The most surprising and enduring moment of the Mavericks’ season didn’t happen during a game. It wasn’t at practice or even during training camp. It happened during the draft.
After the Mavericks selected Dennis Smith Jr. with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Carlisle instantly did something out of left field — he effusively praised a player who wasn’t a veteran.
“This is a historic night for us,” Carlisle said after he just named a 19-year-old rookie his starting point guard. “We’re getting a guy that’s an instant impact guy. He has great quickness, he’s explosive, he can score, he can pass.”
For a coach that has garnered the reputation as unforgiving and difficult to work with when it comes to younger players, this felt like a dream. Wait, Carlisle said this? This coming from the same coach who didn’t free Roddy B, called Daren Collison a career backup, took a long time to trust Brandan Wright and Al-Farouq Aminu, had a weird relationship with Chandler Parsons and benched Justin Anderson in the first game of the playoffs after Anderson spurred the Mavs to a strong finish after Parsons went down.
There are also Carlisle youth success stories — he was the only NBA coach to really get anything out of Wright, he trusted Jae Crowder and helped turn Dwight Powell and Yogi Ferrell into solid players — but the noise was deserved. On top of his hard earned reputation, Carlisle himself had never really been part of an NBA rebuild. Before these past two seasons, Carlisle had only experienced one losing season, his final in Indiana in 2006-07, after the Pacers self-destructed following the 2004 brawl in Detroit. Rebuilding was new to not just fans, players and the front office, but to Carlisle. And at the beginning of this season, many were wondering if he could handle it.
That was a fair question. And with Smith’s rookie season in the books, the answer so far is an emphatic yes. Somehow the Dallas Mavericks not only were able to draft an electric talent like Smith but they brought him along pretty much perfectly.
Were there some low moments? Certainly. The Mavericks didn’t want to accept who they were for long stretches of the season, deciding to play the over-30 veterans lots of minutes. Coincidentally, a couple of those over-30 vets were point guards! J.J. Barea and Smith didn’t mesh very well, turning Smith into a bystander more often than not. There was also some clutch-time benching and weird minutes.
But taking a step back and looking at the entire season, Smith started every game he played in, averaging just shy of 30 minutes a game. He led the team in usage percentage and put up 15.2 points, 5.2 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game. A Mavericks rookie did that! Smith’s season wasn’t eye-poppingly impressive, especially when rookies like Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons were having historic seasons, but Smith’s minutes, confidence, athleticism and stat-line as a Mavericks rookie felt like an oasis in a burning desert.
It helped that Smith also bucked the normal rookie trend and got better as the season wore on. Smith’s shooting numbers for the season are gross — as rookie point guard shooting numbers tend to be — but he had a demonstrably better impact after the All-Star break. For the season, when Smith was on the floor, the Mavericks scored 102 points per 100 possessions and gave up 110. That minus-8 net-rating was the worst of the starters and any of the big rotation players. That’s bad.
The good? After the All-Star break, that net-rating crept up to minus-3.9, but more importantly, when Smith was off the floor after the All-Star break, the net-rating was minus-4.2. That’s not a huge gap, but it’s a gap. It meant Smith was getting better and the Mavericks were playing better when Smith was on the floor. Over the last 15 games of the season, the Mavericks’ net-rating with Smith on the floor shot up to plus-3.7 and when he was off it tumbled all the way to minus-12.4. This was supposed to be the time Smith was hitting the rookie wall, but instead he was controlling games, dropping 20-plus points more regularly and commanding his athleticism to pick his spots and shots.
One of his better nights of the season was an 18-point, eight-assist effort in a win against the Portland Trail Blazers on April 3. Smith showed a calmer game compared to his more frenzied flashes earlier in the season and looked more like a dude that had figured some things out.
Like finishing at the rim through a rim defender and with his off-hand!
Before the All-Star break, Smith shot 54 percent in the restricted area, a respectable number for a rookie point guard. Not good, but manageable. After the All-Star break? That number shot up to 64.5 percent.
In an 11-assist game against the 76ers on April 8, Smith showed off his exceptional passing to the corners out of the pick and roll.
Both of those passes came out of pick and rolls where he was being guard by Simmons, who might make an All-Defense team this year. That’s impressive stuff.
Throughout the season he also showed off a bit of the LeBron-esque one-handed pass to the weakside corner, the type of pass that can make or break playmakers who have to anticipate the defense early on when they’re loading up to snuff the initial action. After the All-Star break, Smith’s assist to turnover ratio went from 1.73 to 2.15.
While Smith kept getting better, it was clear his relationship with Carlisle was rock-solid. Smith seemed to echo everything Carlisle would say post-game and while he certainly has more confidence and bravado that Carlisle, he was always quick to point out he needed to put in the work to get better. After a win against the Clippers in December gave Carlisle his 700th coaching win, Smith responded in a way that almost felt like Carlisle was somehow standing over him in the locker room.
“It’s more reason for you to listen what he’s talking about,” Smith said. “You’ve got to buy into the system.”
Smith bought in, and Carlisle allowed him to fail and grow. Carlisle praised him most of the time, but would also call out his defense when necessary. Smith sometimes would refute his poor defense at times this season, but that was about the closest the two got to disagreement. Otherwise it was smooth sailing. Carlisle reached a level with Smith that nobody could have really predicted. The inconsistent minutes early on were frustrating at the time, but as the season progressed it was clear the Mavericks had a plan with Smith to keep him fresh throughout the year as he adjusted to the rigorous NBA schedule. It felt like every move the Mavericks made with Smith, it worked.
That’s exciting for the future. There’s a slight worry though that Smith might be too perfect out of the Carlisle mold, and hopefully that doesn’t mean all future lottery picks have to live up to Smith’s lofty standard. All basketball players are different. Some are cut from the same cloth as Carlisle and Smith and others need a different approach. That doesn’t make them bad dudes or terrible workers, they’re just different. Just look at the young players Carlisle has bonded well with over the last two years — Smith, Powell and Ferrell all seem to fit the same type of player, the ultra-hard working, no-nonsense attitude that Carlisle shares. Maybe the next Mavericks draft pick works in a different way. If so, hopefully that won’t deter the Mavericks or Carlisle to adapt — much in the same way the Mavericks needed to adapt to rebuilding.