Canadians in the NBA Roundup: Dort paving the way for a new kind of Quebecois baller

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Luguentz Dort celebrates after a three-point basket. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

There are athletes, and then there are athletes. And Montreal’s Luguentz Dort certainly belongs to the latter. 

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Oklahoma City Thunder wing is as big and strong as his measurements would suggest, carrying around a hulking frame that looks more like that of an NFL linebacker than it does your typical NBA guard. 

But when you see Dort slide that enormous frame side to side in front of the likes of Steph Curry or Damian Lillard – matching the NBA’s quickest guards step for step, feint for feint, and movement for movement – you begin to understand what makes Dort such a special defensive player. And you also begin to question the very laws of physics upon which our universe is supposed to be built. How can someone that big move that fast? You wonder. And how does anybody score on him?

“You can’t not account for the physical profile,” Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said about what makes Dort a special defender. “I mean, he’s incredibly strong. And he’s a great ground athlete. He moves great laterally.”

But Daigneault said something else allows Dort to take on the best offensive players in the NBA night in, night out for the Thunder since he arrived as an undrafted free agent in 2019. “It’s all will and toughness,” Daigneault said. 

“He’s guarding guys that you’re taking punches from all the time, from a standpoint of getting screened, (for example). … So there’s a physical element to that where you’re just getting hit the whole game. … He’s had nights where he’ll give up 35 points to a player because that’s who he’s guarding. And he makes the guy earn the 35 but the guy gets it anyways, but Lu just keeps coming.

“And so I think the resilience and mental toughness of him is a major ingredient.”

Dort has ridden that unique physical profile and defensive resilience to a five-year, $87.5-million contract, the third-largest for an undrafted player in NBA history behind only Duncan Robinson and Fred VanVleet. And at just 23 years of age and in his fourth NBA season, Dort is still getting better each and every day, training to get physically stronger, mentally tougher and intellectually smarter when it comes to the NBA game. 

“It’s gotten better,” Dort said about his defence, which could land him on one of the NBA’s two all-defence teams at season’s end. “Just me learning about the guys first, just going against them multiple times. And at the same time, I’m a big film guy, so I watch film a lot, and I just learned people’s tendencies and stuff like that.”

“He’s watching personnel before every game,” Daigneault said. “He’s developed – I think the more experiences you have, and the more you go against guys, you feel it – and he tends to be more of an instinctive player in that way. So, I think the longer he is in the league, and the more he guards these major players and kind of understands what they’re trying to get done, the better he gets.”

Thunder teammate Josh Giddey acknowledged how much of a luxury it is to have Dort on his team.

“We back him one-on-one against anybody in the league,” Giddey said of Dort. “He does his job every night, doesn’t ask questions, gets it done. And it’s a tough job what he does … but whether a player has 40 or 20 (points), he makes it tough, he makes every shot tough for them, chases through screens all night, so credit to him.

“It’s not the sexiest job in the world, but he does it with no complaints. And internally it’s really valued – people from the outside might not understand how good of a job he does every night, but the group and this organization understands it and he means so much to this group.”

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Dort has already cemented himself as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and someone who Luka Doncic called a “top-three defender.” But Dort has never been just a defensive specialist. Even going back to his lone college season at Arizona State, he averaged 16.1 points and 2.3 assists per game. And now more than ever, Dort is a two-way player who has taken a big jump on the offensive end this season, averaging 14 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 2.2 assists, and one steal on 40/34/76 shooting splits. In fact, Dort is shooting 34.2 per cent on 5.5 three-point attempts per game – the most of any Thunder player – helping space the floor for his athletic, drive-first teammates. He can also power his own way to the rim when the opportunity presents itself. 

“He’s got offensive aggression and confidence,” Daigneault said. “… he’s done a very good job of that and he’s turned himself into a really complete player.”

“He really worked hard at his shooting, like he did that pretty fast,” Toronto Raptors and Team Canada head coach Nick Nurse said of Dort, who he coached in the Olympic Qualifying tournament in Victoria in 2021, where Dort shot just 33.3 per cent on 5.0 mostly wide-open three-point attempts per game. “… He’s (become) a real threat.” 

In fact, Dort’s is one of the biggest reasons why the young Thunder are 34-36 and the No. seed 10 in the Western Conference despite entering the season being seen as underdogs to make the play-in tournament. The Thunder are significantly better with him on the floor, posting a +2.2 net rating. And as far and away the best defender on the team, he is largely responsible for them having the 9th best defensive rating in the league. 

Dort is having fun battling for a playoff spot for the first time since his rookie season in 2019-20 when he played a smaller role for the Chris Paul-led Thunder. And while it’s obvious that the Thunder are still a ways away from being contenders, Dort sees a path there. 

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“Keep doing what we’re doing right now,” he said of how they can make that jump. “We’re still young. We’re still learning. We still got a lot of young players on our team. So I mean, I feel like just with time, we are gonna get there. I feel like we have a good base. We have a good start right now. We just got to keep it going.”

Dort’s more realistic path to contention – in the short term, at least – might come with Team Canada at this summer’s 2023 FIBA World Cup. Dort made his Team Canada debut in 2021 when Canada lost in the semifinal to the Czech Republic on a Tomas Saturansky pull-up jumper that Dort himself heavily contested. And after signing up for a three-year commitment and attending both training camps this past summer, Dort is as good of a bet as anyone to play a big role for Team Canada at the upcoming World Cup. 

“I’m really looking forward (to it),” Dort said about the World Cup. “I mean, I feel we’ve been doing a great job just qualifying for that. And also I’m always glad to represent my country and then it’s just so nice to be around all the top guys in Canada … I feel like we got a big chance of making it to the Olympics. So, I’m really looking forward to that.”

As Dort tries to propel Canada to the podium – or at least a top-two finish among teams from the Americas in order to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics – kids throughout his native province of Quebec will be watching. Once an afterthought when it came to the sport of basketball, Quebec is quickly becoming a hoops hotbed because of players like Dort and Toronto Raptor Chris Boucher, who grew up in the same neighbourhood.

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Dort has inspired Montreal-raised ballers like Indiana Pacers rookie Bennedict Mathurinwho calls Dort his “big bro,” and Olivier-Maxence Prosper, a Junior at Marquette who is currently one of the best defenders in college who told me in February that Dort “create(d) a path for guys like Ben and me coming after him.”

“It’s huge. I mean, I follow them. … And we just have so much talent in Montreal Now,” Dort said. “You can see all the guys that are playing in college and some in the NBA too. So it’s just big and it’s good for the kids to see me, Chris (Boucher), Ben (Mathurin), and some of the guys that play in the NBA right now.”

“He’s just showing an example,” said Boucher, who has known Dort since he was 12. “Obviously, we all had a different path to the league. So, it’s just another model for the people in Montreal to see. We all play different positions, we all play different ways of basketball, but it can show that there are many ways to be successful in the NBA.”

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