MEXICO CITY -- Through 14 seasons, the unlikely journey of the Dallas Mavericks' J.J. Barea has seen the 5-foot-10 guard scrap his way onto an NBA roster as an undrafted free agent, transform into a key contributor on a championship team and seize the attention of budding superstars.
"No one gave him a snowball's chance in hell to be an NBA player," said Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey, an assistant in Dallas from 2008-11. "But his work ethic was key, and he worked harder than anybody I've ever seen."
The journey's most recent leg has Barea well into his second stint in Dallas as a wily veteran on a talented squad making a run at this season's stacked Western Conference. More importantly, the 35-year-old from Puerto Rico serves as a mentor to the NBA's most recent generational wunderkind.
That both Barea and Luka Doncic join forward Kristaps Porzingis in speaking Spanish makes them natural attractions this week in Mexico City, where the Mavericks will square off Thursday against Casey's Pistons as part of the NBA Global Games. Yet the MVP-caliber performances of the 20-year-old Doncic through the early part of the season have drawn a worldwide spotlight of their own, due in part to Barea's tutelage.
"When I first came to Dallas, J.J. was a guy who got close to me and talked to me," Doncic said in Spanish. "Being with J.J. has helped a lot [with blending in and] as a basketball player."
The Mavericks own the third-best record in the West at 16-7, behind only the Lakers and Clippers. Doncic, the reigning Rookie of the Year, is averaging a near triple-double: 30 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.2 assists, to go with a 31.60 Player Efficiency Rating. Meanwhile, Barea has been limited to averaging 14 minutes in just six games after returning from a torn right Achilles suffered last January, gathering minutes mostly in blowouts.
Barea believes communicating freely in Spanish with multilingual teammates such as Doncic and Porzingis has created a tight locker room and close friendships. However, the limited minutes on such a promising team have admittedly been difficult on Barea, a favorite of the Mavs' faithful as the last player left from the 2011 championship season. Playing is "my favorite thing in life to do," he said.
Still, he has maintained an eagerness to pitch in as a mentor despite not being a regular in coach Rick Carlisle's rotation. The Mavs' fledgling core is centered around Doncic and Porzingis, the 24-year-old Latvian star acquired in a blockbuster trade with the New York Knicks last season who had a swim through the Spanish league with Sevilla.
In his own early days in the NBA, Barea learned the game from present and future Hall of Famers such as Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki. With youngsters such as Doncic, it's Barea's turn to share knowledge.
"It's hard work, it's a long season," Barea said. "We talk about how to take care [of his body], we talk about how to stay positive when things don't go your way after a game, little things like that. The mental side of the game. But we've seen how special Luka is. It's impressive what he's done so far and what he can still do in the future."
Barea's status as beloved elder statesman was perhaps most evident in a Nov. 20 win over the Golden State Warriors in Dallas, a game in which he was recovering from a sore right elbow. Coach and player deemed Barea would play only if strictly necessary. So with 2:40 remaining and the Mavs up 47 points, Barea playfully trolled the crowd at American Airlines Center by jogging toward the scorers' table in response to chants of "We want J.J.!", then sharply turning back to take his seat.
Doncic, seated next to him on the bench, doubled over in laughter.
Luka was cracking up after JJ Barea pretended to sub into the game 😂 pic.twitter.com/Kqftp1lxrI— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) November 21, 2019
"Off the court, he's helped me a lot," Doncic said before leaving for Mexico City. "I just like hanging around with him."
Doncic, who is from Slovenia, picked up Spanish during his six years spent playing in Spain as a teenager with Real Madrid. Though basketball understandably dominates conversations between Doncic and Barea, both bond over other topics -- such as video games and a shared fondness for reggaeton music -- despite their 15-year age gap.
"I stay young by being around him," Barea joked. "He's a great young man with very special abilities. I'm inspired to help him, because he listens."
If Doncic has paid proper attention, he is aware of Barea's 22 points and eight assists in the Mother's Day game that swept the defending champion Lakers from the 2011 playoffs. Or the clutch 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting a month later in the decisive Game 6 of the Mavericks' only championship, a 105-95 win over the Miami Heat of the Big Three era. Following that year's championship run, Barea spent three seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves before returning to the Mavs in 2014.
Barea's significance is not lost on Carlisle, especially in regard to the development of his "special player" Doncic.
"J.J. is our last vestige" from 2011, Carlisle said Wednesday. "That's very important [for Doncic]. In the locker room, our guys know that J.J. has that level of experience. They know that he was once a player who was undrafted and had to work his way into a situation where he could get playing time and eventually he became a starter on an NBA championship team, and that's pretty phenomenal."
Mixing it up in Spanish in the spirit of camaraderie is pretty great, too. Carlisle views the communication that takes place in several languages around his team as a positive that strengthens international bonds. Undoubtedly, a relaxed atmosphere in Dallas is easier to maintain with the Mavs' current form, buoyed by Doncic's record-setting play. In last month's win over the Warriors, Doncic tallied more points, rebounds and assists than the entire Golden State roster in one quarter -- a feat not accomplished since the Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson did it to the Chicago Bulls in 2003.
"It's not hard for him to do this right now," Barea said after that game. "He's not forcing crazy s---. It's just coming. That's why I think he can keep this up. He's making it look easy."
"He's a great young man with very special abilities. I'm inspired to help him, because he listens."J.J. Barea, on mentoring Luka Doncic
In last Sunday's loss to the Sacramento Kings that snapped a five-game Mavs win streak, Doncic broke Michael Jordan's record streak of consecutive games with at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976 -- a mark he'll seek to build on against the Pistons in Mexico City.
"I know Luka is going to love the fans down there," said Barea, himself no stranger to attention from Latin American crowds.
During the Mavs' last visit to the Mexican capital in January 2017, Barea took the microphone pregame to address the sold-out arena in Spanish, drawing some of the evening's loudest cheers. He scored two points in 19 minutes in Dallas' 113-108 win over the Phoenix Suns.
With his elbow now healthy, Barea is working hard for another chance to play in front of the crowd in Mexico. That resiliency and love of the game, coupled with Barea's roots in Dallas, make him a natural candidate to stick around after his playing days are over. In 2017, Barea coached his hometown Indios de Mayagüez in Puerto Rico's top basketball league. It was the first step toward what Barea hopes is a stateside coaching career.
"It's good experience. It helped me learn and prepare," he said. "I'd like to coach in the NBA, especially in Dallas."
In the meantime, Barea maintains his dual role as an active player and a guide for Doncic.
"He's got so much talent, but the crazy part is he still has so much space to keep growing and getting better," Barea said. "With time and experience, it'll get easier for him."
ESPN Staff Writer Tim MacMahon and ESPN Deportes' Carlos Nava contributed to this report.