When Luguentz Dort was ready to face off against the Utah Jazz, little did he know the night would become extraordinary for the wrong reasons.
Shortly after the warm up, NBA officials were huddled in a tight group near the Chesapeake Energy Arena logo right before tip-off on the evening of March 11. The Thunder and Jazz were ready to play. But something wasn’t right. After lengthy discussions between medical staff and referees, then coaches and referees, players and coaches were asked to head back to the locker room. Officials went to the scorers table and Mario Nanni, the Thunder’s public address announcer, said there’d be a delay to the game.
Dort followed his teammates off the court heedless of what was going on. He was rattled. It wasn’t until the team had settled into the locker room that they were told that Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19 that day and the game was now postponed. Shortly after that, the NBA suspended the season, throwing everything into chaos. Dort says the Thunder players left the stadium after they got their temperature checked. And for him, the following days were a blur: phone calls to worried family members and waiting for test results for COVID-19. As soon as Dort’s tests came back negative, he flew to Montreal to be with his parents where he spent 10 weeks isolating, watching film, working out on football fields and taking weekly Zoom calls with his team.
It’s been a turbulent and whirlwind kind of year for Dort. The 20-year-old Canadian, who went undrafted, managed to prove his worth on a two-way contract before the global pandemic hit. In the short sample size of 29 games, Dort proved to be a handful on defense for opposing teams and as his confidence grew he started to take more shots on offense. In a short period, he’s justified his worth on and off the court.
Now, on the heels of being offered a four-year deal worth $5.4 million, the Montreal native is with the team in the Orlando bubble making final preparations to his game to help the Thunder make a run at the NBA Championship as the season restarts. He’s finally found a home to ply his trade and is only just starting to scratch the surface of what he can do on the court.
Dort was a four-star prospect, who went undrafted in the 2019 NBA Draft when he first arrived in Oklahoma at the start of the season. The six-foot-four combo guard expected to be picked in the first few rounds in the NBA Draft in New York. It hit him hard when that didn’t arrive. He had spent one year at Arizona State under the tutelage of Bobby Hurley and was the highest-rated player to play on the roster since James Harden in 2007. And before then, Dort was working the AAU circuit trying to make a name for himself. But when he arrived in Oklahoma, nobody knew what he was truly capable of doing. So Dort did what he knew was best: he got to work.
The first time David Akinyooye, assistant coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, met Dort was during his first workout session. Afterwards they went to dinner at Flint, right in the heart of the city, where Dort opened up about his life.
“I didn’t really know too much about him. I couldn’t get a read on what his game might look like—point guard, guard—and wasn’t sure how good at defense he was, says Akinyooye. “One thing I really noticed about him is that he is a very humble kid.”
Akinyooye’s role was to work with Dort and get the guard up to speed on the Thunder’s blueprint at both ends of the court. He says after some initial teething problems, Dort picked things up rapidly.
“I was able to show him something on film, play defense a certain way, and then at the next practice he’d execute it,” he says. “He wants me to keep challenging him to be able to gain an advantage.”
Just like his path to the NBA, Dort had to work his way up through the G-League. For the Oklahoma City Blue, he put up 22 points, six rebounds, and 2.6 assists per 36 minutes a game. Grant Gibbs, the Blue’s head coach, was impressed by his blue-collar work ethic on the court. “There’s never a moment when you look out there that you don’t think he’s playing extremely hard and challenging himself to dominate the game physically,” he said.
"The main thing is that nothing is given to you. You always gotta go get it." - Luguentz Dort
On Dec. 6, Dort got his first call-up against Minnesota, where he played 7:21 minutes. Over the next 22 games, Dort featured in an off-the-bench role in seven of those games. It wasn’t until he faced off against Harden and his Rockets on Jan. 20 when things started to click for Dort. He stopped Harden from going nuclear, keeping the prolific scorer to a sub-standard 17 points and 22 percent from outside the arc. That sparked a 10-game stretch—a period the Thunder went 9-1—where Dort stifled some of the elite shooters in the NBA: think Booker, Doncic, Tatum. Dort’s confidence started to grow and he attacked more on offense and hit a season high of 23 points against the Kings, launching five-from-six threes.
“I feel like scoring is something I always did in high school. I led my team in scoring. I knew that with the Thunder that was not going to be my job,” says Dort. “Guarding is one of the things I always did at a high level. I really take pride in it. I felt this really separated me from a lot of players.”
Dort’s newly-found climb in the NBA has come on the back of gritty stops where he’s been able to create scoring opportunities for his teammates and himself. And while he’s ranked no. 37 out of 39 for rookies by ESPN, Chris Paul told NBA.com that Dort is the type of player who is willing to make sacrifices for the team. “Playing hard and competing is a talent and Lu is giving himself up,” he said. And after a win against Denver in late February where Dort scored 11 points in 22 minutes that included a monster dunk, Paul also told reporters that he’s “not just a defender.”
Two-way players in the NBA have become highly revered assets. When you watch a player like Kawhi Leonard guard the best players at one end, then flick a switch and go on a 10-point run at the other, you start to see flashes of similarities in Dort’s game. Although he’s still working on his game and learning more about spacing and being confident on the offensive end, his teammates and coach believe in him. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan thinks that Dort could become an elite defender and teammate Dennis Schröder told reporters, “He’s got to keep going. Keep getting better on the offensive end. Play with confidence."
Part of Dort’s evolution is staying levelheaded, which is an area Akinyooye works with him on. On nights like the game against the Spurs where the Thunder won by 28 points, Dort went a perfect 6-from-6 from the field and 2-from-2 from outside the arc. But there are also nights where players light up and take Dort to task. Akinyooye says they have a process post-game where he checks in to make sure he doesn’t get too ahead of himself or get too down when an assignment doesn’t go according to plan.
“As he continues to grow as a player, he has to be a little more sharp with his fundamentals. He loves to put the work in. I don’t see that ceiling right now,” says Akinyooye. “I give him credit because once the game is over he does a good job of turning the page. He’s already talking about the tendencies of the next assignment. He’s always assigned to be the team’s best player. It’s a big ask for a 20-year old.”
Nelson Osse still remembers Dort’s first dunk at 14 years old. It was a put-back. In a game for his basketball club Parc Ex Knights, down by one with two minutes to go, Dort flew over the backs of a sea of players, grabbed the ball and dunked it. Osse, who is the director of the Parc Ex Knights basketball program in Montreal and often referred to as the “godfather” of Quebec basketball, said the referees were left speechless.
“It was always about the team with Lu,” says Osse, who started coaching and training Dort since he was 12 years old. “Lu never actually cared if he scored or 5 or 10. Some kids would check the score sheets after the game but that was never Lu. He cared about the wins.”
Dort was born in Montreal to two Haitian immigrants, Lufrantz Dort and Erline Mortel, who had six kids: three girls Daphney (the oldest), Ludnie, Berline; and three boys Frantz Jr., Eveno, and Lu. Dort was the fifth child. When he was three years old, soccer was the first sport that captured his attention. Once he was old enough, he started playing goalie with his dad’s soccer team, and when he was 12 he started playing streetball with his friends on neighbourhood courts. Both sports were taking up his time and his mother Erline made him choose between the two. He chose basketball.
“All my friends were playing basketball,” Dort said. “It was the only way I could see them after school.”
Dort then spent every hour possible before and after school shooting hoops with his friends, siblings, and playing for local basketball teams like the Montreal North Basketball Club. When Dort joined the Parc Ex Knights, Osse recalls Dort owned striking physical traits. He had brick-like calves. Vast shoulders. And a visceral aura and strength that seemed to overwhelm his opponents. But Osse said he wasn’t naturally gifted. He believed that even though Dort had the edge physically, and had high compete levels, there was still work to be done honing the true basics of the game and self-discipline.
“I’ve coached players more talented than Lu. But Lu’s determination and no-quit mentality to get better and showing up every day, built a mental and physical toughness that gives him an edge on the court now,” said Osse. “That’s why he’s in the NBA now. Whatever it takes.”
By 14, Osse had a gut feel that Dort could make a career out of basketball if he put the work in. The only thing holding him back was a lack of motivation at school. So they had a heart-to-heart and Dort committed to living a balanced life of working hard on the court and in the classroom.
As Dort matured, he started to develop an understanding of his potential. When he was 15 years old, he says, he realized he had an ability to impact games and that the NBA dream was a possibility if he kept working on his fundamentals and flaws. In 2015, he represented Canada at the Adidas Nations tournament. Then he went to Florida for two years and came back to play for the Athletic Institute Toronto prep school in his senior year. In 2018, Dort featured in the BioSteel All-Canadian tournament, throwing down monster jams and dropped a 34-point game in an MVP performance.
By the time Dort arrived at Arizona State, the hard work started to pay off. He put up eye-catching numbers as a freshman. His first two games as a Sun Devil he shot 53 points. He won Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. After declaring for the draft, some projected Dort to be picked within the first round. But it didn’t quite work out that way.
It’ll be 143 days since that fateful night of March 11 when the Thunder play the Jazz this week in the Orlando bubble. Much like his peers, Dort has craved the competition of basketball and has mixed feelings as to what lies ahead of him. The one moment Dort keeps thinking about from that night, happened during the warm up. Instead of shaking Donovan Mitchell’s hand, Dort gave him a fist bump. We know now that Mitchell tested positive to COVID-19 the next day.
“I got lucky,” said Dort.
But luck has had little to do with how his rookie year has panned out. This year Dort had 21 starts, and what began as a temporary fill-in role for Terrance Ferguson has blossomed into a crucial starting gig for the Thunder. And take this for it’s worth: In the 29 games Dort has played this year, the Thunder have a winning record of 22-7. Without him they are 18-17.
“The main thing is that nothing is given to you. You always gotta go get it,” Dort said. “Everywhere I’ve been to I’ve always gotta prove myself.”
A big part of who Dort is can be attributed to his Haitian roots and family. As a tribute to his Montreal-Nord borough where he grew up, which has a large Haitan population, he’ll be wearing a message of hope on the back of his jersey written in French or Haitan when the NBA returns. And on his shoes he’s written the word “Masta,” a homage to his older brother Eveno, who pushed Dort to play harder and who he credits as the reason he wanted to get better at basketball. “It's not easy to come out of this place,” he told Sports Illustrated. “It's good for the kids to just see me being here. It's a big motivation for them."
Now that Canadian has secured four years with the Thunder, Dort is going to continue to absorb what the Thunder coaches throw at him. He’ll adapt to be whatever the Thunder need him to be, whether it be an attacking brute or defensive beast—or both—at the same time. He’s aware that he still needs to work on staying out of foul trouble, hitting open looks, being a consistent scorer, and keep fine-tuning the defensive basics. When you think of all that, it seems like a lot for a 20-year-old NBA rookie to think about. But if anyone can do it, Dort can.