Dennis Smith Jr. is still discovering what it takes to make it in the NBA. Every night presents new learning experiences. And for Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle, it’s an opportunity to teach.
The season is now a quarter of the way over, and while Smith is showing growth and improvement, he still has a long way to go before establishing himself as a consistent presence.
Smith’s rookie numbers are impressive: 14.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 4.4 assists in 28.5 minutes per game. His scoring and assist averages rank him fourth among rookies. However, his shooting overall percentage isn’t great and it’s trending down. In his first 10 games, Smith connected on 40 percent of his shots and 28.9 percent on three-pointers. In the last 10 games, Smith is shooting 37.7 percent from the floor. However, he’s seen an uptick in his three-point percentage, rising to 30.4.
So, what’s causing his shooting percentage to drop? For starters, there’s more film on him. The more he plays, the more teams learn his tendencies. They want to make the game harder for him and the first thing they look to do is take away lanes, forcing him to settle for jump shots.
“We knew he was a downhill player,” Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said after a 109-104 victory over the Mavs Wednesday night. “We had to keep him in front. That was the goal. A lot of unders on his pick and rolls and tried to bait him into mid-range shots but he’s a speed demon. We told our guys, ‘Keep that guy, keep him out of the paint. Keep him in front of us.’ I think we put some size on him too, a little bit. Sometimes mixed in different guys on him.”
Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens also used the word “downhill” when describing Smith’s play. This isn’t to say that he’s a one-dimensional player. However, getting to the rim is his first instinct and best offensive skill. Taking that away forces him into situations where he is less comfortable, nullifying his impact.
In his last 10 games, Smith took 25 mid-range shots. He made nine of them — good for a shooting percentage of 36 percent. That’s something opponents will look to exploit nightly until he proves he can hit those shots consistently — exactly what has played out in the last three home games for Dallas.
When Boston visited the American Airlines Center on November 20, Smith got off to a hot start. However, after scoring six first quarter points, he only totaled only two more for the remainder of the game. He ended the night 4-16 from the field and missed all four of this 3-point tries. The Mavericks lost in overtime, 110-102.
Five days after falling to Boston, Dallas hosted the Oklahoma City Thunder in what was the team’s largest margin of victory to date. The Mavs won, 97-81, with Smith pouring in 15 points and shooting 42.8 percent. The Thunder, though, still did everything they could to making things tough for him as they limited him to five shots in the paint and forced him to commit four turnovers.
Most recently, against the Nets, Smith was just 3-11 from the floor. Brooklyn lured him into mid-range jumpers throughout the night. While eight of his 10 points came in the third quarter, he scored half of them at the free throw line.
One way that teams are finding success against Smith is with longer defenders. This happens either by default, based on the personnel on the floor, or through switching. For Thunder head coach Billy Donovan, slowing down Smith came down to who was in the game at any given time.
“I think a lot of it is based on who’s out there for them and who’s out there for us and how we match up,” Donovan said. “We feel pretty confident with the versatility of our perimeter players, in particular Paul [George] and Andre [Roberson] that we can move those guys around on different people throughout different junctures of the game.”
Versatile perimeter players are the most valuable assets in the league right now and in Dallas’ last three home games, Smith saw some of the best in the business. The likes of Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Paul George, Spencer Dinwiddie, and DeMarre Carroll all spent time guarding him. In fact, in theses games, Smith saw no less than 24 players defend him either straight up or via switches. Teams are throwing the kitchen sink at him.
“The challenge for a guy like Dennis, who has such a great physical advantage on virtually everybody he’s played against up until entering the NBA, is that he can kind of float, hang, create, and make it up as he goes along,” Carlisle said. “With the length in our league, you’ve got to study situations, you’ve got to groove shots for certain situations. Just getting airborne against teams like Memphis and San Antonio and New Orleans, when they were in here — those skyscrapers distort the game a lot.”
Those skyscrapers Carlisle is referring to present yet another challenge. If Smith is able to get by his defender and into the paint, he’s met by big men looking to deny him an easy bucket. Since November 11, Smith has attempted 56 shots in the restricted area. While he’s shooting 48.2 percent here, 11 of his attempts resulted in blocks.
One possible explanation for this, as The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor points out, is Smith isn’t comfortable finishing with his left hand. Heavily relying on his dominant hand at the rim gives defenders the advantage no matter what side of the floor Smith attacks from.
“He’s working hard on those things,” Carlisle continued. “We got to be mindful of not throwing too much all at one time at him but he’s really seeing from his experience playing in these games the areas that he’s got to continue to work on.”
The transition to the NBA could be worse for Smith — he doesn’t have the intense media spotlight scrutinizing him constantly like some of his peers. Instead, he’s more free to grow and work at improving himself and his game, all the while soaking up Carlisle’s teaching like a sponge. However, teams are watching him, looking for the next wrinkle to exploit. If you believe Smith, though, he isn’t concerned with what other teams are doing. He’s only focused on getting better.
“I’m just playing ball,” Smith said. “There ain’t really nothing special that they’re doing. I just got to make more shots.”