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Dennis Smith Jr. “It’s not exactly my team yet”

The Mavericks need someone to step up, but there’s still one thing holding Dennis Smith Jr. back.

Chicago Bulls v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

When the final score of a game is within three points, it looks like a hard fought game on paper. However, the final score doesn’t always tell the full story. A simple box score wouldn’t tell you that, in the Mavericks’ 124-127 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Friday night, the Mavs scored 20 points in the last 1:09 or that the Bulls scored 15 points of their own in that same time frame.

But that the game was that close was a bit of a miraculous finish. As Rick Carlisle said, “[The Bulls] competed more consistently at a higher level than we did tonight, we had some very good stretches but you can’t get hit in the face like we did and expect to cruise home.”

That “hit in the face” was a 10-0 run that began a 47-point fourth quarter for the Bulls (only four other teams this season have scored at least 47 points in a single quarter this season).

The Mavericks currently have a 5-20 record in “clutch games,” or games where the score is within five points with less than five minutes remaining. That record is the worst in the league, but they’ve also played in the third-most clutch games, just behind Philadelphia (27) and Boston (26). Essentially, a win has been within reach in 25 of the Mavericks’ 40 games.

In those games, the Mavericks need someone to step up. Recently, it has been Dennis Smith Jr.

During the Mavericks’ four-game winning streak last month, Smith Jr. saw a spike in his minutes and turned that opportunity into both buckets and wins.

Dennis Smith Jr. Clutch Time

Time Frame Min Per Pts Per FGA Per FTA Per Record
Time Frame Min Per Pts Per FGA Per FTA Per Record
First 11 Games 2.4 0.6 1.2 0 1-10
4-GM Win Streak 3.7 4.3 2.5 1.5 4-0
Last 2 Games 2.1 2.5 2 0 0-2

Simply put, the Dallas Mavericks need Dennis Smith Jr. to play more and be more aggressive in crunch time.

But on nights when the Mavericks give up 47 points in a 12-minute span and their effort is lacking, how should the 20-year-old rookie meet that challenge? How, exactly, can Dennis Smith Jr.’s give Dallas the boost they need when the game is on the line?

“I do my part.”

”It’s in me to lead, I’ve done it my whole life, but I don’t think it’s been passed all the way over yet.” Smith Jr. replied when asked about his role. “I am the starting point guard, but in terms of being a leader for this team right now—I do my part.”

The tension he describes always seems to arise when a young up-and-coming player emerges on a team with an aging star player. Sometimes the star player runs the up-and-comer out of town, sometimes the up-and-comer snatches “it” away from the aging star, and there are countless examples where the up-and-comer never fully realizes his potential.

Dennis Smith Jr. was drafted into a dream scenario for an up-and-comer. On draft night Rick Carlisle projected Smith Jr. as the starting point guard, and Mark Cuban has called him a future face of the franchise. Since then, Dirk Nowitzki has by all accounts empowered Smith Jr. in every way to be a leader on this team.

Despite all of this, the transition period was always going to be awkward. In addition to Dirk’s continued reign, the Mavericks crowned Harrison Barnes their next franchise player in 2016, before doing the same with Smith Jr. in 2017. And Dallas has no shortage of veteran leadership around.

But even with all that experience, Smith Jr. hasn’t felt much push back when he attempts to lead.

“My teammates, they’re very receptive to whatever message I’m giving out. Whether it’s verbally or just physically, they do a pretty good job of following my lead. I just come out and give effort, get guys going early, make sure they stay involved. That’s what I’m supposed to do.”

“It’s not exactly my team yet.”

Still, there’s something holding him back. Dennis Smith Jr. has only really played basketball one way. He’s a point guard: he handles the ball, he drives, he shoots, he scores, he passes, and he does all of those things really well.

But his comments about playing off the ball are telling. He laments not playing more with Wesley Matthews, and when he’s paired with J.J. Barea he says, “I’m off the ball. It’s more difficult for me to find Wes when I’m off the ball.”

Becoming an NBA player is a hard enough transition, but playing in a style he’s never played before, even for short periods of time (Smith Jr. has played just under 19 percent of his minutes alongside Barea), is its own challenge.

“Yeah, it is, that’s what I’m saying, it’s not exactly my team yet.” Smith Jr. replies when asked about the transition to playing off the ball. “Right now it’s my time to play my role.”

Smith Jr. doesn’t consider the Mavericks his team yet because at times he is still playing off the ball. Dennis Smith Jr. has always been a point guard, and in that way he’s been a leader. But can he be one when he’s not the lead ball handler? Does he know how to approach the game when he isn’t the point guard?

At Smith Jr.’s introductory press conference he said, “It was a misconception that I didn’t play hard [at NC State]…that’s something I would like everyone to know. I’m going to come out and give it my all, play as hard as I can.” Immediately after Smith Jr. finished his sentence Carlisle interjected, “This young man should be judged on what happens from here going forward on the court.”

Dennis Smith Jr. wants to prove that he plays hard, and the team needs him to play hard. But as Carlisle said, he should be judged on what happens on the court—even when he’s not the point guard. The opportunity is there for Smith Jr. to make the Mavericks his team, but there are still some obstacles (perhaps including certain mindsets) that he needs to overcome.

Basically, he’s still a rookie.