The Minnesota Timberwolves were at the end of their rope. Their superstar had taken them as far as he was physically capable. They had experienced some recent success (40-win season in 2013-14) but averaged just 25 wins in the eight seasons prior. It was clear that there was not much of a future building in Minnesota.
That’s when the Timberwolves made the move to trade Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins (and Anthony Bennett, I guess).
Wiggins was the number one pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and had an electric game to go with the hype. Love was on his way out and Wiggins became the new exciting prospect in town. It wasn’t a perfect landing spot but he had a go-to scorer on the team and one of the greatest power forwards in NBA History to learn from. Wiggins was a raw but intriguing prospect who showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie year earning All-Rookie 1st Team honors and the love of a fan base desperate for young talent.
He was the future of Minnesota basketball.
Like most teams dependent on a young budding star, the Timberwolves struggled. The club only won 16 games in Wiggins’ rookie year and since they owned their own draft pick they were well positioned pair him with some new talent.
That’s when the Timberwolves drafted Karl-Anthony Towns and everything changed for Andrew Wiggins.
Change of scene to Dallas, where another team faced the end of the top with a superstar who had taken them as far as he was physically capable. They had experienced some recent success (50-win season in 2014-15) but had only won 42 and 33 games in the two subsequent seasons. It was clear that there was not much of a future building in Dallas.
That’s when the Mavericks made the move to trade wins for draft position and select Dennis Smith Jr.
Smith Jr. was—at one brief point—thought to be the number one pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and had an electric game to go with the hype. Dirk Nowitzki was (and still is) on his way out and Smith Jr. was the new exciting prospect in town. It wasn’t a perfect landing spot but he had a go-to scorer on the team and one of the greatest power forwards in NBA History to learn from. Smith Jr. was a raw but intriguing prospect who showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie year earning All-Rookie 2nd Team honors and and the love of a fanbase desperate for young talent.
He was the future of Dallas basketball.
Like most teams dependent on a young budding star, the Mavericks struggled. The club only won 24 games in Smith Jr.’s rookie year and since they owned their own draft pick they were well positioned pair him with some new talent.
That’s when the Mavericks drafted Luka Doncic and... this season will be an interesting test for Dennis Smith Jr.
It’s not a perfect comparison but the initial arrival and hype surrounding Andrew Wiggins has also been present with Dennis Smith Jr. Their stories are almost like a mad lib story, just change the nouns and a few adjectives.
Where their stories can be different is what happens now.
Andrew Wiggins has developed into a go-to scorer (at times) but hasn’t seemed to impact an area of the game past scoring the basketball. Last season Wiggins was the only NBA player since the 3-point line was added to have a True Shooting percentage lower than 50.5% while taking 1000 or more shots and also accumulate less than 400 rebounds and 200 assists. His Free Throw Rate increased from year one (.410) to year two (.437) but has dropped off in the two years since and last year it dipped all the way down to .242.
His stunted growth cannot be fully blamed on Towns but there have been reports that Wiggins has been unhappy with his role on the Timberwolves. Jimmy Butler also apparently had a lot to do with Wiggins’ decline last season but there were signs of it well before the trade.
On the other hand, Dennis Smith Jr. already has a few things working in his favor as he navigates becoming the second most exciting young prospect on his team.
While Wiggins did have Kevin Garnett as a mentor during his first two years with the Timberwolves, KG returned to Minnesota at the tail end of the 2014-15 season and only played in 38 games of the 2015-16 campaign. He was a presence but not necessarily an ever-present one.
Dirk Nowitzki played in 77 games last season and has never left the Mavericks. His presence and impact on young players in Dallas cannot be overstated. J.J. Barea and Devin Harris are also reliable tenured veterans who are still with the Mavericks.
The Mavericks also have a stable leadership structure; something the Timberwolves have lacked since the passing of Flip Saunders. Saunders was the coach during Wiggins rookie season and then moved into an executive role with the franchise. After the tragedy Sam Mitchell took over as head coach and Milt Newton assumed Saunders role in the front office each for one season until Tom Thibodeau was hired to replace both parties. The turbulence has continued since the change.
Smith has also received high praise from his coach, front office, and legendary teammate in regards to his work ethic. He’s been working out with Stephen Curry’s development coach Brandon Payne this summer. And he has at least one more easily detectable high-level skill compared to Wiggins: passing. Smith Jr. averaged just over five assists per game last season and had a lower turnover percentage than Lebron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and John Wall. That is a solid foundation on which to build.
Dennis Smith Jr. is not doomed to become the next highly anticipated prospect overshadowed by a more talent player on his own team. But his response to his new role this season will be interesting. By all accounts it seems like they’re having a fun time competing against each other. But what happens when if the Mavs discover they’re much more effective when Doncic is the primary ball handler? What if Smith Jr. is turned into a Jason Terry-esque Sixth Man? How will he react when every single reporter runs straight to Doncic’s locker after every game? He’s done well responding to challenges in the past but this challenge isn’t facing him—it could be standing right next to him.
Where Smith goes from here is largely under his control, he must simply make the best of his situation.