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The Continuing Education of Dennis Smith Jr.

The Mavericks rookie is known for his high-flying dunks, but to pull Dallas out of the basement, he’s going to have to start making his teammates better

Chicago Bulls v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

As one practice wrapped up at USC, another began. The Mavericks were in L.A. to play the Clippers this week. When Dallas shuffled off the Galen Center courts on Tuesday afternoon and the players headed for the buses waiting to shuttle them back to their hotel, some USC Trojans replaced them on the floor. A few of the college kids noticed Dirk Nowitzki and waved. He waved back. Before long, they were all chatting and taking pictures together. Everyone always wants to talk to Dirk.

A little earlier, reporters surrounded a different Dallas player. These days, a lot of people want to talk to Dennis Smith Jr., too. But unlike the giant German—apologies, make that the “tall baller from the G”—that’s something the 19-year-old is still getting used to. So are the Mavericks. As team staffers beamed, there hasn’t been this much excitement about a young player drafted by the organization since … well, since Dirk.

The transition has been almost two decades in the making, which is perhaps why the media and fans have seemed so fixated on the point guard. He is a fresh face at a moment when the face of the franchise is nearly ready to abdicate that role. That’s a lot to ask of anyone—let alone a kid who is still two birthdays removed from being legally allowed to booze. Mark Cuban, along for the SoCal trip, rightly pointed out those sorts of responsibilities “aren’t asked, they’re earned.”

Dallas Mavericks v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Barely two weeks into his first NBA season, the team has been bombarded by requests for Smith to speak to reporters or make public appearances. That might make Smith unique in Dallas, but he’s hardly alone when you consider his fellow draftmates. This rookie class has gotten lots of attention for lots of reasons. Some guys have shown flashes. Some have made eye-popping plays. Others have disappeared. Others probably just wish they could.

Not that Smith compares himself to other rookies. While someone like Draymond Green remains acutely aware of his draft classmates—he can famously recite all 34 players taken ahead of him—Smith, who was selected ninth overall, swore he doesn’t pay attention to his contemporaries. Didn’t do it in high school in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Didn’t do it in college at NC State. “Not gonna start now,” he emphasized.

Smith explained that he doesn’t watch the other rookies because he’s too occupied with trying to win games. That’s quite literally a full-time job, and there’s nothing in the employee handbook that appears to be helping the one-win Mavs at the moment. But try as he might to tune everything out, there are some things that cannot be ignored. Certain things demand immediate attention. Patrick Beverley, for example.

While he sat sweaty and shirtless on a folding chair at the Galen Center, Smith was reminded that Beverley represented one more big test in a season that doubles as a never-ending exam for freshman point guards. The night before, on Monday evening, Smith went against Ricky Rubio, another excellent perimeter defender. It did not go well for Smith or the Mavericks. The rookie went 1-for-7 from the floor and had just one assist in 17 minutes. He was minus-21 in that game. The Mavs lost by 15.

“How I’m playing, I’m not playing at a level for us to win games right now,” Smith volunteered. “I have to pick that up.”

That’s no easy thing—especially when facing a mouthy veteran like Beverley who delights in embarrassing rookies and passing it off as a teachable moment. When Smith was asked what he thought about Beverley shutting down Lonzo Ball and then not-so-subtly rubbing in the insult, Smith’s head picked up.

That I saw,” Smith said. But if people expected him to suffer the same fate—that is, to remain largely silent while Beverley barked—Smith wouldn’t have it.

“I’m not Lonzo,” he said.

He most certainly is not. That is true for lots of reasons. For one, Phil Jackson never force-fed octopus to Ball. For another, and this is the main and more important thing, he’s still trying to figure out how to be Dennis Smith Jr.

Whatever Smith is, whatever he will ultimately be on the court, you can safely assume it will involve him making enemies of rims everywhere and then trying to visit great violence upon them one dunk attempt at a time. He loves to attack. If we can be certain about little else in his game right now, we can be certain about that—as Smith reminded us (and PatBev) early on against the Clippers.

Through his first seven games, 42.2 percent of Smith’s shots have come from less than five feet, according to NBA.com. (By comparison, he’s shooting 3s 32.5 percent of the time.) He is averaging 12.6 drives per game, which puts him 16th in the league behind Mike Conley and Eric Bledsoe.

Mavericks big man Nerlens Noel said he calls Smith “a little pit-bull” because of those relentless rim attacks, and head coach Rick Carlisle said he “couldn’t be happier” with Smith and “likes everything” about him. At 6-foot-3 and nearly 200 pounds, it’s easy to understand why Smith relies on his size and athleticism. Of course, putting his head down and barreling toward the hoop with abandon can sometimes get Smith into trouble—like when he tried to dunk on Draymond Green, only to be taught a public lesson in humility.

Green’s response was what everyone expected. He laughed and said, “that shit ain’t happening,” helpfully pointed out that “this ain’t summer league, bro,” and wished Smith “better luck next time.”

It was a memorable moment in the ongoing development of a young man who can’t help but channel his inner Russell Westbrook. Noel called the Draymond-DSJ clash “funny,” and it was, but he also said he loved it because, for good or ill, “that aggressive mind-set” is what sets Smith apart. Where other rookies might yield or stop completely when faced with a Draymond-sized roadblock, Smith’s instincts instruct him to mash the gas regardless of whether everyone else on the court is buckled in and braced for the collision.

“I think he’s going to try a lot of people in this league—and he’s going to finish more than he doesn’t,” Noel said.

Smith welcomes those sorts of one-on-one challenges. Feeds off them, even. Maybe a little too much. Which, as he sees it, is part of the problem at the moment.

“That’s an immature mind-set,” he said about himself. “That why I’m gonna change it.”

It’s not something you expect to hear—a kid admonishing himself for being immature. That’s why they’re kids. Being immature is the whole point. Except Mark Cuban didn’t seem super surprised when that story was relayed. Cuban called Smith “a 40-year-old in a 19-year-old’s body.” (He also sometimes refers to Smith as “junior” or “one Mississippi”—as in, he periodically walks the ball up the court instead of using his speed, so one Mississippi, two Mississippi ...) Point is, Smith’s capacity for critical self-evaluation tracked for Cuban. But that went only so far. “Maturity is recognizing it,” Cuban said. “Wisdom is doing something about it.”

Smith doesn’t want to entirely strip himself of that attacking impulse, just “balance” it with better decisions. He knows there are moments to dunk on dudes and moments to be judicious. He wants to work a floater into his game, and he knows he has to be a better outside shooter—which is why he took so many extra 3-pointers after practice the other day. It remains a work in progress. Among rookies averaging 20 or more minutes, Smith’s 26.9 usage rate, per NBA.com, puts him behind only Donovan Mitchell. Smith is also second among rookies with the same qualifications with a monster 31.0 assist percentage. Only Simmons has been better.

But getting all that run, and doing so with a specific style, also comes with a price. As a byproduct of all those drives, Smith—who is averaging 12.3 points, 5.1 assists, and 2.9 rebounds—is turning the ball over 3.6 times per game. He’s also averaging 3.6 free throw attempts but hitting only 52 percent from the line. Accordingly, his 45.7 true shooting percentage is well below where the Mavs would like it. As Carlisle put it, it’s all part of Smith “learning a lot in a short period of time.”

Part of that continuing adult education is figuring out how to make his teammates better. There is some evidence of that in the early going. Wes Matthews, for example, has had better numbers this season when playing with Smith than without him. But that’s only one guy. The rest of the team hasn’t benefited as much. According to NBA.com, the Mavs have a minus-19.3 net rating with Smith on the court (and minus-3 when he sits).

Even so, it is also early, he is young, and the numbers aside, Smith has obvious talent. It is why you hear veterans speak so glowingly about him—and not just on his own team. Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley trumpeted the rookie, as did Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “I liked him in [summer league],” Rivers said. “I think he’s going to be a terrific player. He just has ‘it.’ He has the ability to get places on the floor that a lot of people just can’t do, even if they wanted to. Usually those players turn out to be pretty good basketball players.”

Steph Curry went even further. Curry recently said that while everyone focuses on Smith’s explosiveness and ability to play above the rim, what will make him a “long-lasting pro” is using those strengths to “open up looks for teammates.” Then Curry predicted Smith will “probably [be] an All-Star one day.”

Right now, Smith would probably settle for a few positive pit stops along the way. To that end, Smith had a pretty good night against Clippers. Carlisle called it Smith’s “best vertical pressure on the defense all year.” Along with that dunk, the rookie also used a nice jab step to create space against Beverley and hit a 3. He finished with 18 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal. He made two 3-pointers and went 4-for-5 from the line. Didn’t matter. The Clippers crushed Dallas by 21. It was the Mavs’ eighth loss in nine games.

Afterward, Smith tried to work out what happened and why. He played fast, which was by design, but he also had a game-high six turnovers. He said he’d be happy to study the tape to figure out how to do the former without causing the latter. “Every game is going to be [a journey], especially throughout this rookie season,” he said.

Maybe Cuban was right about the maturity part. We will have to wait on the wisdom.