Dennis Smith Jr. entered the 2017-18 season with extremely high expectations; expectations that, perhaps upon reflection, weren’t particularly fair to him. The ninth overall pick in the ’17 draft lit up the summer league in July, prompting plenty of “steal of the draft” takes from blog boys like me. Most expected him to be a factor in the Rookie of the Year race, if not necessarily the favorite. Dallas was starving for perimeter playmakers, and Smith seemed well-suited to fill a prominent role as one immediately. For a franchise that wasn’t accustomed to selecting at the top of the draft, the experience of enjoying a rookie as talented as Smith was new and exciting.
The season as a whole for DSJ was certainly successful. Smith displayed flashes of brilliance, like his triple-double in a win against the Pelicans, or a career-best 27-point outing against the rival Spurs. However, what I think we learned—or at least I did—is that rookie point guards tend to have a different learning curve, probably because it’s a position that usually comes with a lot of responsibility. Smith clearly belongs in the league, and his raw averages of 15-5-4 are in line with other top-10 rookie point guards. Still, you don’t have to dig too deep to see where Smith struggled, and where he has quite a ways to go in terms of developing into the player we all want.
Let’s start with the good news: Smith’s athleticism wasn’t a mirage. Ok so yeah duh, but it was important that Smith demonstrate he can use his speed and explosiveness to create impact plays. Smith did that, usually by getting to the rim, where despite all those times you might remember where he was stuffed, he actually shot pretty well (61 percent). His first step was as good as advertised, and the hesitation moves, where Smith would change direction like an NFL running back and leave his man in the dust, definitely resembled some early Kyrie Irving.
Smith’s passing was largely positive, as well. There were plenty of bad decisions, the kind all rookies make, but he looked comfortable and capable making all the standard reads and made every kind of pass you’d want out of the position. As expected, Carlisle ran a lot of pick and roll for Dennis, and Smith benefited from the extra spacing granted by playing Dirk at center. That five-out look seems like where the league is going (if you’ve been watching the playoffs, it’s in full-tilt now) and fits really well with Dennis’ drive and kick game.
Now, the bad: the outside shooting. Smith’s 31 percent on threes came with a high enough volume that I’m actually still pretty optimistic he’ll be a good enough three-point shooter in time, but on shots in the middle of the floor (between 4-16 feet out), Smith shot a ghastly 24 percent. Obviously that figure should be better, but to be honest I would recommend Smith cut as many of those out of his shot-diet as possible. Overall, Smith was streaky, and by my eyes he seems to shoot better when in rhythm. He averaged just 0.86 points per possession on spot up attempts, by far the worst of any regular non-big man on the team. To be a truly effective weapon in Rick Carlisle’s flow offense, Smith will need to get better playing off-ball.
Finally, on defense, Smith was…well, not great. I don’t think anyone was expecting great defense out of a rookie, especially given it was clearly not a point of emphasis for Mark Gottfried at North Carolina State. Still, Smith got routinely lit up, not from lack of effort but often poor technique or focus. This area should be one where Dennis improves, simply due to experience, but the pre-draft concerns over length and Smith’s below-average wingspan were valid and will be a hindrance to DSJ’s ability to challenge shooters.
Dennis Smith Jr. just completed the first year of his rookie deal. He’ll make approximately $3.8 million next year, and after the 2019-20 season, Dallas will have the chance to either offer an extension, or let Smith enter restricted free agency following the 2020-21 season. This is the appeal of drafting and developing players: unless something goes wrong, you have a talented player under contract for eight years at least.
In case it wasn’t clear, despite my frank and honest assessment of Smith’s up-and-down rookie season, Dennis Smith Jr. is still a huge part of the future of the franchise, and with good reason. He has the talent, athleticism, and flair to join the ranks of the game’s top point guards, though it may take a few years. The good news on that end is that almost every well-pedigreed point guard improved in the areas Smith needs to improve in (outside shooting and decision making). A realistic comparison might be to Kemba Walker, who entered the NBA a few years older than DSJ and struggled initially with efficiency, slowly improving each year before eventually making the All-Star team.
I think Dennis has the chance to be a little better than Kemba, but considering how many people were suggesting DSJ would become another Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook, I think it’s prudent to establish a slightly lower, non-MVP level baseline of expectation for the 20-year-old Smith, given some of the areas where he’s more limited than those two. A borderline All-Star and 20-point scorer would be an excellent return for the ninth overall pick.
The two facets of the game I think Smith can dramatically improve in as soon as next season are 1) reducing the number of bad, contested midrange shots he takes, which from my vantage point looked like the result of his dribbling into traffic and trying to force something, either by picking up his dribble or launching into the air without a real plan, and 2) learning how to sell contact and draw fouls. That latter point is one that will be really important, because with Smith’s quickness, leaping ability and surprising core strength, he should be living at the line. This past year, of the NBA’s top-50 scorers, Dennis’ foul rate was fifth from the bottom. An offseason of preparation, and a little more respect from the league’s refs, should change that.