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3 things to watch for as the Mavericks open the season against the Hawks

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Dallas will look to start the new season out with a win against a rebuilding Atlanta team.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Dallas Mavericks Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The wait is finally over. No more Summer League. No more preseason. Tonight, the Dallas Mavericks will play real basketball as they open the 2017-18 season at home against the Atlanta Hawks. Although it seems like an uphill climb for the Mavs to make the playoffs, there has been a buzz surrounding this season that hasn’t been felt in a long time.

Yes, this could turn out to be Dirk Nowitzki’s final season (although he’s left the door open to return next year), but the franchise now has a future to look forward to that involves Harrison Barnes, Dennis Smith Jr. and hopefully, if all goes according to plan, Nerlens Noel.

There are a lot of questions the Mavs will have to answer this season, but for now, here are 3 things you should watch for in the season opener, as Dallas tries to get off on the right foot with a win.

Dennis Smith’s much anticipated debut

Obviously, this is the main event everyone has been waiting for. Ever since Dennis Smith Jr. lit up the Las Vegas Summer League — no, scratch that — ever since draft night, Mavs fans have fantasized about their new rookie point guard beginning his Rookie of the Year campaign.

Smith Jr. will matchup against Dennis Schroder, a point guard he already faced a few days ago in preseason action. In that game, Smith Jr.’s night was cut short as Schroder inadvertently stepped on his ankle. Before that injury, Smith Jr. showed great poise and did a little bit of everything, whether that was hitting threes, driving to the cup at will or having active hands on the defensive end. Nerves may play a role early in this game, but I expect Smith Jr. to settle in and have a really nice opening game as a Mavericks.

Nerlens Noel’s minutes

During the preseason, Noel only played around 17 minutes per night. For a guy that’s hoping to prove himself this season and earn a big contract next summer, those kind of minutes aren’t going to cut it. When Rick Carlisle announced on media day that Noel would probably come off the bench, we all (or most of us) figured that he’d still play starter-like minutes. Given, it was only preseason, and the Mavs may have just been cautious, not wanting to risk an injury to Noel before the real season starts.

Whatever the case may be, it’ll be interesting to see how this saga plays out. If Noel can’t play at a high enough level to earn a starting spot or at least starter minutes, it makes it very hard to envision him in a Mavs uniform next season.

And if that’s the case, is it too early to fire up the “DeMarcus Cousins to Dallas” rumors?

Harrison Barnes getting to the line

During the preseason, Barnes looked like a guy ready to take his game to the next level this season. One thing I noticed, especially in the last preseason game against the Hornets, is that Barnes is going to make it a point to get to the free throw line more often this season. That is an area of his game that has been lacking in previous years, but if he can get his free throw attempts up around the 6-7 per game range, Barnes could potentially be a 25+ points per game guy. What’s sad, is that even if Barnes were to perform at that level, his chances of being in the all-star game are still very slim, being in the ever-stacked Western Conference.

Regardless, it would be nice to see Barnes take that next step in his career and inch closer to being a franchise-type player, at least until Smith Jr. can reach that point, that is.

How to watch

The Mavs and Hawks will play at American Airlines Center at 7:30 CT and can be viewed locally on FSSW or on NBA League Pass.