DALLAS — With Dennis Smith Jr., the talent is so bright you want to cheat and have all of it happen at once — the dunks, the double-doubles, the clutch buckets. It’s really easy to forget Smith is a 19-year-old point guard and 19-year-old point guards generally don’t thrive in the NBA.
So it’s a slow and patient burn. Yet with every flash, there’s thoughts of the future. Seeing Smith smoothly operate a pick and roll against good NBA defenders, which Smith has seen plenty of in these first 16 games, just makes us more thirsty — we want the future to be now.
There’s still a lot for Smith to learn, however, painfully evident in the Mavericks 111-87 loss to the Timberwolves on Friday night in Dallas. In one half, Smith looked in control of an offense that was humming against a potential playoff team in the Wolves. In the second, things fell apart behind a stagnant offense with little movement or shot creation.
“[The Timberwolves] weren’t doing anything special,” Smith said after the game. “We came out sluggish in the third [quarter] and they took advantage of it.”
The Mavericks also didn’t really take advantage of Smith. While Smith needs to and is learning a lot at a rapid pace, there are some things perhaps best left for later. For instance learning how to play off-the-ball. The results against the Wolves and most of the season haven’t been encouraging.
At N.C. State, Smith was the show — he was the alpha and omega of the Wolfpack’s offense, being the sole initiator and sometimes finisher. It’s a role Smith’s been used to his whole point guard playing life. In Dallas, things are different. The Mavericks have three point guards behind Smith, with Devin Harris, J.J. Barea and Yogi Ferrell. Harris and Ferrell are fairly comfortable in their off-ball roles, but it’s been when Barea is on the floor that Smith has had to play off-ball and make the biggest adjustments.
When Smith and Barea shared the floor against the Wolves on Friday night, the Mavericks had a net-rating of minus-113.4. That is not a typo. Lineup data from individual games can be a little foolhardy so let’s expand it for the whole season. The numbers don’t get any better.
In the 85 minutes those two have played together this season, the net rating is still an anemic minus-35.3. It’s by far the worst two-man pairing of the Mavs rotation players and in the game against the Wolves it was easy to see why.
Barea has always thrived as the primary ball-handler. While he’s improved his three-point shot a ton in the last couple of years, Barea’s bread and butter has always been running pick and rolls after pick and rolls, even if that means pounding the air out of the ball. When Smith and Barea share the floor, like in the game against Minnesota, Smith becomes a bystander as Barea initiates and typically finishes the sets.
The Mavs are clearly working with Smith to try and get him moving when Barea decides to go to work and at least make sure he isn’t just standing with his hands on his knees. He’s setting some down-screens and moving the ball well enough. But it’s still a lot of Barea-watching.
Smith is a dynamo athlete and is by far the Mavs most explosive playmaker, averaging 13.6 drives per game which lead the team and is 12th in the league, according to NBA.com. So it’s tough to watch high-pressure situations like this get somewhat wasted with Smith sitting in the corner. This is a pattern with Smith and Barea, as Smith’s usage percentage plummets when he’s on the court with Barea, going from 31.5 percent all the way down to 22.3, according to NBAwowy.
“I’m doing a good job making that adjustment, not having the ball so much,” Smith said. “First time I’ve had to deal with that. I’m trying to get better at floor-spacing and helping my teammates out whether I touch the ball or not.”
For what it’s worth, playing off-ball is absolutely a skill Smith needs to learn. As Smith grows into his role as a leader of the offense, more defenses will adjust to force the ball out of his hands. In those moments, Smith needs to be effective and not leave his teammates playing four-on-five. He’s shown signs of being effective there, shooting 35.7 percent on catch-and-shoot threes. That’s not a particularly great number, but for a ball dominant 19-year-old, it’s definitely a good foundation. Smith’s jumper looks good and should only get better with more reps. In terms of other parts of playing off-ball, the Mavs have already shown they’re willing to utilize Smith’s rocket-boosted hops to catch teams napping.
The question is, right now? Barea will be long-gone from this Mavericks roster whenever Smith enters his prime. These off-ball reps are important yes, but also getting reps as a pick and roll ballhandler are crucial too. It’s not very fun to watch a 33-year-old point guard dribble the ball into dust while hoisting shots on a 2-14 team and the alluring rookie watches.
Per 36 minutes, Barea is averaging a little over 17 shots per game which would somehow be a career-high if the season ended today. The 10.5 shots per game Barea is attempting this season is also a career high. It doesn’t seem like the best use of resources. It’d be one thing if Barea and Smith were working on some synergy like Barea does with Harris, but Smith has only received eight percent of Barea’s total passes this season per NBA.com. Smith shoots terribly when receiving a pass from Barea to boot, implying the two aren’t necessarily feeding off each other.
Smith definitely needs to learn in all aspects of the NBA game. It just seems like right now, Smith isn’t so much learning at times as he is watching. The Mavericks are a weird team with a lot of veteran players that aren’t winning a lot, something coach Rick Carlisle has to juggle. A few less Barea shots wouldn’t hurt to help push along the development of a potential franchise player.