TUNIS, Tunisia — Down one point with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Dallas Mavericks point guard Devin Harris wove in and out of Oklahoma City Thunder defenders on his drive to the basket. He went for a lay-up, but was knocked down, his shot bouncing off the rim. In flew 7’2” Mavericks center Salah Mejri, who slammed the ball down for a put-back jam, prompting the TNT announcer to yell, “Ohhhhhh!”
Mejri pitched in 12 points on the night, but each of them mattered as the Mavericks went on to win a crucial Game 2 of their Western Conference playoff matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder 85-84. While the 29-year-old rookie didn’t score in the Mavs’ Game 3 loss to the Thunder on Thursday, Mejri’s inaugural campaign in the National Basketball Association is making his home country of Tunisia immensely proud.
“It’s a promising start for Tunisian basketball players,” 23-year-old Youssef Mejri told NonDoc. “Young Tunisian players look up to him and see someone coming from a similar background.”
Youssef is unrelated to the Mavericks rookie, but he himself is a former member of the Davidson College basketball team in North Carolina. He currently plays on a Tunisian team, Club Africain.
Over the course of this NBA season, Salah Mejri’s minutes per game have gone up steadily, and he has developed into a solid role player for the Mavericks. He has won the hearts of Mavericks fans and Mark Cuban has taken a particular liking to him.
A late start to the hoop
Born in the summer of 1986 in Jendouba, an important agricultural hub in northwest Tunisia, Salah Mejri took an unusual route to the NBA. Although he was clearly talented in basketball, he put his studies first, traveling to the coastal city of Sousse to pursue his education to become an engineer.
He put off professional basketball until the age of 20, when he signed with Sousse’s best basketball team, Etoile Sportive. Mejri played four years at Etoile Sportive before moving to play in Belgium in 2010.
In 2011, Mejri guided Tunisia’s national basketball team to an unexpected championship in the Afrobasket Tournament, the inter-nation tournament for the African continent. This championship reserved a place for Tunisia in the 2012 Summer Olympics, a feat that the country’s team had never before achieved. Although the team lost all five qualifying matches, Salah Mejri did manage to make his own impression.
Mejri impressed Black Mamba
Down by more than 40 points against the USA team, however, Mejri drove hard to the paint and dunked the ball with tremendous force. In this video of the sequence, the camera flashes to Kobe Bryant sitting on the U.S. national team bench.
Despite only playing five games, compared to other teams’ players who played eight, Mejri led the Summer Olympics tournament in blocks with 17.
In 2012, coming off his successful individual performance in the Summer Olympics, Salah Mejri moved to the Spanish league, and finally signed with Real Madrid, Europe’s best team, in 2013. Playing with Real Madrid, Mejri averaged 10 minutes of playing time per game, which is not very high for a potential NBA prospect. However, his short amount of playing time gave enough of a sample size for scouts from the Mavericks to make a decision.
On July 30, 2015, Mejri signed with the Mavericks. He made the team and was on the opening day roster, and he finally became the first Tunisian to play in an NBA game.
A rim defender and shot blocker
Mejri stepped on the court infrequently during the first few months of the season, only to breakthrough on Jan. 13. With the starters on the bench, Mejri logged 25 minutes and put up 17 points and nine rebounds. He was the lone impressive Mavericks player on a night in which they lost to the Thunder by almost 20 points.
Over the course of this past season, Mejri has averaged only 11.7 minutes per game, but in his time on the court, he’s notched 3.7 PPG, 1.1 BPG, and 3.6 RPG. His regular season field goal percentage sits at .628.
Josh Bowe, a writer for Mavs Moneyball on SB Nation knows the Mavs very well. He’s been writing about them for years. Less than a month ago, he wrote an optimistic and praising assessment of Mejri. He highlighted Mejri’s prowess as a rim defender and a shot blocker who keeps blocked shots in bounds.
Bowe pointed out that Mejri “oozes confidence.” After a 132-120 overtime win against the Portland Trail Blazers, in which Mejri chipped in 13 points, 14 rebounds, and six blocks, Mejri told reporters: “I know what I can do. I know I can help this team. I can do things like no one else on this team can do like blocking shots, bring energy to the game.”
Bowe has written that he believes Mejri could bulk up in the weight room this offseason and be a key piece going forward for the next few Mavericks seasons. Mejri will be under contract until 2018, and with NBA contracts set to greatly increase this offseason, he could be one of the best value centers in the league.
‘Tunisians stay up late into the night’
In Tunisia, Mejri’s success is having a ripple effect across the country.
“Everyone knows that Salah is physically gifted,” Youssef Mejri said, “but few know that he is also one of the hardest working basketball players.”
Youssef said he believes the popularity of basketball is growing exponentially in Tunisia.
“The Afrobasket tournament held in Tunisia last summer was completely sold out,” he said. “People had basketball fever.”
Back in Texas, the Dallas Mavericks are set to host the Thunder for Game 4 after losing handily in Game 3. Without a doubt, there will be more than a few fans watching from Tunisia.
“Tunisians stay up late into the night to watch NBA games,” Youssef Mejri said. “Even ones on the West Coast.”