The opportunity for young players to develop is one of the few redeeming qualities of a terrible NBA season. But there’s a misunderstanding among NBA fans about where and when that development occurs, to the point that it’s considered a travesty and a detriment to the future of a team if a rookie doesn’t play 30+ minutes in a game (especially in a loss). If a rookie isn’t playing in a game, does that really mean he’s not developing?
Dennis Smith Jr. is averaging 28.5 minutes per game this season (for context, there are only five rookies averaging 30 minutes or more per game), which means there are 19.5 minutes per game when Smith Jr. is sitting on the bench. While the minutes spent on the court are essential for his development, the time he spends off it can be just as instructive.
Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons sat out his entire rookie season and spent the entire year learning without ever logging a minute. This summer he told Keith Pompey that his time spent on the sidelines “really gave me a chance to sit back and look at the game and make sure I was focusing on the right things and my body and just continuing to learn.”
Sitting and watching can be incredibly beneficial, especially for a point guard. Chris Paul looked more than a little rough in his first game with the Houston Rockets but has fit seamlessly since his return.
That’s in part because in-game play isn’t the only source of development and integration. Rick Carlisle said that for Smith Jr., this season has been “a constant learning situation” and that the rookie has “picked up his level of work before and after practice,” including working on “creating rhythm for shots in difficult situations.”
But watching from the bench can be an opportunity for DSJ to observe that rhythm during games. Before this season, Dennis Smith Jr. had never attended an NBA game. Every game Smith Jr. plays marks another chance to learn and observe the greatest athletes in the world up close, whether he’s on the floor or not.
Smith Jr. certainly isn’t setting any records for minutes played by a rookie. Over the course of NBA history there have been 317 rookies who have averaged more minutes per game. But that’s no reason to worry about his development. As Coach Carlisle says, “he’s putting the work in every day. He gets here early and stays late—that’s how you get better.”
That’s high praise coming from a coach often criticized for his reluctance to play younger players. It’s also the reason we shouldn’t worry too much about DSJ’s minutes. The development of Dennis Smith Jr. is probably the biggest storyline of this season, and it doesn’t stop when he steps off the court.