DALLAS — When Dennis Smith Jr. talks, you can’t help but feel he was molded directly from Rick Carlisle’s mind as the perfect ideal of a point guard.
The more Smith plays — and the more he talks — Carlisle’s unique gushing of Smith after the draft in June makes more and more sense. Smith is a Rick Carlisle guy.
“I’m just buying into the system and giving it everything I got,” Smith said.
The Mavericks decimated a hurt Clippers team 108-82 Saturday afternoon in Dallas and while Smith didn’t have an eye-popping game from the stat sheet (12 points, five rebounds, three assists) Smith was very much in control and a big part of the Mavs grabbing a big lead and keeping it throughout the game. Smith hit 5-of-8 shots and only attempted two three-pointers. Everything else was toward the rim as Smith finished a variety of attacks.
When Carlisle was asked after the game about the solid play from veterans J.J. Barea and Devin Harris, Carlisle praised the duo shortly before moving unprompted to praise of Smith’s game.
“I thought Smith had a great game too, he bounced back from a minus-10 last game,” Carlisle said. “His decision-making is getting much more decisive, his play is getting much more overall efficient. I thought his defense to start the game and really the majority of the time he was out there against (Austin) Rivers and Lou Williams was terrific and better than we’ve seen — the best we’ve seen to this point.”
This effusive praise is striking considering it’s coming from the same coach who got into an Instagram spat with Chandler Parsons, played Richard Jefferson over Al-Farouq Aminu, trusted Chris Kaman before giving way to Brandan Wright, called his starting center out of shape after the first preseason game and called Darren Collison a career back-up while bringing in the zombie husks of Mike James and Derek Fisher.
Now, that’s not exactly a murderer’s row of players the Mavs regret aren’t on their roster anymore, but this gushing praise of a young player isn’t normal from Carlisle. It started showing last season when he trusted Yogi Ferrell while also being the first NBA coach to give Seth Curry a shot.
As much as the Mavericks have bungled opportunities like the Nerlens Noel situation (Noel is not blameless at all, to be fair) under Carlisle, the coach has slowly started to find a middle ground with his younger players. We’re all adjusting to watching the Mavs rebuild with teams that are losing 50 games instead of winning them. That has to be an adjustment for Carlisle as well. He’s learning to coach bad teams just as much as we’re all learning how to watch them.
It also helps that Smith is wired almost exactly like Carlisle.
“I learn every game, every practice,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of film sessions and I’m doing my best to learn there. I’m making adjustments and getting better every game.”
Smith’s desire to learn and absorb isn’t just noticed by Carlisle and the coaches. His teammates see it too. Like Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki is always a little reluctant to anoint a young player the next face of the franchise or someone he can pass the torch to. Harrison Barnes earned it by showing up just as early and leaving just as late as Dirk does to practices and workouts. Dirk seems to be seeing those same types of qualities in Smith.
“He’s a competitor,” Nowitzki said. “He wants to win, he wants to learn. He just turned 20 and it’s crazy. Sometimes you have to tell yourself how young he is. The sky’s the limit and if he keeps working he’s going to have a long, great career.”
The improvement comes in small ways every game. After seeming a little flustered by the long arms the Brooklyn Nets threw at Smith the previous game with all their bigger guards, Smith was a bit more patient in his attacks against the Clippers. He didn’t settle for jumpers and seemed to adjust amazingly well to every shot he took at the rim.
Smith absorbed contact for a nice and-one in the second quarter:
Then in the third, he had a nice finish going under the rim to avoid the shot blocker:
They’re the types of plays we take for granted from veterans like Barea and Harris, but it’s something Smith has to learn. And he’s doing it, with a coach that’s more than willing to teach.
Even Smith’s response to Carlisle winning 700 games can’t help but make you think the two have the same brain.
“It’s more reason for you to listen what he’s talking about,” Smith said. “You’ve got to buy into the system.”
Let’s consider Smith bought in.