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Dennis Smith Jr.’s defense continues to be a work in progress

The Mavericks rookie’s highlight jams are impressive, but it’s his work on the other end of the floor that is crucial to his development.

NBA: Miami Heat at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS — The quickness with which Dennis Smith Jr. continues to adapt his game to the NBA level is startling for a 20-year-old starting point guard.

Some of the things he’s already picked up are crazy. He’s making great reads out of set plays, finding shooters beyond the arc and has even thrown a few LeBron-y cross-court one-handers to corner shooters out of early pick and rolls.

Then a play like this happens and you remember that yes, Smith is in fact still a rookie.

It’s easy to get swept up in Smith’s offensive highlights, with breathtaking dunks and brilliant speed. The Mavericks have never had a guard with Smith’s game on that side of the floor, the type of downhill runner the Mavs offense has desperately missed since they parted ways with Monta Ellis. Smith is explosive in a way no Mavericks point guard has ever really been before him.

Despite these flashes of brilliance, it’s his progress on the other end of the floor that might make or break how great Smith truly becomes. It’s the area where he had the most question marks coming out of college and the area that always takes the longest to get a handle on when making the leap to the NBA.

So far, the results are, uhm, *tugs collar* not always great.

That’s OK! Smith started for the Mavericks on opening night as a teenage point guard — the development curve for young point guards in the NBA is steep. At every level Smith played at before being drafted, he’s been far and away the most talented and athletic player on the floor. But in the NBA, the playing field levels and players like Smith can’t get by with just raw talent.

When Smith is on the floor, the Mavericks defense gives up 111.4 points per 100 possessions. When he hits the bench, the Mavs give up 101.9. Break that down by the month and there really isn’t much improvement, as the Mavs continue to defend better when Smith is on the bench, not on the court.

Monday night’s game against the Miami Heat showcased some examples of where Smith needs to go to be a better defender. Besides sleeping on the backdoor, Smith got his hand caught in the cookie jar a little trying to help Dirk Nowitzki out on this Hassan Whiteside post-up.

The above play might not really be Smith’s fault depending on what the Mavs are telling him to do, but I can’t imagine Smith needs to be floating that much off Johnson, the easiest pass Whiteside could make out of a double-team from that spot on the floor. In college with less ball movement, less freelancing and no defensive three in the key, it can be easy daze from time to time. Especially so when Smith was literally the entire N.C. State offense. Nap for just a second in the NBA and you’re beat.

Again, he isn’t behind schedule, defense is hard! Smith will get there, but it takes correcting these sorts of issues. The good thing is Smith strung together some good defensive plays in that same Miami game. Goran Dragic finished 6-of-14 from the field and Johnson was 2-of-6 as Smith and Wesley Matthews took turns on each of the Heat’s starting guards.

“He’s made a lot of strides,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after the Miami game. “No rookie player 48 games in is going to be a finished product by any means. The progress has been there. I thought he had a lot of very good defensive possessions tonight and he’s learning an awful lot about the NBA game.”

What could end up being trouble for Smith regardless of experience is his size. Smith isn’t an exceptionally big point guard at 6’3, although he’ll definitely fill out and get much stronger down the road. His 6’3 wingspan, however, isn’t great and limits Smith’s potential versatility on defense. In today’s whirling, switching NBA, Smith doesn’t have the length to bother bigger twos and threes if he happens to get switched onto them. That was highlighted against the Heat, with their roster chock-full of rangy and lanky 6’5 to 6’9 wings.

Smith, like most younger players, likes to switch. It’s easier to do and avoids those hard screens. Miami exploited that continuously all night, scrambling the Mavs defense as they adjusted to help get Smith off the bigger player he switched onto.

That isn’t to say Smith can’t become a great defender because of his length. Just look at Chris Paul and Kemba Walker, who sport the same body type and physical profile of Smith and have both been starting guards on top-10 defenses. Smith can get there, it’ll just take more work. If there’s one advantage to Smith’s size, it’s his ability to dart by screens and stick close to ball handlers in the pick and roll. Smith could turn into a really nice wrench against opposing pick and rolls once he learns to consistently avoid screens and crowd guards.

Work won’t ever be a problem for Smith. The dude is tireless in his pursuit of getting better and spends long sessions with Carlisle watching film and breaking down his game. He won’t like all of what he sees when he reviews the tape against the Heat, but it’s just another step in the process.

There’s also the fact that Smith is not only a rookie, but a rookie on a team with some serious roster imbalance. Harrison Barnes and Matthews are really the only true wings on the roster and are also the only reliable perimeter defenders. Smith plays a lot next to shorter guards like Devin Harris, J.J. Barea and Yogi Ferrell, which means any mistakes he makes are amplified as the rest of his team can’t always be there to compensate. Add that on top of the fact the Mavericks don’t really have a rim defender. Dirk is the starting center and needs just about all the help he can get on defense. Maxi Kleber has shown some surprising springiness when defending the rim, but he’s not on the floor for big minutes. Salah Mejri is the Mavericks best rim protector, but he splits the backup big minutes with Dwight Powell, who is most definitely not a rim defender.

So considering Smith spends a lot of his time on the floor with another small point guard in the backcourt and no rim defender up front, it’s easy to see why his struggles are magnified. Dirk plays a ton of minutes with Smith to help open up driving lanes and ease him into running an NBA offense. The flip-side is that the duo tanks the Mavs defense — they sport a 115.1 defensive rating in 627 minutes, by far the worst defensive rating of any of the Mavericks’ two-man groupings that have played at least 300 minutes.

“I think they’re [Smith and Ferrell] doing a great job,” Barnes said of the size disadvantages. “They’re fighting — it’s very tough. On the other end we have to make them pay, Dennis’ ability to get to the rim, his speed his athleticism, same with Yogi — ability to break guys down. If we’re giving something up on one end, we have to definitely take advantage on the other.”

Punishing flat-footed bigs and slower wings is something we’ve seen already. Smith is lighting in the open floor. The defense will hopefully soon follow, even if there are growing pains.