The hype train began the moment the Dallas Mavericks traded up two spots from the fifth pick in the 2018 NBA Draft in order to select Luka Doncic with the third overall pick. Doncic, arguably the most hyped basketball prospect in the world the last two years, became the centerpiece in a deal between the Mavs and the Atlanta Hawks, drawing praise from all corners of the basketball world. The Mavericks had landed the player many believed to be the best and most “NBA ready” player in the draft. Instantly there was buzz about Doncic’s rookie campaign. League-wide, front office surveys dubbed him the runaway favorite for to take home Rookie of the Year honors, and more. This, they said, was the new face of the Dallas Mavericks as Mavs legend, Dirk Nowitzki prepares to ride off into the sunset, be it this year or the next. But there’s something largely missing within the newfound hype revolving around the Dallas Mavericks, and that’s the fact that Dennis Smith Jr. is a potential superstar in his own right.
While Dennis Smith Jr. wasn’t the first piece to the puzzle for the Mavs long-overdue rebuild, as that distinction belongs to Harrison Barnes, he may well be the most important. When he slipped to ninth in last year’s draft, Dallas was able to not only make a significant upgrade to its point guard position but to add a truly dynamic, explosive player, something DSJ made evident in his first Summer League action. Equally noteworthy, however, was that he wasn’t just getting the local media’s attention over the course of his rookie campaign, but eyes from all around the league. From LeBron James, who famously said the New York Knicks “passed on a really good one,” to he who shall not be named (Dwyane Wade) calling the NC State product, in so many words, “must see TV,” DSJ built an impressive resume surpassed only by the emergence of Donovan Mitchell and perhaps Jayson Tatum. Obviously Mitchell and Tatum had more to work with coming in than Smith Jr but regardless it was their rise and hangover rookie campaign of Ben Simmons that somewhat tempered the Dennis hype by year’s end.
In his rookie campaign, Smith would play in 69 games, averaging 15.2 points, 3.8 boards, and 5.2 assists in 29.7 minutes per night. He not only wowed with thunderous jams reminiscent of a smaller Russell Westbrook but proved himself a more than capable playmaker with his dazzling alley-oops to guys like Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber, and well, himself.
If there was one complaint I really had with his first season, it was that he wasn’t terribly efficient as a scorer. He shot 39.5% from the field overall, including 31.3% from beyond the arc. Those numbers, however, should improve in year two as he has not only settled into the game more now but will feature much-improved options around him. I’ve pointed out before how DSJ was the most-blocked guard at the rim last season, despite his ridiculous 48-inch vertical, but I believe a lot of that was predicated on the fact that opposing defenses didn’t fear guys like Powell or Salah Mejri or Kleber burning them if they collapsed onto Smith as he drove to the rim. The presence of DeAndre Jordan will force opposing big men to stay home just a bit longer, thereby reacting too slowly to stop Smith from jamming it home, or will instead yield easy alley-oop dunks for Jordan, one of the best in the business at that particular play.
But what about Luka Doncic and his impact on Dennis Smith Jr.? Well, we saw late last year how Mavs coach Rick Carlisle started playing Dennis off the ball more, something he hadn’t really been asked to do before in college or high school. Whether that was just to help round him out more as a complete player or a preemptive move ahead of “Mission: Acquire Luka Legend” in the draft is anybody’s guess, but that experience will certainly come in handy now that Luka is here.
With Doncic able to play anywhere from the 1 to the 4 in today’s virtually “positionless NBA,” Doncic will have plenty of opportunities to serve as the primary ball handler, taking rebounds 70 feet down the court the other way and leading the break as he did in his preseason debut when he found Maxi Kleber spotted up for the trailing three. Luka can have that same impact on Dennis, and vice versa for that matter. Both guys are playmakers and both guys have shown themselves more than capable of getting their teammates involved. And when you add in veterans off the bench like Devin Harris, JJ Barea, and Jalen Brunson, there will be no shortage of capable orchestrators for the offense.
Dennis Smith Jr’s otherworldly athleticism + a higher scoring efficiency + better weapons around him – as much playmaking burden as last season = a better all around Dennis Smith Jr.
Understandably so, the spotlight was on Luka Doncic last Saturday night for his Mavs preseason debut, but DSJ’s impact shouldn’t go unnoticed. In the exhibition contest, Smith Jr. played 26 minutes and recorded 16 points on 6-10 shooting and 6 assists with 0 turnovers. Yes, I know, it was against the Beijing Ducks. But it’s something.
Over the course of the summer, we saw viral clips of Dennis throwing down thunderous jams in empty gyms or pick up games. As impressive as those feats were, they aren’t what’s excited me so much about his development going into this year; it’s his work with Brandon Payne, Steph Curry’s trainer.
If there’s one guy who knows what game-changing talent looks like, you have to assume it would be Curry’s personal trainer. Referring to their workouts, Payne stated three observations of DSJ: hyper-competitive; All-Star potential sometime in the “relatively-soon future,” and an “un-seeable ceiling.” Altogether, those are the traits of a potential superstar. Yet, Dennis Smith Jr isn’t the focal point of the hype around Dallas. This isn’t a bad thing given Dennis hasn’t expressed frustration of any kind and seems to get along great with Doncic, but it does provide him a rare advantage. While the rest of the league focuses on Luka Doncic and how to try and stop him, Dennis Smith Jr will continue to fly under the radar. You know, just before he skies above the rafters and brings down the mighty hammer of Thor on your dome.
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