Dennis Smith Jr. has been perfectly fine through his first 11 NBA games. Being a rookie in the NBA is very tough — being a teenage starting point guard is even harder.
Smith has taken his lumps in the first three weeks of his NBA season. There’s been the expected bad defense, the sloppy turnovers and that fitting in feeling where you can tell he’s been holding something a little back until he felt more comfortable to uncoil and truly be himself.
Last night, Smith uncoiled, even if it was just a little.
He was 9-of-22 from the field, with a career-high 22 points to go along with eight assists and eight rebounds and get this, just two turnovers. This wasn’t the “remember to be patient as he develops” Smith. This was the “holy crap I can’t wait for him to yam on some dudes for real” Summer League Smith. This was the Smith we dreamed of and it happened 12 games into his career.
Don’t mind the ugly shooting line. Smith getting up shots is important to his development and the more shots and the more opportunities Smith gets, the less over-30 guards Devin Harris and J.J. Barea get. Those two combined for 16 shots and neither played 20 minutes, while Smith got over 20 shots and over 30 minutes while closing out a win against a good Wizards team. That’s progress.
How Smith did it was delightful. Of his nine makes, six of them were right at the rim, as Smith continually worked whatever Wizard was in front of him (including John Wall) with and without a screen to get to in the paint. For the first time all year, Smith felt free to run when he wanted, as the Mavs played at a pace of 101.16 possessions when Smith was on the floor, a pretty big jump from the season average of just over 98. Rick Carlisle has implored for the Mavs to be a running team with Smith leading the charge and it seemed like tonight was the night Smith felt more at ease in doing so. It’s even more impressive that Smith kept his turnovers low while pushing the ball at every moment.
It was nice to see the Mavericks also spread things out for Smith and set him up for success with a downhill start to the basket. While the Mavs only played Nerlens Noel six minutes, Dallas still flattened out the baseline and let Smith do damage with a high screen, typically with Harrison Barnes being the screener. These types of plays give Smith so much more room to dart by defenders and a more open lane to take advantage of. More of that please.
Smith’s usage percentage for the game? How about 34.9 percent, up from the 29.3 he averages for the year. Smith had his hands all over this game and was in total command of the Mavs offense, whether that be finding shooters in the corners, creating offense out of a busted play, or, oh yes, blowing by an All-Star point guard after rejecting a screen late and scoring a dagger bucket on the road late in the fourth quarter.
While it might have been disappointing to see the lack of pop from Smith through his first 11 games while rookies like Ben Simmons, Lauri Markkanen and Jayson Tatum blow up box scores, make no mistake: Smith is good. He is damn good and he’s only getting better.
Onto the other game notes:
- While Smith stole headlines with his break-out game, Harrison Barnes was pretty damn awesome as well. He led all scorers with 31, grabbed nine rebounds and got to the free throw line eight times. This was the type of performance from Barnes where you squint a bit and can see him being the fulcrum of an offense, so long as Smith develops as he should. Dallas used Barnes as a screener a ton tonight and Barnes went to work against mismatches, scoring five of his 11 buckets in the paint and drawing eight free throws. Barnes is a really good finisher, so letting him be the screener in pick and rolls makes so much sense. Defenses respect Barnes’ ability to kill mismatches so it contorts the defense to try and stay with their assignments, which can let the pick and roll ball handler really move. Smith got a lot of his drives tonight by attacking a defense that was desperately trying to stay home on the screener.
- So Noel played six minutes. Salah Mejri got the bulk of the center minutes, even closing the game ahead of Dirk Nowitzki. You can’t really knock the decision too much in a vaccum, because Salah is on some serious sh-t right now. Dude is all sorts of hopped up on Mountain Dew and has been mugging people over the last week. 10 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks in 25 minutes for the uhm, Tunisian Terror? Sure. He was a key reason the Mavs pulled away in the second half, while Smith and Barnes did damage on the other end. Still though, it’s pretty lame Noel wasn’t given much of a fair shake, since he seemed as engaged as he’d been all year when he checked in during the second quarter and finished an alley-oop, blocked a shot and got a steal. It would have been neat to see what kind of game Noel was about to have, since those six minutes were promising. For what it’s worth, the only other young big the Mavs are developing, Dwight Powell, got two minutes. I love Salah, but he’s 31. You can only hope the Mavs are boosting his trade value, because a lot of contenders could use someone like Salah coming off the bench.
- Dirk getting 19 minutes however, was much needed. As desperate as I am to see a couple more vintage Dirk moments before his time is up, the Mavs are really better off if he’s playing diminished minutes. Dirk doesn’t need to be necessarily be benched, but he definitely needs to stay under 20 minutes when possible and maybe sit out some more back-to-backs.
- I am much more OK watching Barea do his thing if he’s playing under 20 minutes and putting up less than 10 shots a game.
- Wesley Matthews will play less than 30 minutes in a game when he’s dead.
- Seriously though, Wes has been so much better offensively this year, it’s good to see just as someone who was concerned as a human being for another human being. Wes isn’t really taking minutes away from anyone, so as long as he’s just spotting up for Smith and playing defense, that’s OK. That helps Smith, not hinders him.