Jared Dudley knows his self-worth.
“There’s no one that does my role better than me in the NBA,” the Los Angeles Lakers veteran forward said in an exclusive interview after the league was forced to suspend its season due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Dudley’s statement, uttered with a discernible conviction in his voice, could strike as a sign of arrogance at first glance. But this feeling quickly becomes an afterthought upon a closer look at his career. The 13-year veteran has been a selfless mentor. One who raises those around him up and is responsible for team chemistry.
Or, in his own words, who’s the pulse of his team.
“The pulse is the energy. It’s the tone-setter when it comes to behind-the-scenes, no on the court,” Dudley said. “Behind every president, behind every top lawyer, they have a secretary they can’t live with. They have a manager … to organize the schedule. And that’s what I provide for this team.”
Even though Dudley touched on that subject back in April, his words are just as valid today and provide a great insight into the making of the league’s best chemistry. It is not a coincidence Dion Waiters felt “welcomed with open arms” by his new Laker teammates.
And that JR Smith, bound to be a fiasco by many experts, has seemingly found his place on the roster.
Nobody can deny what LeBron James contributes to the team off the court, let alone when the ball is up. But with the Orlando bubble touted to be primarily a mental challenge, the value of good chemistry has never been so high.
And that’s why Dudley, the selfless locker room general, might prove to be Lakers head coach Frank Vogel’s true x-factor who can tip the scale in their favor. Especially as he has been preparing for this role his whole life.
Born in San Diego, Calif., and raised by a single mother, it was his modest upbringing that molded his outlook on life. Despite his passion for hoops, Dudley couldn’t afford to go to games. He saw live basketball for the first time in college on a recruiting visit.
Nonetheless, he says his mom Melina — a strict, goal-oriented lawyer — raised him as “being giving, understanding, loyal.” And she always told him she wanted him to live his dream. Dudley says it was her love and resilience that planted in him this selflessness, which later carried over to his basketball career.
“My mom had to sit in the car after work because she was so tired while I practiced. And she would sleep for an hour and a half, for two hours, just because she was so tired from work,” he said. “She felt that she couldn’t live some of her dreams. So I just feel like she just sees, basically, through me, in her eyes, having her dream.”
With those values deeply rooted in his gregarious and outgoing personality, team spirit has always been something Dudley treasured and tried to take care of throughout his career. Whether it is playing cards with teammates on the plane, going out for dinner or staying longer in the weight room, the forward sees togetherness as the ultimate way to success.
But Dudley did not always have the same impact on team chemistry in the past. After the Phoenix Suns traded him to the L.A. Clippers in 2013, Dudley recalls a “weird vibe” permeating the locker room filled with “many cliques” and where players “stayed to their own.”
Even though he learned the craft of leadership from veterans such as Grant Hill or Steve Nash, the forward’s attempts to get that Clipper team together often came to no fruition. However, Dudley found his voice the season after in Milwaukee.
Swinging between the bench and the starting lineup, Dudley finally decided to approach then-Bucks coach Jason Kidd with an unusual request: bench me, a certain young player needs this playing time more than me.
“Giannis was good enough then and we needed him to get a lot better,” Dudley explained. “And it worked out perfectly.”
It was Giannis Antetokounmpo’s sophomore year and he was still finding his feet in the NBA. But Dudley knew the Bucks would have only gone far had the Greek Freak fulfilled his potential. Kidd granted Dudley’s wishes and Antetokounmpo established himself as a Bucks starter who never relinquished his spot again.
He nearly doubled his points average that season and set off to become the league’s absolute sensation he is now.
Meanwhile, not only did Dudley land on the bench, the power forward was then traded away to the Washington Wizards after the season ended. But what’s even more astonishing than his self-imposed demotion was his attitude to that trade. Dudley considered it a “reward.”
“Some people might look at it as selfishly: ‘No, I don’t wanna give up my spot. I want to play more so that you make more money…’,” Dudley said. “If you are truly yourself, and you star in your role, there’s gonna be a spot financially and on a team anywhere. And eventually, I got rewarded that a year later.”
Dudley has never been a regular starter ever since, but soon realized he was at the stage of his career when it was more about what he could offer away from the court that would prolong his stay in the NBA.
It was passing on knowledge, just as Nash and Hill did with him, while enjoying any rotation minutes that would come his way.
Dudley says he wants to be remembered for his evolution as a player: from a small forward with a high basketball IQ who couldn’t shoot, to hitting 46% from behind the arc while with the Phoenix Suns in the 2009-10 season, to eventually becoming a vocal veteran who can help young players become the stars they always dreamt to be.
And this mentorship role is what Dudley openly prides himself in.
In Milwaukee, he took Giannis under his wing. With later teams, it was Devin Booker, John Wall, Bradley Beal, D’Angelo Russell. Now, it is Kyle Kuzma. Ever since joining the Lakers, Dudley has repeatedly said he will help Kuz unleash his potential.
And considering how far his other mentees have gone, it is something Lakers fans -– and the young forward himself -– should be excited about. It can turn out crucial in Orlando and for the team’s long-term future.
Dudley sees the good things in his teammates and tries to elevate them, both publicly and privately, to create a friendly environment for them, their growth, and adaptation. But make no mistake, words of affirmation are followed by feedback his teammates might not always like.
Dudley is kind but honest. Dwight Howard can speak to that. But that’s where, Dudley says, his communication skills and focus on togetherness prove to be invaluable.
“When we’re on the buses, on the airplanes, I play cards with the guys… I’m in the middle of everything we do,” Dudley said. “And when you’re in the middle of everything, and everyone respects you, and they appreciate your IQ and what you bring on the basketball floor, when you then give advice to them, they take it to heart.”
This is why Dudley thought the Lakers needed him. He saw what general manager Rob Pelinka was putting together in Los Angeles: a championship team with two superstars and an almost completely new roster, led by a new coach. A veteran team that needed to win now and to achieve that, had to gel instantly.
“There’s a lot of good veterans… but they’re quiet. Then there are other ones which are very rare like myself. They’re good at their job. They’re professional. But they’re outgoing enough and vocal enough to get everyone on the same page,” Dudley explained.
“It’s something I don’t think a lot of front offices value except for the championship ones because championship ones are trying to win.”
But the Lakers were also a team that, if Dudley did his job well, would, again, reward him and his selflessness with the title shot of his career. And add an invaluable experience if he ever decides to try himself in a coach or a front-office role.
That’s why joining the Lakers was an easy decision to make. And, that’s precisely why Dudley thought Vogel’s team was “the perfect fit.”
He described the season as the “most fun year of his life” when it comes to basketball. And he believes the Lakers value his contribution, too. Dudley notes James once came out and said he was “one of the best teammates he ever had.”
Dudley’s impact has been indisputable. The hanging out. The Kuzma grooming. The shoves exchanged with Magic players to protect Howard. The memes and jokes, and keeping the WhatsApp group alive during the quarantine. The tickets giveaway for Lakers fans. And, after all, a few threes he hit when needed.
Bear that in mind, Lakers fans, if the Lakers reclaim the NBA crown in Orlando. It will be heavily credited to James and Davis, and deservedly so because the otherworldly pair is the heart of this team.
But Dudley is its pulse. And you know the heart is strong as long as the pulse is steady.
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