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In selecting Dennis Smith Jr., the Mavericks finally took the draft seriously

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This time it mattered, and Dallas didn’t disappoint.

2017 NBA Draft Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

I can’t remember the last time I actually cared about who the Dallas Mavericks drafted. Growing up in the 1990s, I didn’t care because I was a kid and the team was bad. When the team traded for Dirk Nowitzki on draft day back in the summer of 1998, I didn’t pay much attention other than to think: “Who?” I remember when they drafted Devin Harris and Josh Howard and signed Marquis Daniels as an undrafted free agent. I cared enough then, but not as much as I probably should have. The team was finally good, and as long as they were serviceable, I was happy.

But on Thursday night, I finally cared.

It’s weird following a team for longer than some of the staff writers here have been alive and completely shrugging off a major responsibility of the organization. Conversely, it’s weird that the organization would do the same for so many years. This time, though, it mattered. With the Mavs rebuilding, or “retooling” as Donnie Nelson puts it, earnestly for the first time since the late 90s, Dallas had to get this one right. They couldn’t punt their pick on another Maurice Ager (who is a Grammy winner, by the way) or Shane Larkin. They needed a future star.

I spent yesterday evening at the American Airlines Center, with the usual cast of media characters who cover the team, plus a few others. In the Jack Daniels Old No. 7 Club, every television was turned to ESPN for the draft. Downstairs, where the Club looks out over the practice gym in the AAC and the nondescript bowels of the building, a metallic podium was set up with a Mavs logo backdrop.

We were all waiting for Donnie Nelson, the Mavs’ general manager, to come out and field questions before the draft got underway and he retreated to the war room. When he did address the room, he was frank. He came right out and said that the team had a hole at point guard and that they were happy drafting in the ninth spot and wouldn’t look to move.

“Nine is a really solid area where there’s a group of players that we really like,” Nelson said.

Can you believe it? The Mavs aren’t going to trade down or potentially draft some guy who plays in Qatar?! Be still my heart! Maybe I picked a good year to finally care.

To be honest, I, like the Mavs, was forced to care. This was the first time since 1998 that the team had a top-10 pick. Even though I cover the team for a couple of outlets, I’ve never really invested in covering potential college prospects for the draft. I haven’t had to. It just hasn’t been part of the Mavericks’ culture. Frankly, I don’t know how Sixers fans do it. Their team has been bad for a while, but at least they have a glimmer of hope now (and that’s better than the Eagles’ chances of ever winning a Super Bowl). But I’m not used to it.

With Nelson retired behind closed doors, we, like everyone else, were left refreshing Twitter to see where the pieces fell. After Nelson made it clear that the team was in the market for a point guard, the names to watch were De’Aaron Fox, Frank Ntilikina, and Dennis Smith, Jr. It wasn’t even worth worrying about Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball. They went one and two as predicted.

Fox was always a long shot to be available with the Mavs picking ninth. Every mock had him going in the top five. The Kings took him with the fifth pick. Now it was down to two. OK, cool. No, your heart is pounding.

Ntilikina and Smith were the players I had done the most research on. Both seemed likely to be available when the Mavs were on the clock, and both are good guards but with very different styles of play. For one, Ntilikina presents more of an off-the-ball threat that might work better in a triangle offense like they run in New York. The Knicks having the eighth pick and a strong interest in him gave me pause. Everything the Mavs had done signaled that Ntilikina was high on their preference list. They hired his coach for their Orlando Summer League staff, and Mark Cuban was taking selfies with him in Italy. If it was all a ruse, it was an elaborate one.

As for Smith, he’s athletic and built to operate in space where he can beat defenders of the dribble to get to the rim or work the pick and roll. Hey, that’s how the Mavs play! OMG! SMITH! PLEASE!

Or Ntilikina. Whatever. It’s cool.

Here come the Knicks. Boom. Woj. Ntilikina. WOW.

At this moment, I realized that the Mavs were going to get Smith. (Are you still reading this?) It was a foregone conclusion in my mind. Staring at my phone screen, I kept refreshing Woj’s Twitter page. No fake Woj was going to fool me. No sir. I only dabble in fake news on April Fool’s Day.

A minute goes by.

Fine.

Another.

Cool.

More still.

Uhh…

Still more.

Are you there, Woj? It’s me, Doyle.

I look up to see if I can catch a glimpse of him flashing through the AAC bowels to get the scoop on the pick. He’s not there.

Time no longer serves a fundamental purpose in my life. Now it is a harbinger of chaos and uncertainty. Woj must be dead.

12 minutes and nothing.

How is this possible?

15 minutes.

A glimmer of hope.

My eyes adjust as if I’ve just seen the morning sun. Woj, is that you? No! It’s Shams! Shams has saved us all!

THE MAVS WILL SELECT DENNIS SMITH JR. WITH THE NINTH PICK! Sweet sassy molassy!

Being that I was in a room full of media and members of the Mavericks’ staff. The response was subdued. Dennis Smith. Cool. That’s a good pick. Well done. It’s funny how unlike Twitter the real world is. Twitter is just a nonstop party unless you’ve fallen into Healthcare Twitter.

“This is a historic night for us,” Rick Carlisle said shortly after the pick was announced by Commissioner Adam Silver on television. Carlisle isn’t one to embellish when he speaks, so historic stands out. What he said next was especially striking.

“Before anybody asks, I think, at this point and time, I would project him as a starter,” Carlisle continued. “I’d project him as a starter, but he’s going to have to earn it and he understands that.”

A rookie starter? Right out of the gate? I think the last time this happened was with Jae Crowder. I could be wrong, though. The Mavs obviously have a hole to fill and Smith fits the bill, but that’s still a tall order for a rookie. I have a feeling he’ll earn it, though. He’s a good player and will fit well within the system. He even said all the right things when he spoke to the room via phone.

“The Mavs can expect to get a point guard who’s trying to win every game,” Smith said. “Not selfish at all. Not caring about stats, but I do want to make my teammates better and I think that’s very important in winning games and having a great effort, and I can bring that to the team.”

If he’s serious, then he already sounds like he belongs in the Mavs’ locker room. He’ll fit right in with Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes. Not only that, but he brings a bit of attitude to the roster. The team has never had a point guard with his set of skills. I’m not sure the team has ever had a point guard who looks to dunk.

“I’m going to go out and be Dennis Smith and nothing can stop that,” he said.

Shit yeah!

It’s really no coincidence that I cared about who the Mavs drafted the first year that they were forced to care. In a way, it’s like there’s a weird symbiotic relationship that formed between their attitude and mine. That’s not to say that’s been the case with everything they do, but it certainly has with the draft. Perhaps it wasn’t symbiotic. Maybe I was just conditioned to look at the draft with low expectations after years of whiffs. Whatever it was, I hope I’ve seen the last of it. I finally care, and the Mavericks finally have hope. They might even have a future star. I’d call that a win even on the worst day.