After being selected with the 9th pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, Mavericks guard Dennis Smith Jr. spent his first season in Dallas as the centerpiece of a franchise with little else to be excited about.
Fast-forward one year later, and the Mavericks are back in playoff contention and boast arguably the NBA’s most exciting rookie since LeBron James in Luka Doncic. Doncic, the 19-year-old Slovenian sensation, is the early front-runner for NBA Rookie of the Year. His step-back three pointers and no-look passes are landing him on highlight shows nightly.
They’re also helping him steal the spotlight from Dennis Smith Jr.
Smith isn’t having a wonderful sophomore season in the box score, but he’s made noticeable improvements since the end of his rookie campaign. He’s giving Mavericks fans a reason to believe he’s a long-term fit beside Doncic.
Smith’s athleticism overshadowed his poor play at times during his first season in Dallas. Highlight reel dunks will make some forget about poor defense and untimely turnovers. He averaged 15.2 points, 5.2 assists and 3.8 rebounds as a rookie. Those are solid counting stats for a rookie playing perhaps the NBA’s toughest position, but if you take a deeper dive into how he achieved those statistics, they don’t look as impressive.
His 15.2 points came with a field goal percentage below 40 percent, and he only connected on 31 percent of his 3-point shot attempts.
Smith’s biggest issues as a rookie came on the defensive end of the court. He was constantly lost and often seen looking around trying to figure out where he was supposed to be. He would also gamble for steals at times by jumping into the passing lanes, instead of trying to defend his man. This leads to easy buckets for the opponent.
Through his first 20 games of the 2018-19 season, Smith is a tough player to dissect. Some fans will look at his statistics and think he has taken a step back in his second season. He’s only averaging 13.5 points, 4.2 assists and 2.8 rebounds.
Again, a deeper dive tells a different story.
This season, his 13.5 points have come with a 44 percent field goal percentage, and he’s shooting 36 percent from behind the 3-point arc. His field goal percentage is comparable to the career averages of former MVP’s Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose, whom Smith is often compared to. His 3-point percentage is much higher.
While the shooting improvement is nice, it’s his defensive improvement that’s most impressive. Smith always had the athletic tools to be a plus defender, but that looked to be years away after his poor defensive showing as a rookie. The addition of Doncic to help run the offense has allowed Smith to expend more energy on defense. He also looks to have a better understanding of what Head Coach Rick Carlisle expects out of him on the defensive end.
His defensive improvement was never more evident than the end of the Mavericks game against the first place L.A. Clippers on December 2. The Mavericks held a two point lead with time running out when Clippers forward Tobias Harris posted up Smith. When Harris turned to attempt to tie the game, Smith used his 48-inch vertical to deny the shot attempt. Harris is listed at five inches taller than Smith and was named Western Conference Player of the Month for November.
As a rookie, Smith’s poor efficiency and defense were costing the Mavericks games. As a sophomore, he is helping his team win, and that’s more important than any statistic.
Smith’s play this season suggests he is ahead of the curve when it comes to young point guards.
Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker are two of the best point guards in the NBA. Lillard earned the first First Team All-NBA selection of his career last season. He was 27. Walker is currently having the best season of his career, highlighted by a 60 point performance against the Philadelphia 76ers on November 17. He is 28.
Dennis Smith Jr. turned 21 in November. It’s important for fans to remember this and be patient on the nights he shows his inexperience. His best basketball is ahead of him.