Most years, when a team is given the opportunity (and by opportunity, I mean “played enough godawful basketball for an entire season”) to pick in the back half of the lottery, the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers” rings true. Those teams should just be happy with a young prospect that might pan out.
But not this year. As we know by now, the Mavericks picked a decent season to be bad. There’s no way to know until years from now, but this draft class looks to be 10 or 11 deep in quality players with lottery talent. It’s fairly easy to group those names into three tiers to project where they will go. But there are a few wild cards in the bunch, and Dennis Smith Jr. is one of them.
In one season at NC State, Dennis Smith Jr. averaged 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.2 assists in 34.8 minutes per game, with a PER of 23.4.
A somewhat polarizing point guard who spent one season at NC State, Dennis Smith Jr. has the most pure explosion of the top five point guards in this draft. And that’s even post-injury (Smith tore his ACL in high school). The first time casual fans took notice of Smith was probably January 23rd, when he led the Wolfpack into Cameron Indoor Stadium and did this.
We’ll take a moment for everyone to collect themselves.
That’s just a taste of Smith’s athleticism and power in the open floor. It was not uncommon for him to do similar things through traffic, with defenders meeting him at the rim. The ability to aggressively go downhill, to punish the defense and the rim itself (think Russell Westbrook), simply can’t be taught. Smith’s compact 6’3” 195 pound muscular frame absorbs contact and allows him to finish with power or finesse.
A scorer at all three levels, he is most effective at the rim (66 percent finisher). And though he isn’t particularly efficient inside the arc, he uses his body well to draw fouls (six attempts per game). That combined with a respectable shooting percentage from deep (36 percent from three, 43 percent from the right side) and his quick first step in the half court, Smith’s game is primed for the NBA.
And even with his scorer’s mindset, Smith operated well out of the pick and roll, finding assists on a team with very few contributors. With NBA spacing and scorers, Smith’s abilities as a point guard will grow. But the dangerous potential to always destroy the rim in a flash will be his biggest asset.
As with other prospects who played on bad college teams, there are questions about Dennis Smith Jr.’s ability to lead — giving max effort on defense, involving everyone on offense, maintaining chemistry and keeping up morale. That can be a lot to ask from an eighteen year old playing on a sinking ship.
But unless he gets drafted by Boston (he won’t), Smith will be on a team that is in the midst of a rebuild. If he’s tasked with being a future foundation piece, he will need to find those leadership qualities at the next level.
Smith also has some technique and mechanics to focus on. Often he found ways to create separation and make tough shots, but his jumper is inconsistent. Part of that is due to a delayed jump shot, where he wouldn’t release until his way down, and a tendency to let his guide hand do too much work. Whether he can take the next step from deep will depend on fixing that.
On defense Smith shows flashes of ball stopping ability, averaging two steals per game. He has the tools to play above average if not elite defense. But disengaging off-ball was an issue: lacking a defensive stance, losing his man through screens, or boxing out a man on the weak side.
Lastly, team doctors will evaluate Dennis Smith’s ACL recovery. Smith played the entire college season, so there should be positive signs that he is healthy and durable. But all too often an initial injury can mean re-injury, as Mavs fans know.
Fit with the Mavericks
It is no secret that the Mavericks are looking for a starting level point guard, someone who can create offense for themselves and others. When playing at his best, Dennis Smith Jr. does exactly that. He is dynamic with the ball in his hands and capable of running pick and roll sets.
The areas the Mavericks need to key in on as they evaluate Smith: Can he grow as a shooter? And does his personality blend well with Rick Carlisle (and Harrison Barnes and hopefully Nerlens Noel)? In a perfect world that group will be working together for a long time. And if the spring of 2015 taught us anything, it’s that the relationship between coach and point guard is critical. Questions of Smith’s attitude might be valid. But it’s possible those concerns were a product of a young kid playing on a bad team.
The Mavericks have built a culture in Dallas centered on a team-first, hardworking, humble mindset. Players who thrive with the Mavs typically have those traits. In many ways, it’s no surprise that a guy like Harrison Barnes makes so much sense in this system. The Mavericks have begun to identify young players recently that will carry that mentality on. And perhaps a player like Smith can be positively affected by that culture as he’s surrounded by it.
If the Mavericks feel positive about Smith’s ability, they should take him in a heartbeat. Players with that sort of offensive skillset don’t come around very often at the ninth pick, and they’d finally have a potential foundation piece on an affordable rookie contract.