When Greg Smith came over in a trade with Chicago in the off-season, it didn't raise much of a stir, as Smith might have the lowest profile of any of the seven new players on the Mavs roster this season. Unlike the other acquisitions, he has never been a starter in the NBA and he has never played more than 16 a minutes a game in the season. Nevertheless, he's a talented young player with upside who could end up playing an important role on this year's team.
A college teammate of Paul George at Fresno State, Smith passed up the chance to play for a bigger school in order to stay close to home and help raise his young daughter. Like George, he slipped under the national radar on a Fresno team that was never on national TV and went 13-17 despite having two future NBA players on the roster. As a result, Smith never got much press in the pre-draft stage and wound up being undrafted.
While the odds of any player making the league who was passed up 60 times on draft night are never good, Smith had an ace in the hole -- he was 6'10" 250 with a 7'2" wingspan and he could walk and chew gum at the same time. NBA teams will give second, third and fourth chances to any guy with Smith's combination of size, skill and athleticism, regardless of his draft pedigree or what he did at the college level.
The Rockets are one of the most aggressive teams in the league when it comes to scouring the waiver wire for young talent, so it's no real surprise that he ended up playing for their D-League team in the Rio Grande Valley. "It was a great, great, great experience," Smith told Mavs Moneyball in a Q&A earlier in the pre-season. "Learned how to play in spots in the post, playing with guards who could drive and kick and finish."
He thrived in their uptempo fun-and-gun system, averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds a game and making the D-League All-Star team. It wasn't long until he secured a spot on the big-league team, as he was called up at the end of his rookie season before earning a spot in the rotation as a back-up center the following season. In 70 games with Houston in 2012-2013, Smith averaged 6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 0.5 blocks a game on 63 percent shooting.
Those numbers certainly don't jump off the page, but the key to understanding the effectiveness of a young player in the NBA is translating their production over a full 36 minutes of playing time. Smith's per-36 numbers -- 14 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game -- show that he was more than holding his own in his time on the floor. That's all a young player can control, especially a guy fighting for minutes on a playoff team like the Rockets.
It's really easy overlook a guy with Smith's skill set because he doesn't do anything super well. He's not a great shot-blocker or post scorer, he can't stretch the floor from the perimeter and he can't do all that much with the ball in his hands. The key is that he doesn't do anything particularly poorly, which is important for a backup center. Smith is not going to kill you on offense or defense and he can function as a cog around more talented players.
In essence, Smith ate up minutes behind Omer Asik, allowing the big Turkish center to rest while holding the fort on defense, attacking the glass and catching and finishing around the rim. Unfortunately for Smith, the acquisition of Dwight Howard sent Asik to the bench and moved him out of the rotation entirely, as he was now the third string center behind the best starting center and the best back-up center in the NBA.
He played only 10 games with the Rockets last season, who cut him on the eve of the playoffs in order to open up a roster spot for another perimeter player. The Bulls picked him up in late April, but it was far too late for him to be integrated into the rotation and he never stepped on the floor for them. Then, looking to clear cap space in the off-season, Chicago sent Smith to Dallas for the rights to a player who may never come over from Europe.
And while they may not have given up much to acquire him, the Mavs clearly value what Smith can bring to the team. "You know, Greg Smith, we've been trying to trade for him for two years, so we're thrilled," Mark Cuban said during summer league. "Backing up Tyson and being able to bang, he's athletic, he's really skilled and he's young, so like most big men it takes a bit of time."
That's the most interesting thing about Smith -- as a 24-year old big man with three years of NBA experience under his belt, he is only going to get better from here. There were only five centers taken ahead of him in 2011 and Smith has already outlasted two of them -- Josh Harrellson and Keith Benson. Guys with his size and skill set just aren't very common and even if doesn't improve at all from here, he is still going to have a 10-year career in the NBA.
Best Case Scenario
The departure of DeJuan Blair leaves an obvious hole for Smith to fill in the rotation, as he gives Dallas more size behind Chandler and a bulkier option than Brandan Wright to throw at guys like Marc Gasol and Dwight Howard. Brandan Wright will get most of the minutes at backup center, but with the Mavs looking to manage Chandler's minutes over the course of the season, Smith should have plenty of opportunities to get on the floor.
Just as important, given Chandler's long history of injuries, is having a third center who can handle 20-25 minutes a night for a few weeks without hurting the team on either side of the ball. Smith doesn't have Blair's all-around offensive game or his ability to wreak havoc on the offensive glass, but he's so much bigger and stouter in the post that he won't compromise their defensive integrity in the same way as a 6'5" center with no ACLs.
Worst Case Scenario
If all goes according to plan, Smith won't get the chance to put up very big numbers, so the main thing to watch with him is his per-36 minute stats as well as the performance of the various line-ups he is in. Since the majority of Dirk's minutes will come with either Chandler or Wright, Smith could be on a lot of the team's least productive line-ups, which could gradually erode his playing time over the course of the season. Carlisle may decide the team is better off going small in those instances and Smith may spend a lot of time next to Sarge James on the bench.
Could Smith be a long-term solution?
Given how quickly the Mavs roster has turned over in the last few seasons, it's foolish to plan too far down the road for the 9th-10th man in the rotation. At the same time, if they re-sign Chandler in the off-season, Smith is the perfect young big man on a tiny salary (he is signed to the minimum for the next two seasons) to groom behind him. If he can develop a consistent mid-range jumper, there's a chance he develops into a starting-caliber player as he moves into his mid-to-late 20's.
Smith is never going to be a star, but a two-way center with his size who doesn't have any holes in his game can be a very valuable player. His best-case scenario is probably Kendrick Perkins in Boston, before the knee injury that turned him into a shadow of himself. The beauty of it is that he already has a floor of an NBA contributor and it will cost the Mavs almost nothing to develop him -- it's all upside for Dallas.
For all the well-deserved knocks the Mavs front office receives for their refusal to pay attention to the draft, they have shown the ability to find undervalued young guys in their mid-20s and give them a home in the NBA. Smith doesn't have the athleticism or the offensive game of Brandan Wright, but he's another under-25 big man who effectively serves as a cost-controlled draft pick for Dallas. Get to know him -- he might be around for awhile.