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Dennis Smith Jr. ushers in a new era for the Dallas Mavericks

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In last night’s draft, the Mavericks selected a player with true star potential. That’s not a sentence I’ve ever written.

NBA: Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Before we talk about the player Dallas selected in last night’s draft, allow me to rewind for a second. In July of last year, the team was at a crossroads. Actually, to be perfectly honest, they were in shambles. Free agent signee and Mark Cuban club buddy Chandler Parsons was being ushered out the door, seemingly just after he’d arrived. The latest iteration of “Plan Powder”—this time the dual pursuit of big man Hassan Whiteside and point guard Mike Conley—had imploded, leaving a tattered mess of a roster featuring an aging Dirk Nowitzki, a post-Achilles Wesley Matthews, and...uh...

It felt precarious at the time, but looking back, it’s difficult to properly express just how dire this situation was. The Mavs didn’t have a 2016 draft pick, thanks to the epic failure that was the Rajon Rondo experiment. The only players under 25 even on the roster were 2015 first rounder Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell, who Dallas would pay well over market to retain in free agency, because again, those were the only guys under 25 on the roster.

This was an outcome years in the making, the result of a post-2011 approach that combined basically ignoring the draft and prioritizing cap flexibility over continuity. So, not only did Dallas have an empty void at two-thirds of their starting lineup, they had virtually no young pieces to develop.

Dennis Smith, Jr. is the start of a new era in Dallas

Fast forward to now, and things look much, much different. How did it happen? Well, it wasn’t easy.

First, Dallas took a big gamble on then-24 year old restricted free agent Harrison Barnes. Barnes was at the time perhaps best known for seemingly torpedoing his own free agency in the 2016 NBA Finals by bricking shot after wide open shot as the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers (don’t feel too bad; it worked out pretty damn well for them in the end). After whiffing on most of the upper tier free agents, Dallas went all-in on Barnes and were hammered by most sports media pundits for it, including those on a certain Mavericks blog.

After a dreadful preseason, Barnes came alive once the games started counting, establishing himself as the team’s go-to scorer almost right away. Unfortunately, the rest of the patchwork roster couldn’t stay healthy, and with so little support, the team quickly sunk into a hole.

Sensing the season was starting to slip away, the Mavs then pulled off one of the shrewdest moves of the Cuban era, sending away underperforming veteran center Andrew Bogut (along with Justin Anderson, who had fallen out of the rotation after such a promising rookie season) and in the process stealing athletic but disgruntled big man Nerlens Noel from the 76ers. Suddenly, Dallas had a second young player who was potentially worth building a future around. Noel tantalized, showing off rare athletic gifts for a player his size, making Dallas one of the better defensive units in the league down the stretch. While a late season surge came up short of playoff aspirations, there was reason for optimism again in Big D.

That brings us to today: Dallas, armed with the ninth pick in the 2017 draft, has taken another big step toward establishing a true post-Dirk core by selecting NC State Freshman point guard Dennis Smith, Jr. In truth, Dallas needed quite a bit of luck to land Smith, who in an average draft might have been a top-five pick, but that’s okay; sometimes you have to get a little lucky.

As early as November, people were comparing this prospect class to the 2009 draft, which was also stocked with star-quality point guards. Well, in that draft, the future NBA champion Golden State Warriors saw FOUR point guards (if we’re counting James Harden, who plays point guard now, and Tyreke Evans, who played point guard then) selected prior to their time on the clock, when, hey, look at that, some guy named Wardell Stephen Curry fell right in their lap.

Now, just to be clear, lest I be vivisected by nitpickings: I am not saying Dennis Smith, Jr. is the next Steph Curry. It would be a pretty terrible comparison, frankly, based on playing style, not to mention that suggesting a draft pick yet to play a single minute of NBA action will be an MVP and likely future Hall of Famer is silly, to say the least.

What I am saying, however, is that there are all sorts of ways great teams get built. Sometimes you need to take risks, even if it means enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism, the way Dallas did with Barnes. Sometimes it means finding the right situation and pulling a rabbit out of your hat, the way Dallas did with Noel. And sometimes it means just plain getting lucky, the way I think Dallas just did with Smith.

Just who is Dennis Smith, Jr, anyway?

As one of the top high school players in the country, Dennis Smith, Jr. has been on the prospect radar for years. A torn ACL kept him out of the limelight during his senior year, but in less than 14 months Smith was showing little effect from the injury. The Fayetteville, NC native enrolled in classes at nearby NC State early, and when the college season began, Smith was immediately the focal point of the Wolfpack offense.

It was an up and down season for Smith at NC State, featuring both highs (a comeback stunner over Duke in late January) and lows (losing 10 of their last 11 games), but to be fair it would be hard to describe the campaign as anything other than a disappointment. The team looked good early on in the non-conference portion of their schedule, but it became clear that NC State didn’t have the talent of the rest of the ACC, and in the end the pressure of holding up an inferior squad clearly got to Smith a bit. Coach Mark Gottfried was fired before the season even concluded.

While the struggles of Markelle Fultz’s team at Washington seemed to leave Fultz largely unscathed, questions about Smith’s leadership and game management skills dinged his draft stock a bit, as did worries over how his size would translate to the NBA defensively. While it is true that Smith lacks elite body measurements for the position, especially in this day and age when big point guards reign supreme, the criticisms about Smith’s character seem a tad overblown. By most accounts, Smith is a fine kid who was simply put in a bad situation that only got worse as the season went on.

Let there be no mistake: Smith is a major talent. When I said before that he’d perhaps be a top-five pick in a normal draft, I meant it. Smith has phenomenal athletic gifts, combining a quick first step, deceptive strength that helped him overpower college point guards with ease, and explosive leaping ability, the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in a player his size. He had some of the most thunderous, rim-shaking dunks I’ve seen in years at the college level, making it no small wonder that Rick Carlisle made the comparison to Russell Westbrook when describing his ability to attack the basket.

Smith is hardly just a highlight reel, though. With so many outstanding point guards at the top of the draft, Smith’s ball-handling and passing skills have probably been grossly underrated. While he may not be the purest passer in the class, he is capable of making all the important basketball plays, especially out of the pick and roll, which NC State ran quite a bit and Rick Carlisle will as well.

Despite the sports car engine he has under the hood, Smith displayed nice patience and the ability to wait for his spots in pick-and-roll play. He uses deception and an array of dribble moves to keep defenders off balance and can stop and start quickly when needed. While his smallish stature may hurt him on defense, it’s actually an advantage when in close quarters, as he is able to get low and keep the ball down, away from prying hands. Finishing may be a little tougher at the next level, where opponents are longer and more athletic, but Smith should be more than capable of getting to the rim, especially now that he’ll have NBA quality shooters to open the floor up.

Speaking of shooting, Smith is probably better in this regard than you’d think by looking at his raw numbers. While he made just 36 percent from behind the college line, he took a high volume of them (this matters in terms of translating college numbers to the pros), and he actually converted 41 percent from behind the NBA three point line, per Synergy.

Smith ended up taking some questionable shots at NC State, with a lot of contested jumpers coming late in the shot clock, and that can’t all be blamed on his teammates and coaching. Smith’s shot selection will need improvement, and that’s something you can probably say for most rookie point guards. Still, he had a knack for making some tough jumpers, especially when he was able to get going and find an rhythm, and that would set up the drives and make him nearly unguardable.

We didn’t see it a whole lot, given the way NC State’s offense was set up, but there’s promise in Smith’s catch-and-shoot data that suggests he’ll be able to play off ball a little, as well. That’s important, because Rick Carlisle isn’t likely to put the rock in any one player’s hands all the time. Moving the ball and using a variety of screen action helps get everyone involved, and Smith will be asked to play team ball rather than call his own number every time down the floor. Time will tell how Smith responds to all this, but Carlisle is one of the game’s best coaches, and if Smith is meant to be great, that will only benefit him.

Defensively, as I’ve alluded to, Smith’s profile is less rosy, but there’s plenty to work with. Smith has quick feet and a strong base, meaning there’s no obvious reason he can’t be a quality defender, though perhaps not the kind versatile enough to guard multiple positions. Smith’s steal rate was better than any of the other top point guard prospects in this draft, which tells you that he has good instincts in anticipating passing lanes. At the very least, he’ll be able to be a playmaker on that end, if not a shutdown guy.

What this means for Dallas fans

It’s a really strange, new feeling to have the Mavs draft the guy I wanted most. Since I became an adult and started obsessively following college basketball and the draft, it hasn’t happened, and more often than not this time of year I’m trying to talk myself into getting hyped over a player I’m really not all that crazy about. Or there’s just no player.

In 2015, I liked Justin Anderson fine, but I wondered if he could be anything more than a decent role player, and even then, how long would it take for him to be one? (The answer it would seem: too long.)

In 2013, I was really, really not that excited about Shane Larkin being the next J.J. Barea or the fact that after starting the day with the 13th pick the team itself ended up un-ironically using J.J. Barea as a best case scenario for their draft pick.

In 2012...well, I was newer to this, and after swallowing my initial personal anguish, I summoned the courage to try and paint Jared Cunningham as a player with upside. Yeesh.

This, however... this is different. I believe in this player, and while time has a way of making us all look like fools, I see plenty of reasons to think that Dennis Smith, Jr. can be a star in Dallas. He’s in the right system, as Dallas can play spread pick and roll with the best of them, using Dirk’s gravity and Noel’s finishing ability to carve opposing teams up. The Mavs haven’t had a dynamic pick-and-roll threat since Monta Ellis, who isn’t the shooter or the passer (and probably not even the athlete) Smith is, in my view. With Wes Matthews, Seth Curry and Harrison Barnes spotting up, it will be a “pick your poison” offense, much like the one we saw in the early part of 2014.

For any questions one might have about Smith’s maturity, Dallas is as good a landing spot as any to address them, and this is probably a big factor in Cuban and Donnie’s reluctance to deal Wes. There’s logic in striking a balance between youthful talent and veteran experience, and Wes certainly provides the latter. Between Dirk, Matthews, and even Barnes (who appears mature beyond his years), the talented pool of athletic newcomers Dallas is assembling will have some great examples of the kind of hard work and accountability needed to succeed in the best basketball league in the world. When Smith isn’t hustling the way he should be on the practice court, you can rest assured Wesley “I went undrafted, and now I’m worth $70 million” Matthews will chew his rear out, because that’s just who Wesley Matthews is.

The winning culture Dallas prides itself on extends beyond the players to the coaching staff and the trainers, who will be key in making sure Smith and Noel stay healthy (and by the way, the fact that the Mavs took Smith tells me they did their due diligence on Smith’s ACL and were satisfied). I don’t want to wax too poetic on that point, but it’s clearly a better situation to have than, say, the one Smith might have ended up in in Orlando, or (god forbid) New York.

Rick Carlisle has a reputation for being a bit picky with his point guards and having a short leash with rookies in general, but to be fair, can you name a young player even close to as talented as Smith during Carlisle’s tenure in Dallas? Trends have a way of reversing themselves, and there’s no better way to reverse the trend of Rick burying prospects than to give him a legitimate blue chipper.

So...now what?

The Dallas Mavericks likely won’t be a contender next season. In fact, they might not even make the playoffs, although I’m sure Mark Cuban would like to give Dirk Nowitzki a sendoff befitting a first ballot Hall of Famer.

But they’ll be young. And athletic. And probably a lot of fun. Most importantly, you don’t need to squint and borrow liberally from your own imagination to picture a core that will allow for a pretty nice transition past the Dirk Nowitzki era and into the future. That’s what this pick could represent, when put next to Barnes and Noel, and I don’t know if I would have said that if Dallas had ended up with the players taken a few picks after or before Smith. That’s what Dallas did today, I think (emphasis on think): they got it right.

And that’s something.