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Dennis Smith Jr. must improve off-ball impact in year two

DSJ’s work is cut out for him in his sophomore season.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface Dennis Smith Jr.’s rookie season was a glowing success. He averaged 15 points, five assists and nearly four rebounds per game, making him the youngest Maverick ever to achieve those marks at the ripe age of twenty.

The ninth overall pick in the 2017 draft - but a top-five talent in the eyes of ESPN’s NBA Draft Analyst Mike Schmitz - put on a dazzling display of athleticism and showed an underrated ability to put his teammates in scoring position. But Smith was a rookie who went through growing pains, specifically shooting the ball at an inefficient mark. Some of that can be attributed to Smith being handed the keys to a bad team and running the show from day one. Kids who can’t legally drink alcohol rarely overcome that type of situation. Nevertheless, after one year there’s still more reason for optimism than concern so long as Smith makes the necessary strides.

So what can the high-flying guard do to make the jump in his second season? Schmitz recently wrote a piece outlining where four sophomores can improve, including the Mavericks’ floor general.

Schmitz’s criticisms of Smith are warranted. The draft guru touched on Smith’s inefficiency shooting the ball, his isolation tendencies and poor shot selection.

Smith has had the ball in his hands with a considerable amount of freedom at virtually every level. In college, pick-and-roll and isolation made up a combined 46.5 percent of his offense. As a rookie that total rose to 50.8 percent. Smith attempted 280 pull-ups vs. 142 spot-up jumpers, with so many of those rise-and-fire looks coming after unnecessary dribbles. He was one of only 25 players in the NBA to use more than 150 possessions in the last four seconds of the shot clock. Among those 25 players, he ranked last in efficiency with 0.62 points per possession.

Smith was particularly dreadful on pull-up jumpers. Per’s shots dashboard, the N.C. State product shot 27.4 percent on pull-up threes but connected on a respectable 37 percent catch-and-shoot triples. Many times Smith found himself with the ball late in the shot clock, chucking up a low-percentage attempt as the time dwindled.

Late in the clock (which categorizes as seven seconds or less) Smith shot around 34 percent from the field. That’s a poor number that looks even worse considering a fifth of Smith’s shot attempts came with the clock nearing zero. However, when he shot with 18 to seven seconds remaining in the clock (which considers early to average), he canned 44 percent of his field goals. That number is a little more encouraging, and it’s not a stretch to think he can improve on that mark with Luka Doncic taking a big chunk of the play making load off Smith. Doncic, coupled with DeAndre Jordan’s vertical gravity, should provide the dynamic guard quality looks within the flow of the offense.

Schmitz did highlight Smith’s ability to convert the aforementioned catch-and-shoot jumper but was also quick to note his affinity for isolation buckets and his struggles to “make quick decisions within the flow of the game”.

He still has a lot of catch-and-hold (or catch-and-rhythm-dribble) in his arsenal, struggling to make quick decisions within the flow of the game. On top of that, Smith isn’t the most active cutter, regularly saving as much energy as he can when he’s not handling the ball. He wants isolations, as seen by the fact that he had the 17th-most direct isolation possessions in the NBA last season, ranking 72nd in points per direct iso among 91 players with 100 chances.

Smith’s ability to score off the cut could raise his off-ball impact considerably. Last season he ranked in the 80th percentile scoring 1.39 points per possession off the cut. The problem was he only beelined to the basket on 1.8 percent of his possessions according to As athletic as they come, possessing the ability to elevate in a blink, Smith could stand to deploy this facet of his game more. Considering Luka’s got dimes (as Harrison Barnes would say), good things should happen if Smith breaks to the basket when he doesn’t have the ball.

Rick Carlisle will always have multiple ball handlers on the floor, and Doncic represents the new, shiny toy capable of making every pass in the book. The ball will be in his hands a lot initiating pick-and-rolls in the Mavs’ offense. If Smith wants to make a jump in his second season, he must adapt to playing off of the ball. The NBA simply requires it.