seven assists and the game-winning jumper. You can probably guess that the first game was one of Irving's 20 appearances -- the two guards have shared the court for a total of 305 minutes.
In that tiny sample, Brooklyn scored an exquisite 107 points per 100 possessions. This doesn't prove that Dinwiddie and Irving are an ideal pairing, let alone that they would both thrive with a healthy Durant next to them. But it's a bit of evidence, at least, that the Nets might be able to make it work.
Dinwiddie occupies a nebulous space in the age of "player empowerment." On the one hand, he has used his platform to launch a sneaker brand, a foundation and, if he gets his way, a revolution in sports contracts. On the other, he is not considered a star, nor compensated like one, and his below-market contract might get him traded.
On the extension he signed in 2018, Dinwiddie said that if "everything goes to shit," as he put it, his family would be fine. Besides, he wanted to be in a winning situation and in a spot he liked. "There's a mental health aspect to this stuff," Dinwiddie said: It's a great city, and he likes going to work here. The Nets couldn't have offered him a penny more at the time.
"If it was about just getting the maximum dollar, I'd have took $70 million, went to a bad team and got my head cracked every time," Dinwiddie said. "But it's about more than that."
Dinwiddie recruited Irving last summer and didn't care if people thought it would backfire on him. Playing in the NBA is all he has wanted to do since he was four years old, and he always imagined winning when he got there. In the middle of a 28-win season, he told me he wanted to win championships -- plural.
"I think every decision that people have seen me make to date has pretty much backed up that assertion," he said. "So it's not like I said it in the story and then was like, ah, f--- it, I don't really mean it."
Dinwiddie seamlessly mixes radical confidence in his abilities with a healthy cynicism about any player's capacity to dictate how others see him. "There's been other guys that are probably as talented as me that have ended up in China," he said mere minutes after saying he doesn't believe anyone can guard him one-on-one.
"You have to kind of embrace the duality of every moment," he said. He was talking about taking high-pressure shots without fearing failure, but it is a pretty good summary of his worldview. Dinwiddie never thinks the people who tell his story place enough emphasis on random chance. In the fifth game of the 2017-18 season, Dinwiddie made a surprise start against LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers and scored a career-high 22 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer. He has now built a career off of being prepared for unexpected, injury-driven opportunities.
"If you rewind all the way back to that game, if I go out there, we get blown out by 20, I have two points, five turnovers and just look terrible, that might have been it," Dinwiddie said. "You never know."
No one knows if Dinwiddie will be on a winning team or in a starring role next season. He can imagine, though, Retired Spencer telling him the same thing that he'd tell the angsty 22-year-old in Detroit: "Keep the process right," and "all the stuff that you wanted to accomplish" -- making All-Star teams, giving his championship rings to his kids, plural -- will be within reach.
A skeptic could argue that none of it is likely to happen in Brooklyn. It is one thing to say you're happy to give up touches and shots and another entirely to do it. Such sacrifices often come with more sacrifices in the form of status and money. If all the playmakers return, the coach better be creative.
When I asked Van Gundy how the future Nets might play, he declined to get involved. He was willing, however, to analyze Dinwiddie, whom he called a very good pick-and-roll player and a below-average shooter. The question, he said, was contextual: Is the shooting truly a problem or has he been asked to do too much?
We know Dinwiddie's argument. His former coach doesn't know either way, "but I think it's pretty clear at this point his strengths are with the ball in his hands," Van Gundy said. "It's not him running off screens, it's not him as a spot-up shooter, it's not him as a second or third option."
There are fates far worse than being pigeonholed as an excellent playmaker. It is worth noting, though, that Dinwiddie has made plenty of preconceived notions about his game look silly. "I always believed I was this guy," he said, the guy who has run the whole show, seeing blitzes, hard hedges and even some box-and-one in the best league in the world. He believed it even when it sounded crazy, years before Bryant told him he deserved to be an All-Star. Now he looks forward to telling his two-year-old son, Elijah, about all of it.
And if he is never the No. 1 option again, he swears he'd be at peace.