For many reading this, Dennis Smith Jr. needs little introduction. The ninth pick in the 2017 NBA Draft was hailed by many as a steal for the Dallas Mavericks after a productive individual season for an otherwise mediocre N.C. State team. Smith had praise heaped upon him by the usually reserved Rick Carlisle, and coach Carlisle himself was there to watch Smith put on a show during the Las Vegas Summer League.
Dennis Smith Jr. will be something of a novelty for Mavericks’ fans this season. The team has not selected in the top 10 this millennium (though they did acquire the rights to Devin Harris on draft night back in 2005), and certainly no rookie in that time has arrived in Dallas as a trendy pick for Rookie of the Year the way Smith Jr. has.
Now that actual NBA games are close, though, what should we expect from the 19 year old guard?
First, let’s talk about the positives. Smith brings a lot to the table from a talent perspective, and his style of play makes him potentially a kind of marketable star the Mavericks arguably haven’t ever had.
What immediately stands out with Smith is his elite athleticism. The rumors of his vertical leap were corroborated with Summer League highlights and a series of social media posts.
Smith is tremendously explosive, and despite his small stature, one should expect at least a couple of poster-variety dunks over the next eight months. He has a great first step, and with an already well-developed frame, he can absorb contact and even overpower certain defenders. This makes him really tough to keep out of the lane, where he’ll generate a high-percentage look for himself, an open jump shot for a teammate, or get to the free-throw line.
Smith’s perimeter game is still developing, as it is for every player his age, but we saw some very encouraging signs from Smith over the summer as a three-point shooter. After making just under 36 percent from the college three in his lone season in Raleigh, Smith made a shade under 35 percent from behind the pro line during Summer League play, and a lot of those makes were off-the-dribble situations rather than wide-open gimmes. To use a cliche, Smith may not be a great shooter (yet), but he’s a great shot maker, and he has a natural scorers’ instinct.
Smith can pass, too, of course, and in Rick Carlisle’s offense, the ball is going to be shared a lot. It will be really interesting to see what kind of unique sets Carlisle designs for Smith. The Mavs are one of the league’s most prolific and proficient pick-and-roll teams, and while Smith could improve passing out of the pick and roll, I see his drive game being complemented well by shooters and a quality roll man in Nerlens Noel.
In addition to the advantages of having a great Xs-and-Os coach and a great training staff (more on them later), there’s a lot to like for Smith about the roster makeup and team culture in Dallas.
Smith will face pressure, undoubtedly, as a highly touted draft pick, and it’s been a bit staggering to see just how quickly members of the organization have started to talk about Smith as the “face of the franchise” once future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki retires. But at the same time, there will be moderating forces taking some of that pressure off Dennis’ shoulders. For one, as much as the team certainly needs playmakers, they aren’t entirely lacking in capable point guards. Last year’s rookie sensation, undrafted Yogi Ferrell, is still with the club. In a mild upset, both J.J. Barea and Devin Harris are back and will provide veteran insurance with two decades of experience between the two. Also, combo-guard Seth Curry enters a contract year hungry to build on the promise of his first year in Dallas, and he can play a little point in a pinch, too
So, while Dennis Smith Jr. should get the chance to handle the ball plenty, he won’t be asked to do everything, and unlike many other highly drafted point guards on subpar teams, he’ll have example in the locker room of true professionals like Dirk, Wesley Matthews, and Harrison Barnes. When the inevitable “teachable moments” happen, there will be a lot of people around Smith to make sure the teaching sticks.
There are no sure things in sports, or life for that matter. However lofty the talk about Smith’s potential, there are major obstacles every star athlete has to overcome, and for Smith it will be no different. Let’s get deeper into the concerns.
It’s true of every player, but health will be important for Smith. He suffered an ACL tear his senior year in high school, and while I have yet to see any information stating this injury has a high rate of recurrence, those kind of issues can be especially devastating to a player who relies so much on running and jumping like Smith does.
And while Smith’s attacking play style is a major strength, it also represents a potential risk. If you watched any of the Summer League games, you saw several plays where Smith tried to absolutely destroy somebody at the rim, often leading to in-air collisions with players bigger than him. It only takes one bad play to take him off the court, so let’s hope some luck -- along with the brilliance of team trainer Casey Smith -- is on our side here.
I mentioned the need for Smith to work on his passing and outside shooting, but beyond that, there are some questions surrounding Smith’s demeanor and body language on the court that will need to be addressed. Smith had a tendency to get a little rattled when things started to go bad at N.C. State, and it even happened in his final Summer League game (the semifinal game against the Lakers). Not panicking and staying engaged will be something I’m sure the coaching staff works with Smith on, but in the meantime, there will be growing pains for any teenager cutting his teeth at the highest level of professional basketball.
Finally, for all the many positives one can point to in Smith’s offensive profile, his defense will in all likelihood be way behind. Former Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried didn’t put a ton of emphasis on defense, and Smith doesn’t have the sort of measurables that make him an obvious future All-Defensive team member. His relatively pedestrian reach will make disrupting shot attempts difficult (especially in closeouts), and the complexity of NBA schemes will be something Smith has to adapt to on the go. While I think Dennis could be a strong on-ball defender pretty soon, as he was when motivated in college, the expectation level for his performance as a team defender shouldn’t be terribly high. The league is just too good to say otherwise.
The bottom line
There will be plenty of time to discuss Smith’s long-term potential and what it represents to a rebuilding franchise like Dallas, but for the immediate future, I project that Smith is going to be an exciting if inconsistent presence. I am bullish on his ability to facilitate an offense, but I would temper predictions on end-of-year awards, just from looking at the roster and coaching tendencies. Is Smith likely to play much more than the usual Carlisle rookie (and get ready for “Rick should let Dennis play more” debate to hit the web)? Yes. Will he be “the guy” right away? Not necessarily, and that’s probably not a bad thing.
Derrick Rose averaged approximately 16 points and six assists per 36 minutes as a rookie, while logging fairly heavy minutes. In terms of per-minute production, that’s probably a pretty good baseline for Smith, assuming he stays healthy, but definitely expect Smith to be part of a rotation and not a workhorse.
I’ll be looking mostly to what Smith’s free-throw and three-point attempt rates are, because that’s what’s going to make him a true No. 1 option down the line, and also because being able to play either in the paint or behind the line will be an important balance to Harrison Barnes and Dirk, who do most of their damage in the midrange.