The Brooklyn point guard has had a tumultuous NBA journey
Sure, he’s got the telltale height of a basketball player, but Spencer Dinwiddie would fit in nearly any environment, were it not for the fact that he’s 6’6” and thus towers above nearly everyone in New York. Outside of that size, though, Dinwiddie doesn’t project the swaggering NBA lifestyle adopted by so many of the league’s stars. It’s not as though he’s opposed to spending, but he simply can’t risk big purchases. After all, Dinwiddie’s career has been anything but stable.
“I’m not a big jewelry guy, I’m not a big shoe guy, so I don’t have a lot of things that I’m tempted to spend money on. I don’t have a lot of frivolous things,” Dinwiddie said. “I live a pretty normal lifestyle, except I just eat… a lot.”
And it’s true. You’ll never see his outfit being picked apart like fellow point guard Russell Westbrook’s in a pre-game breakdown, and he’s more likely have a conversation about pizza than about Louis Vuitton. That simply isn’t Dinwiddie’s style. Instead, he’s understated, laid back, even frugal — words you’d be hard-pressed to apply to most NBA players.
The road to success was a long one for Dinwiddie, and there’s still a lot to work on. From high-school star to a top college point guard, a career-shifting injury, time bouncing around (and out of) the league, and now to a rotation player on the NBA’s worst team, Dinwiddie’s story is not your typical straight-to-the-top journey. He’s more the guy that national TV commentators don’t recognize, the player whose jersey is $70 when most jerseys cost $110. Dinwiddie knows this, and it shapes his almost-laconic personality. Whether it’s regular interactions with Twitter users (he answers nearly question, ranging from Vegeta vs. Superman to predicting the Summer League champions) or his own musings on the business of the NBA, Dinwiddie is a deep thinker and an unconventional celebrity, albeit one with grounded expectations and modest conduct.
That even-keeled nature is something he’s maintained in a career that’s had as many promising ups as it has had crushing downs. Dinwiddie was born and raised in Los Angeles, the same city that churned out star NBA products like James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, and Klay Thompson, but his journey to consistent minutes in a professional rotation took a totally different route.
Dinwiddie was a late bloomer, at least in terms of his NBA prospect status. At Taft High School, he was a three-star recruit, even after winning California’s John R. Wooden Award for his performances as a Taft Toreador. While he didn’t receive Mr. Basketball (that went to Long Beach Poly recruit Ryan Anderson), Dinwiddie signed with the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he would play under Big Sky Coach of the Year Tad Boyle. It was with Boyle that the guard began to really build his stock.
“Coach Boyle was huge,” Dinwiddie said. “He really helped me round out my game, and that made me more valuable. It’s like, the time I spent with him built me into a more complete player. Not even during the draft process, but for finding a niche on a team and staying with a team, that helps.”
Dinwiddie’s star was on the rise in his sophomore year at Colorado, as the point guard coupled with fellow sophomore guard Askia Booker to carry the team to a 21-12 record and a shared record as the highest-scoring sophomore duo in school history. Everything was looking up for Dinwiddie, as he headed into his junior year with the intention of declaring for the draft the following summer, and it started off hot; the Buffaloes were 14-2 headed into a match against conference rival the Washington Huskies. Dinwiddie, their fearless leader, was averaging nearly 15 points. He was leading the team in assists and steals. He was fifth in the lineup’s rebounding average. All that changed when Dinwiddie tore his ACL. It was a huge blow for a guard that had used his quickness in conjunction with his size to bewilder guards at the NCAA level, and it cast a shadow on his once-lofty NBA draft projection.
“It’s tough, you know, it hurt,” Dinwiddie said. “When you have an injury of that magnitude, the draft and the rehabbing… I wasn’t sure if I was going to declare or not, but when I started recovering kind of better than expected, I decided that was still possible.”
ACL injuries are difficult to overcome — you only need to look at Derrick Rose, a former NBA MVP whose career was derailed by his knees, to understand that. Dinwiddie did his rehabilitation with Dr. Russ Paine at Ironman Sports Medicine Institute, who also worked with star Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. At the time of Peterson’s recovery, a recovery turnaround of that speed was highly uncommon. Paine noted that the most important part of recovery is work ethic.
“Spencer was very focused and diligent with his approach to rehabilitation. Often, patients underestimate the time and effort required to restore strength, balance, and confidence that are injured during an ACL injury. Shaun Livingston of the Golden State Warriors suffered a dislocated knee and has made it back to NBA level,” said Paine. “This is another example of an athlete that overcame the odds. Only 30% of dislocated knee patients are able to resume the pre-injury level of activity. Thus dedication and mental focus and maintenance of a positive attitude are critical.”
Logan Galezio, an athletic trainer who worked with the Seattle Seahawks, offered some insight into the impact an ACL injury can have.
“Timetable-wise, you usually assume a year to be able to return to play but it can take even longer to really get back to 100%,” Galezio said. “Again, if any athlete works really hard and has a great team around him, you can cut time off that but that’s a typical number.”
Of course, even a return to the field doesn’t include a return to pre-injury effectiveness.
“In general, athletes don’t return to their previous level. There are always exceptions and remarkable stories like Adrian Peterson but there are more stories like [Rose],” said Galezio. “All depends on what else was injured, previous injury history, and honestly, the athlete’s own mental makeup.”
Dinwiddie ultimately did declare, though his injury knocked his draft stock from the first round and the safety of a guaranteed contract (he was projected to be taken by the Oklahoma City Thunder with the 29th pick prior to his ACL tear) into the uncertainty of the second round, where he was selected with the 38th pick by the Detroit Pistons. Detroit got a bargain. Only 26 of the players drafted ahead of Dinwiddie still play in the NBA; only 16 have more Estimated Wins Added (EWA). In fact, in the entire 2014 NBA draft, only 20 players have contributed more statistically to their teams than Dinwiddie, and only two have suffered the same injury troubles.
The struggles didn’t end when Dinwiddie got healthy, though. Instead, the Pistons, caught in the midst of a playoff push, were in no position to give the reins of the offense to an untested rookie. When the Pistons shipped starting guard DJ Augustin to OKC for Reggie Jackson, Dinwiddie lost any chance at the starting role. Despite that, he kept his head up.
“Every player wants to be a starter on a championship team, and win a ring every year, and have the perfect career, but obviously, it doesn’t happen like that for everybody. When they made the decision, I wasn’t shocked or hurt, or anything like that. You just have to take the opportunities that you are given, and if that was the backup job to Reggie or whatever, you take it and you try to maximize it,” Dinwiddie said.
“But I knew I was a second-round pick and that we were trying to make the playoffs, so I didn’t really expect to be starting right away. That’s part of the business of the league; I understood that.”
Spencer spent two years in Detroit, bouncing between the Pistons and their D-League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Drive. He had highs, like scoring 20 points off the bench against the Washington Wizards, and he had lows, like 51 straight games of non-NBA action, until he was traded to the Chicago Bulls on June 17, 2016, for Australian power forward Cameron Bairstow.
It was in Chicago that Dinwiddie would try to carve his way into an unestablished rotation, with mixed success.
“When I got traded [to Chicago], it was a good feeling. A lot of the teams in the league were missing the little stuff.”
Of course, the Bulls were seeking their own identity. With Derrick Rose out the door, along with star FA Pau Gasol and lifetime Bull Joakim Noah, the future of the organization had never been so fluid. The front office had maintained they wanted to be competitive, and Dinwiddie was an expendable asset. He was waived, as the team tried to create space to sign the legendary Dwyane Wade to a lucrative contract.
“When I was waived the first time, I wasn’t upset. It’s Dwyane Wade. You understand that he’s terrific, obviously, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.”
He would be cut once more when the team moved Tony Snell to Milwaukee in exchange for former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, but he absorbed a wealth of knowledge from Chicago’s other guards.
“Rondo’s brilliant. I mean, in terms of basketball minds, he’s definitely elite. I mean, I haven’t met many people who know the game inside and out as well as he does,” said Dinwiddie. “It was just a pleasure to be around, and get that aspect. I learned a lot from him, honestly, probably as much as anyone else that I’ve ever played with.”
Dinwiddie spent just a few weeks with Chicago’s D-League team after the cut, totaling impressive averages of 19 points, 3 rebounds, and 8 assists a game. After that time, he was signed by the Brooklyn Nets, who were already firmly in possession of the NBA’s worst record. From there, Dinwiddie was contributing where he could, trying to help turn the team around.
The future of the Nets, as well as that of Dinwiddie, is entirely murky right now. Having traded the aforementioned Brook Lopez this summer for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov, there’s now another guard ahead of Spencer in the rotation. Still, Dinwiddie is optimistic that the Nets can build off a troubled season.
“Just in general, in terms of injuries, they had it tough, and that contributes to their record. Obviously, no one wants the record to be that drastic, but we’re all still fighting for something,” said Dinwiddie. “We’re trying to build a culture here, and establish some momentum moving forward to the offseason, for next season, for the future. So, going out there and playing hard is really all about that culture.”
It’s only when Dinwiddie starts talking about his hopes for Brooklyn that you can begin to draw the parallels between the team and his own hopes for his career. Both are trying to build from injury-riddled years. Both have been tossed aside, forgotten by the average fan. He speaks with optimism about the Nets, but it just seems like a metaphor for his own resurgence.
“It helps when you have a healthy team going into the next year. We’ve played much better basketball since Jeremy came back,” Dinwiddie said. “Since everyone started to get healthy, we’re building that chemistry.”
Dinwiddie’s road to success has finally begun its upswing, and the Brooklyn Nets stand to benefit from it. As for his future, it can only get brighter. As for the Bulls, who cut Dinwiddie to make room for their other point guards, only Jerian Grant remains from the squad Dinwiddie played with. The others — Rajon Rondo, Isaiah Canaan, and Michael Carter-Williams — are all gone, playing in different uniforms, if they’re playing at all.
“It’s all about putting that time, energy, and work into the process, and things should turn around,” he said. “I’m looking forward to Brooklyn this summer. I think it’ll be a lot of fun.”