On February 27, 2017, Dennis Smith Jr. was two days past his 30th collegiate basketball game, and he didn’t have another one until March 1.
On February 27, 2018, Smith Jr. is several hours past his 53rd NBA basketball game, and he has one day to rest ahead of defending the league’s reigning MVP, Russell Westbrook.
Life in the NBA is hard for a rookie point guard. They must master the offense, command the floor, and defend some of the game’s best and smartest players. It’s no wonder the rookie wall is so tough to avoid.
Smith Jr. is a tough basketball player to gauge. One one hand, he’s an electrifying player who marries explosive athleticism with a high basketball IQ, leaving fans in awe. On the other hand, he’s an electrifying player who has relied on his explosive athleticism but failed to refine his shooting stroke, leaving fans desiring just a bit more.
Maybe Smith Jr. has hit that proverbial wall. He’s demanding more out of his body than he’s required of it in the past. Perhaps he’s struggling to adjust to Rick Carlisle’s offense. After all, he’s playing more of the two guard than ever before.
Whatever is going on, it’s causing Smith Jr.’s jumper to fall flat, and it’s time we talked about it.
Through 52 games this season, Smith Jr. is shooting 39 percent on 14 field goal attempts and 30 percent on five three-point attempts per game. His attempts are on par with what you might expect from a first-year player, but the sheer inefficiency is concerning, especially when compared to his equally inexperienced rookie counterparts.
For the 27 rookies (who qualify for the minutes played per game leaderboard), Smith Jr. shoots the second-most field goal attempts (14.4) but owns the fourth-worst field goal percentage (39 percent). He also attempts the fourth-most threes (4.9) at the ninth-worst clip (31 percent).
If we want to look at Junior’s three-point shooting league wide, it looks even worse. For players who shoot 4.9 threes per game, the Mavericks’ prized rookie is dead last at 31 percent.
To understand Smith Jr.’s shooting woes, it’s important to see where he’s attempting his shots. Per Basketball-Reference, he’s shooting 34 percent of his attempts 0-3 feet from the basket, 19 percent are coming from 3-16 feet, 13 percent are anywhere from 16 feet to the three-point line, and the remaining 34 percent of his attempts are coming from beyond the arc.
To be clear, these are not bad selections. He’s mixing it up by getting to the rim, pulling up from midrange and launching from deep a decent amount of time, though the league is trending farther away from the basket (James Harden and Steph Curry both shoot more than 50 percent of their attempts from three). What’s even more impressive is Smith Jr. is shooting 58 percent when he gets to the rim. For comparison, Russell Westbrook only shot 48 percent at the rim his rookie year. As he gets stronger and more experienced, he’ll only get better at finishing around the rim.
However, Smith Jr. is struggling mightily in the midrange, particularly anywhere from 3-16 feet where takes nearly 20 percent of his shots and is shooting just 23 percent. This is important because so much of what he’s asked to do starts out of the pick and roll, and teams will always go under, daring the rookie to shoot. He must develop a pull-up jump shot to take his game to the next level.
Types of shots
Examining the types of shots Smith takes is another avenue to understanding his shooting struggles. Let’s start with what he’s good at. Even though he’s shooting 31 percent from three on the season, he’s knocking down 36 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes. Smith Jr. has shown throughout the season that he’s a good enough shooter when he steps into his shot off the catch with no hesitation.
The problem surfaces when he puts the ball on the ground. As dynamic as he is creating off the attack, his shooting plummets to 27.4 percent when he fires off the dribble from behind the arc and is just under 33 percent on two-point pull-up jumpers. As teams go under the ball screen more, Smith Jr. will be forced into pull ups. Whether that’s from midrange or behind the arc, he has the opportunity to dictate the defense if he’s able to hit a consistent jumper off the dribble. Right now, that’s just not happening.
There’s definitely no need to panic, though. Smith Jr. is a rookie. Rookies go through growing pains. Those growing pains might be longer under a coach who extracts every ounce of all that is good from his players.
But after 53 games, it’s okay to be a little concerned. Since the New Year, he’s only shot above 40 percent in 11 of his 22 games. Two months is longer than a slump. The last 21 games of the season could be telling. If Smith Jr. continues to shoot poorly, it might be a sign that he’s an explosive athlete with a streaky jumper. But if he can finish the season shooting above 40 percent from the field and around 35 percent from deep, then maybe there’s a foundation to build on.
The Mavericks’ short-term success could hinge on Smith Jr.’s ability to score from outside the paint, and right now, that’s an issue.