Dennis Smith Jr. vs. the rookie point guards: Who will be top of the class?

2017 NBA Draft Pick 9 Instant Analysis: Dennis Smith Jr.

The Dallas Mavericks select Dennis Smith Jr. with the ninth pick in the 2017 NBA draft and the NBATV crew breaks down his game.

We need to see some games before making any declarations, of course, but this could be one of the best point guard rookie classes to arrive to the NBA in a long, long time. For reference, Dennis Smith Jr. was the fifth point guard selected, and not many people thought it was all that crazy, even after Smith lit up the Las Vegas Summer League.

Whether or not Smith is a better prospect than Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, or Frank Ntilikina will soon be irrelevant, though. Once the games start, the question isn’t who’s the better prospect. It’s who’s the better player.

Those are going to be some awesome matchups. In Vegas, we saw Smith briefly go up against Ball and Fox, but both left their respective games early with injuries. He didn’t see Fultz or Ntilikina, but he won’t need to wait too terribly long to see either. Within the first three months of the season, each of those players will have visited American Airlines Center. You’d better believe those games will mean a little extra to Smith, who, despite saying he doesn’t mind going ninth (and fifth among point guards), might have a little something to prove. It’s only natural to feel extra motivated when playing against guys you are grouped with. For at least this season, all five of those players will be connected.

Especially if at least a few of these guys go on to have outstanding pro careers, we might some day look back at this 2017 draft as one that helped to shape the league. This is obviously a bit premature, given these guys haven’t played a single meaningful game yet, but the fact is expectations are quite high on all of them. Fultz is considered the final piece to Philly’s Process puzzle, Ball is practically already a household name in L.A., Fox is the future in Sacramento, and Ntilikina is expected to join Kristaps Porzingis in helping to turn around a rebuilding situation in New York.

We know what’s expected of Smith in Dallas. This is a proud organization with a history of success. After suffering through their first losing season since 1999-2000, the Mavericks would rather not experience another one anytime soon, and the goal is for Smith to be a significant player in the expeditious youth movement. The rest of the roster is built to highlight the strengths of a player with the exact traits of Smith: In recent seasons, the Mavs’ offense has been at its best when the point guard is able to break down players off the dribble, get into the paint, and create for others. That Smith can score at a high level and jump out of the gym is just a bonus. He’s considered such a good fit in Dallas that many players and analysts around the league have picked him as the favorite for Rookie of the Year. He’d be the first Maverick to take home that honor since a rookie point guard named Jason Kidd did so in 1994-95.

This is a long-winded way of saying we should all get to know these names, because we’re going to be hearing a lot about them for many years to come. We’ll get an up-close view of Smith this season, but here’s a run-down of the other four point guards’ careers to this point, and when you can see them at American Airlines Center this season. The next Rookie of the Year could be among this group.

Dennis Smith Jr. Highlights

Check out some of All-Summer League First Team Dennis Smith Jr.'s best plays from Las Vegas and NC State!

Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers

College (Year): Washington (Fr.)
2016-17 Stats: 23.2 points, 5.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 47.6 FG%, 41.3 3P%
2017 Draft Position: 1st overall
2017-18 Matchups: Oct. 28, April 8

Fultz was an extremely highly regarded talent coming out of Washington after just one season. He’s a very smooth player with good size for his position at 6-foot-4, and he looks like he could develop into a very dangerous scorer from all over the floor.

He’s one more rookie on the already-young Sixers, and he’ll spend his first year playing alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, two other highly regarded young talents who between them have just 31 games of NBA experience. It’s an exciting time in Philly, but with this many new players entering the fold, it’s tough to see how big Fultz’s role will be in his rookie year. Still, a player as talented as he is should be able to find a way.

These two won’t have to wait long to play each other; the Mavs will square off with the Sixers in just their seventh game of the season. That could be a pretty exciting one, as it will be our first glimpse of Fultz, Simmons, and Embiid. This matchup will be even more interesting, too, because Smith and Fultz played together growing up.

Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers

College (Year): UCLA (Fr.)
2016-17 Stats: 14.6 points, 7.6 assists, 6.0 rebounds, 55.1 FG%, 41.2 3P%
2017 Draft Position: 2nd overall
2017-18 Matchups: Jan. 13, Feb. 10, Feb. 23, March 28

Ball has been an absolute phenom since making his debut at UCLA last season, and by now you’re probably very familiar with the rest of his family, including his two younger brothers who will also play their college ball with the Bruins. Ball was sensational in his only college season, running point for a UCLA offense that simply overwhelmed its opponents on most nights. They played a style unlike anything we’ve seen at a big-time college program in some time. Now it’s time to see if that can translate to the NBA.

Smith and Ball never played each other in college, but they both dazzled in their showdown in the semis of the Las Vegas Summer League. Ball recorded 16 points and 10 assists in 22 minutes before leaving with an injury, while Smith tallied 21 points, six assists, and a couple steals. Luckily we’ll get to see them do battle four times this season. I’m sure those two are looking forward to playing each other in a real game for the first time, too.

De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

College (Year): Kentucky (Fr.)
2016-17 Stats: 16.7 points, 4.6 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 47.8 FG%, 24.6 3P%
2017 Draft Position: 5th overall
2017-18 Matchups: Oct. 20, Feb. 3, Feb. 13, March 27

Smith has wowed everyone who’s ever watched him with his athleticism, and Fox has done the same thing, just in a different way. While Smith can soar through the air and throw down thunderous dunks, Fox beats people with his blazing speed. He’s one of the fastest players to enter the league in a long time and is already drawing comparisons to John Wall in that regard. He struggled a bit with his 3-point shot at Kentucky, but made up for it with an ability to get into the paint at will while also playing defense at a high level. If he can add a consistent long-range jumper, watch out.

Smith and Fox faced off one time in Las Vegas, although Fox left the game after eight minutes due to injury. He went scoreless in that time, but did hand out three assists and nab a steal. Smith, meanwhile, scored 25 points and added seven rebounds, two assists, and three steals as the Mavs won 83-76.

We won’t have to wait long to see a rematch, and hopefully Fox will be able to finish the game this time. Dallas and Sacramento face off for the first time on Oct. 20, in what will be the Mavs’ second game of the season. Smith’s first two pro games will be against the Hawks’ Dennis Schroder and the Kings’ Fox, two of the fastest players in the league. Playing point guard in the NBA is hard.

Frank Ntilikina, New York Knicks

Last Team: Strasbourg (French Pro A)
2016-17 Stats: 5.8 points, 1.7 assists, 2.2 rebounds, 44.9 FG%, 37.5 3P%
2017 Draft Position: 8th overall
2017-18 Matchups: Jan. 7, March 13

The final point guard drafted before Smith is also the most unknown to most NBA fans because he didn’t play college ball. Instead, the French prospect played a few seasons for Strasbourg, a professional team that competes at the highest level of hoops in France. Ntilikina has the benefit of already having competed against grown men at the professional level, which could help his transition to the NBA. However, he might need a while to get adjusted to the speed of the American game.

Where Ntilikina attracted the most attention during the scouting season was with his exceptional size (6-foot-6, with a 7-foot wingspan) and defensive smarts. He’s big and long enough to completely engulf most guards at this level, which in time could make him a very disruptive defender. (By comparison, Smith is about 6-foot-2 with a 6-foot-3 wingspan.) He was also an excellent 3-point shooter in France, and that ability could give him the freedom to play either guard spot in the NBA.

The Knicks won’t visit the AAC for the first time until Jan. 7, and it’ll be their only stop in Dallas this season. By then, both Smith and Ntilikina should be relatively comfortable, which means we could get a pretty interesting matchup. And considering the Knicks chose Ntilikina directly ahead of Smith, these two will undoubtedly be linked even closer throughout their careers than they will with the other point guards in this class.

All of these matchups will be juicy. We didn’t even mention Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, the 13th player taken in the draft, who could be even better than some of the players mentioned above. This class truly was loaded. It’s been a while since the Mavericks have had such a highly touted rookie, and that’s going to add a unique dimension to these contests, most of which are against teams that aren’t widely considered to be in competition for a playoff spot. However, if all of these players reach the level they’re projected to, their teams might soon be some of the best and most exciting in the league.

Dennis Smith Jr. could open things up for the Mavs’ 3-point shooters

What is the most important position in basketball? Some would say it’s center. If your big man isn’t athletic enough to defend the pick-and-roll or at least score efficiently around the rim, your team might be doomed. Some would say it’s the power forward. Can your 4-man shoot the 3? Can he exploit size mismatches due either to his strength or his quickness? Your power forward’s skill set defines your offense.

Many others, however — probably the majority — would say it’s the point guard position. Now more than ever, the NBA is catered to the quarterback. Nearly every team runs heavy pick-and-roll offenses that feature the point guard in an attacking, scoring-minded role. Gone are the days when 20 starting point guards would average single-digits in scoring. It’s a new era, and your point guard needs to be able to run an offense and score 15 or 20 a night while still creating quality looks for his teammates and defending guys like Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul for 30-plus minutes. Sheesh.

By trading for Nerlens Noel last season and bringing him back for 2017-18, the Mavs shored up their center spot. Noel brings an athleticism and defensive versatility that this club hasn’t seen at that position in years, if ever at all. Dirk Nowitzki is thankfully still playing basketball, and he and Harrison Barnes can both still get you 20 points from the power forward spot. No questions there from a consistency standpoint.

Point guard, however, was the team’s biggest area of need heading into the summer. The Mavericks believe they filled that hole on draft night by selecting Dennis Smith Jr., who now steps into an offense that is practically ready-made for a player of his exact profile. Dallas will start athletes on the wing and at the 5-spot and can spread the floor with as many as four shooters around Smith who have all shot 38 percent or better from deep within the last couple years. All the offense needs is a player who can regularly initiate the sequence that results in a good shot. Ideally, that’s either a dunk or a 3-pointer.

The Mavs had some talented starting point guards last season, but neither were quite like Smith. Deron Williams entered the season as the starter, and while he was a terrific passer and at times a potent scorer from the 1-spot, he doesn’t have Smith’s explosiveness within the pick-and-roll. Williams was brilliant distributing the ball, especially once Nowitzki was healthy again, but he couldn’t attack switches against big men the way Smith projects to be able to. Yogi Ferrell, meanwhile, is a super-quick point guard and was an excellent 3-point shooter in his rookie season, but he doesn’t have Smith’s size or leaping ability. He gained a much better understanding of where his teammates want to be on the floor from a ball distribution standpoint, and hopefully with a full training camp to grow accustomed to these guys, Ferrell can take his passing game up another level this season. He and Smith will likely share the floor for stretches this season.

The Film Room: Dennis Smith Jr.

In this episode of The Film Room, we look at how one particular play illustrates Dennis Smith Jr.'s ability as a point guard.

The hope is that Smith’s game is an amalgam of those of Ferrell and Williams, that he can attack off the bounce like the cat-quick rookie and move the ball like the heady vet. If he can do those things, it could mean the Mavs’ shooters will find themselves in acres of space throughout the season, which could lead to a massive improvement in the team’s 3-point shooting.

Last season a combination of injuries, roster moves, and resting vets down the stretch led to some distorted team numbers. For example, the Mavs shot 36.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in 2016-17, which ranked 21st in the NBA. However, the players they’re bringing back from that team collectively shot 37.0 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, which would have ranked tied for 14th in the league. That might not seem like a significant difference, but considering the Mavs attempted 1,800 of them, it makes a difference across 82 games.

Those same numbers, too, took a massive leap once Dirk Nowitzki returned from injury on Dec. 23. The Mavs didn’t really start ticking offensively until later in the season, but bringing Nowitzki back achieved two things. First, it meant that between Dirk and Barnes, the Mavs could always play a power forward capable of shooting 3s, which opened up the offense. Second, it meant the point guards could always play pick-and-roll with a fearsome jump shooter, which bends defenses in fortuitous ways.

Below is a table showing the primary jump-shooters’ catch-and-shoot 3-point percentages both before and after Nowitzki returned from injury on Dec. 23, when many of their best shooters became even better.

Player C&S 3P% Before Dec. 23 C&S 3P% After Dec. 23 Difference
Dirk Nowitzki 31.6% 39.6% +8.0
Seth Curry 35.5% 43.4% +7.9
J.J. Barea 42.9% 46.7% +3.8
Devin Harris 33.3% 37.0% +3.7
Wesley Matthews 36.3% 38.9% +2.6
Harrison Barnes 36.6% 36.4% -0.2
Yogi Ferrell N/A 40.5% N/A
Totals 36.0% 39.7% +3.7

Of course, Nowitzki’s return wasn’t the only thing to happen that resulted in basically a full-scale improvement in 3-point shooting. Devin Harris and J.J. Barea both missed large chunks of time in the early part of the season, and most importantly once Ferrell came into the fold, the team saw an immediate offensive improvement in that regard. Why? Because for weeks at a time Ferrell was the only player on the roster who could consistently get into the lane.

Ferrell averaged 6.1 drives per game last season for the Mavericks, the most on the team. Most of those lane attacks came against opposing starting lineups, too. That number represents a big increase from Williams’ average of 4.9 drives per game and is a slight uptick from Barea’s 5.6 per game, but the Puerto Rican rarely played against starters. What we’re primarily focusing on is the starting point guard’s ability to get into the paint, because that’s where Smith is likely going to come in. The Mavs offense has to create penetration against opposing front line units to stay competitive early in games and avoid falling behind early.

Assuming Smith clinches the starting job in training camp, he’s presumably going to be playing plenty of minutes with Nowitzki. The German has an unrivaled influence on opponents’ defensive rotations, as his defender never wants to leave him open. That could mean Smith will commonly come off ball-screens with an immediate driving lane to the basket, forcing defenders to slide over and help. That’s going to leave Mavs shooters open all over the floor. In order to achieve all of this, though, a point guard has to have the quickness to attack, the explosiveness around the rim to strike enough fear into the defense to force help, and the court vision to identify the open man.

It’s been a while since the Mavericks have had a player with all three of those traits. The most recent is Monta Ellis, whose blistering off-the-dribble game fueled a top-five Mavs offense for back-to-back seasons from 2013-2015. Just look at everything going on here.

Ellis cruised right through the first line of help defense and into the paint, where the entire Pacers defense collapsed to prevent a layup attempt. That left Jose Calderon wide open for a 3 on the weak side. Nowitzki helped this action, but most of the credit goes to Ellis for so quickly and decisively getting into the lane. He knew he wouldn’t get a shot off, but by drawing so much attention through his action, he created a great look for someone else.

Ellis had a knack for attacking the paint early in the shot clock, and he and Nowitzki developed very good chemistry in the pick-and-pop game. The shifty guard had the freedom to choose whether to use his screen or attack in the opposite direction, and doing so would usually catch the defense off guard. Below, Ellis attacks before the opposing defense is even set, and again he finds Calderon open for 3.

Nowitzki wasn’t even involved in the following play, but his presence was surely felt.

Ellis called for a screen from a different player, then quickly crossed over and got going toward the lane with one hard step and dribble. Nowitzki’s defender was the only other big man on the floor, but he was pulled 25 feet out from the rim. That left only a couple guards to help against the driving Ellis, who once again found Calderon for 3. The Mavericks finished second in the league in 3-point shooting in 2013-14.

Smith is quick and explosive enough to make these plays. Swap out Calderon for Seth Curry or Wesley Matthews and you can have that similar 3-point production on the weak side. Barnes and Nowitzki are obviously no slouches from deep, either, and if Smith plays with Barea, Harris, or Ferrell, he’ll have another lead guard he can trust to hoist the long-range shots too.

He’ll have no shortage of options, but as was the case with Ellis, everything will start with Smith. Can he break down that first line of defense? Can he get into the lane and draw attention? And, if he does all that, can he also make the right pass to the right player at the right time? It’s a tough ask of a 19-year-old rookie, but that’s the kind of thing Smith will have to do multiple times per game for 82 in order for this offense to click at the level it’s capable of reaching. The good thing is Nowitzki and Noel will help him do that by drawing their own attention as a screener, and the shooters are going to be able to convert those looks when they’re there. Smith will only need to focus on doing his job, and fortunately he’s already shown he can do it.

Dirk Nowitzki joins the Ben & Skin Show to talk tennis, his nicknames, and more

Dirk Nowitzki hopped on the Ben & Skin Show on Tuesday on 105.3 the Fan to talk about his summer, his nickname, trash-talking, and this weekend’s Pro Celebrity Tennis Classic.

Listen to the full audio below, with some transcribed quotes below.

On his offseason diet and training routine: “In the summer it’s the time to do it, to have an occasional glass of red wine or the occasional dessert here and there. Not all the time, because obviously I don’t wanna gain an unbelievable amount of weight because it’s hard to get off, especially now. When you’re a couple pounds overweight in your 20s it’s easy to get off, you work out a week, it’s gone. But as you get close to 40, that could take up to weeks. … I actually train a lot more in the gym this year, since my Achilles acted up last year. We talked to the coaches and the trainers that I was supposed to do a little more jumping, a little more moving in the gym this summer. So instead of just lifting weights and running on treadmills, this year I was working out.”

On his “Big Mummy” nickname: “He’s been calling me that for years. I don’t know why I just decided to throw that out. It was just something fun to do. I was bored there for two seconds. They gave me a two-second break there. I love that one. We love having fun, obviously. That’s part of being in the locker room, and that’s the part I think I’m gonna miss most, too, is the trash-talking every day, making fun of each other, the locker room vibe. The Big Mummy fits right in.”

On playing different positions earlier in his career: “I actually started at the 3 my first couple games because obviously I came over here probably weighing 195 soaking wet. I don’t think Nells thought I could be a 4 any time soon. And then I had to develop my body a little bit, so I actually started at the 3, but that was sometimes tough on the defensive end. You had to guard, like, Scottie Pippen and all these guys. They were a little quicker coming off the dribble and coming off screens, which I never guarded in my entire life, so that was a challenge. Gary Trent getting hurt in my second year was like a blessing in disguise. I was basically the only 4 on the roster, and I was able to play 30 minutes. My defense was weak; I was still obviously not 245, 250 yet. I was still a little lighter. But we just got away with some fronting. You know, Nellie is a genius, so we made some defensive things. I fronted a lot of the 4s and when they lobbed the ball over, there came Shawn Bradley waddling over at 7-6.”

On Dennis Smith Jr.: “I think he’s gonna be tremendous for us. I’ve been around him now just maybe a week, because most of the guys just got back in town. I’ve really been impressed. He’s been shooting it a lot better than I thought. His finishing around the rim is unbelievable, so I think we’re gonna have a lot of fun with this kid. But, with everybody who comes in the league at 19, you’ve got to be patient at times. You’ve got to give him time to learn. But he’s got that swag about him, he wants to learn, he feels like he needs to prove something, and we’re all here to help him. Hopefully he’s gonna have a great year, and hopefully he’s gonna be a long-term piece for this franchise that we can watch for a long, long time. Even after I’m gone, I can sit back and watch some Mavs games, and Dennis is doing his thing. We’d love that.”

On his tennis tournament: “I play soccer for charity, I play baseball for charity, and none of them I’m any good at. So I wanted to do something that I’m actually decent at and I can have fun with. Doing a tennis event was always a dream of mine, so last year we did it for the first time, really not knowing what to expect and who’s gonna show up and who’s gonna support, but we had a blast. We had a blast. The celebs all said if they can they’d come back. … I think we’re gonna have a fun lineup. Unfortunately my guy Ben Stiller can’t make it this year, but he hooked us up with his guy Owen Wilson, which I’m looking forward to. He’s a Dallas guy. I think we have a fun lineup again, and I’m looking forward to it.”

You can hear the Ben & Skin Show weekdays on 105.3 FM from 3-7 p.m.

The ‘other’ side: Appreciating Wesley Matthews’ defense

Offense sells tickets and gets us to tune in on TV. Offense goes viral on Twitter. Offense is beautiful art. For most of Dirk Nowitzki’s career, the Mavericks have played more aesthetically pleasing basketball on that side of the floor than any other team in the NBA.

Basketball fans love to watch offensive highlights. If you’re one of those people, I would tell you there’s no better place to take in all of those Mavs replays than this site.

Too often, though, we forget that there’s another side of the game, and it’s arguably much more important than the part where your favorite team scores its points. Defense matters a whole heck of a lot. I think we all agree on that. But I think we will all also agree that unless you’re a defensive-minded coach, there aren’t many plays made on that end of the floor that will compel you to buy courtside seats or pound the retweet button. Big blocks are great and smooth steals are cool, but most of the very best defensive players in the league won’t make a single highlight-caliber play on any given night. In fact, the only highlights you might see involving those guys will be of the player they’re defending making tough shots on them. You’ve got to remember that even if you play unbelievable defense against LeBron James or Kevin Durant, they’re still probably gonna make at least 10 shots on you.

We need to admit that defense isn’t necessarily as “fun” to watch as offense. Defense is disruptive by nature; the point is to make things look bad. It’s also not as easy to understand as offense. We all know what it means when Dirk pulls off a one-legged fadeaway, but unless you’re sitting in on the gameplan meeting, none of us really knows who’s supposed to do what when defending against the pick-and-roll. Playing defense requires five players to be on the same page, so it’s not as easy to shine the spotlight on one player the way you can on offense. Some guys, however — the lockdown guys — play a ton of one-on-one defense, and that’s where, if you pay enough attention, you’ll see some real highlight plays.

The Mavs’ lockdown guy is Wesley Matthews. After watching him scratch, claw, and battle through every possession for two full seasons, I feel comfortable saying there might not be another player in the NBA who so obviously tries as hard as he does on defense. It’s not always pretty (defense never is), but if you really pay attention, it’s easy to appreciate.

Here’s a series of Matthews defensive plays that put into perspective not only how hard he works, but how effective he is as a perimeter defender.

One of Mark Cuban’s favorite sayings is “the only thing in life you can control is effort.” That resonates when watching Matthews work on the defensive end. He isn’t the fastest or most explosive player at his position, but every night he’s tasked with defending supreme athletes at positions 1-3. He makes up for it with a try-hard attitude and a little physicality.

Because he often guards players who can both score and distribute, Matthews runs through mazes of screens on almost every possession. Not only does he have to worry about contact his own man will create, but he’s also got to keep in mind that 7-foot, 270-pound centers are always sneaking up behind him with the goal of laying him out to clear up some room for their teammate.

That doesn’t prevent him from attacking his man, however. As part of the Mavs’ general defensive plan, Matthews often runs into or over the screen as opposed to under. By doing that, he’s inviting his man to dribble inside the pocket of space between the 3-point line and the Mavs’ center, who stays way below the play near the paint. Dallas willingly creates space for opposing wings to shoot pull-up 20-footers, as those are the most inefficient shots in the game. Those players obviously don’t want to settle for those shots, but by the time they’ve recognized what’s happening, Matthews has already recovered from the screen and is in their face again.

In the play above, Matthews fought through three Robin Lopez screens to stick with Jimmy Butler. The end result is Butler taking an off-balance, contested mid-range J late in the shot clock. This is a masterful defensive possession by Matthews and his big man partner Andrew Bogut, who patiently camped out in the lane instead of lunging out at Butler, risking a blow-by or a foul. Sometimes great defense is more about the shots you don’t allow than the shots you surrender. Butler easily could’ve gotten to the basket or at least to the free throw line, but the Mavericks didn’t allow it.

Matthews was one of only two Mavs last season to average more than one mile traveled per game on the defensive end. That might not seem like much, but when you think of how small a basketball court is, it’s hard to even imagine how covering that much ground would be possible. Then when you watch him play, it’s clear as day. Matthews hustles and keeps hustling until either the play is over or he ends up on the ground.

Matthews ranked 34th in the NBA in total deflections last season, per NBA.com, and tied for 14th in charges drawn. He’s not afraid to sacrifice his body in order to make a play, and it’s that unselfish defensive mindset that makes offensive mistakes easy to forget about.

He also finished seventh in the NBA among players 6-foot-7 or shorter in shots contested per game. Centers typically rank at the top of the list because they challenge a dozen layups a game or more, but smaller players generally only contest shots on the outside. Remember how he invites players to take those pull-up jumpers? Sometimes they’re open looks, but usually they’re not.

The Mavs’ strategy of inviting those pull-up jumpers accomplished two things. First, it led to Dallas allowing the fewest attempts from the restricted area per game in the NBA last season. You don’t want your opponents taking layups, and the Mavericks allowed fewer of them than any other team. Second, it forced opponents to take inefficient jump shots, and Matthews’ motor made those looks even more inefficient. Per Synergy Sports, opponents shot just 34.3 percent on pull-up jump shots against Matthews last season, an unbelievable rate — if you’re the Mavericks, of course. Matthews’ ability (or desire) to fight through screens and still get a hand in his opponent’s face might not directly affect the outcome of the shot, but if anything it’s just a not-so-subtle reminder to his opponent that they haven’t beaten him. It’s a mind game.

He’s judicious with his challenges, though. He doesn’t just fly at his opponent regardless of the player and the situation, and that makes him an even more valuable defender. For example, in a late-season game at Milwaukee, Matthews was often tasked with defending Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak had a sensational game, pouring in 31 points on 18 shots and adding 15 rebounds and nine assists. He was magnificent. But when they were able to, the Mavericks wanted Antetokounmpo to shoot the long-ball. Check the pictures below.

Notice how Matthews is backed off pretty far. Antetokounmpo is a phenomenal talent but his 3-point shooting is his biggest weakness at this point, as he shot just 27 percent from deep last season. Matthews is still contesting the shot, of course, but he was several feet away at the time Giannis rose for the jumper. In essence, he was OK with allowing that shot, or he at least preferred a 3 to a dribble-drive.

That wasn’t the case later in the game, though. With under a minute left coming off a jump ball and the Mavs up three points, it was clear that the Bucks wanted to tie. When Antetokounmpo rose for the shot this time, Matthews was not nearly as OK with allowing it.

You can see the difference. Matthews got a little closer and jumped much higher to challenge the shot. Did it affect Antetokounmpo’s release, or the outcome? Who can say? But, again, the only thing you can control is effort.

He’s at his best when the referees let the players play and things get a little more physical. Matthews can be a very aggressive, tenacious player in those situations, and he’s unafraid to get up in an opponent’s air space.

In the play above, he forced Brandon Ingram toward the sideline and rode his hip all the way to the basket. All the while, he steered the Lakers rookie into the help defense, which resulted in a Salah Mejri block. Salah gets the spotlight, but Matthews made the play.

This is especially true late in games and late in the shot clock. On 93 attempts last season with four seconds or less remaining on the shot clock, opponents shot just 32.3 percent from the field against Matthews, per Synergy. You don’t want to have to create against him when you’re running out of time.

Everything we’ve seen so far is a factor in the next play, probably Matthews’ most famous as a Maverick. It came at the very end of a game last season at Portland, when it was Damian Lillard one-on-one against Matthews with Dallas up one point and 10 seconds left on the clock.

In this single play, Matthews twice muscled Lillard away from the middle and toward the outside. He didn’t bother dealing with the potential screen, instead shuffling his feet to cut Lillard off again on the wing and forcing a between-the-legs crossover. At that point Lillard had to pick up his dribble and had just three seconds left to create something out of nothing. He likely got away with a travel as he collected himself to shoot, and then launched a heavily contested fallaway. It missed.

The play features effort, aggression, tenacity, smarts, and a shot contest. Matthews demonstrated almost every positive one-on-one defensive trait you could think of in one 10-second sequence. And, yet, the nature of defense means if Lillard had made that shot, almost no one would have remembered anything Matthews did.

Defense is thankless and brutal. The best players still score half the time or more, even if they’re covered perfectly. A player could work his butt off for 23 seconds or 47:59 and still be on the wrong end of a miracle. Matthews has seen plenty of tough shots fall on his watch, yet he still scraps all game long to make sure that the next one won’t go his opponent’s way, knowing all the while that it’s not totally under his control anyway. It’s an exercise in insanity, frankly, but it’s amazing to watch.

I challenge you to pay more attention to defense in general this upcoming season. Between Matthews and Nerlens Noel, the Mavs have two of the more unique defenders in the league. Harrison Barnes showed some really good potential there last season, and Seth Curry grew by leaps and bounds as a defender as well. Defense is definitely not as pretty as a Nowitzki trailing 3, and it might not always work out their way, but the Mavericks are going to dial up the intensity on that side of the ball this season. There will be plenty to appreciate on the “other” end of the floor this year. You can guarantee that Matthews will be the one leading the charge.

Get to know the new, young Mavs

With the Mavs’ signing of Nerlens Noel, the club’s roster now sits at 20 players, the maximum amount the team can bring to training camp. The full roster is below.

There are several familiar names on that list — after all, the Mavs are bringing back 11 players from last year’s team — but in addition to Dennis Smith Jr. the Mavericks are bringing several first-year players to camp, and others whose names you might not yet know. You can see more about center Jeff Withey’s game here, in the first edition of our Scout’s Eye video series, and you can read more about Maxi Kleber looking forward to playing with his countryman Dirk Nowitzki here.

The following is a run-down of four of the newest players you’ll become much more familiar with as the preseason unfolds, and each has a chance of not only landing one of the remaining two-way contracts, but also potentially a spot on the 15-man roster.

BRANDON ASHLEY

Brandon Ashley ought to be the most familiar name of the bunch, not only because he played for the Mavericks for two straight summers, but also because he was with Dallas for the 2015 preseason. The 23-year-old Arizona product appeared in seven games during that year’s exhibition season before playing that season for the Texas Legends, where he averaged 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game en route to earning an All-Star nod.

Ashley truly made his name in July, however, by averaging 11.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, and a block in 20 minutes per game in the Las Vegas Summer League. A power forward by trade, Ashley basically played center full-time in the desert. He was able to make a very positive impact on a team that advanced all the way to the semifinals. Before that, he also played a couple games for eventual-champion Dallas in the Orlando Summer League.

The 6-foot-9 4-man is a silky-smooth mid-range shooter and is working to expand his range to the 3-point line. If he can do that, he could be a very dangerous stretch power forward in the 3-point-happy NBA. And at just 23 years old, he’s still got plenty of time to tap into that potential.

MAALIK WAYNS

Maalik Wayns is the most professionally established name of the group, having appeared in 29 NBA games for the 76ers and Clippers from 2012-2014. Since then, he’s played both in the G League and overseas. Across all competitions last season in Israel and Russia, Wayns averaged 11.8 points, 3.2 assists, and 1.1 steals per game in 30 appearances.

He was named Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior in 2009 and went on to have a terrific career at Villanova, averaging 13.8 points per game as a sophomore and 17.6 points per game as a junior.

Wayns is a potent scoring guard who can get to his spots with a combination of quickness and ball-handling ability. He can score both in the paint and on the perimeter, a very valuable skill for a lead guard on an NBA team. It will be interesting to see what he can do playing in the Mavs’ system, where he’ll have plenty of space and freedom to create both for himself and for others.

GIAN CLAVELL

Gian Clavell raised eyebrows with his play at the Las Vegas Summer League, where he played for the Miami Heat. I watched Clavell’s performance against the Memphis Grizzlies in the quarterfinals (in which he finished with 20 points, four assists, two steals, and some huge 3s down the stretch) with an agent and an overseas coach. Neither knew much about the point guard at the beginning of the game, but by the end he had completely won them over. I wouldn’t be surprised if Clavell had that same effect on many others in attendance, possibly including the Mavericks.

It’s easy to appreciate the way he gets after it. He’s a two-way player in every sense of the word, unafraid to mix it up on the defensive end while also able to hit the 3 at a very high level offensively. Clavell shot 40 percent from the arc across his final two seasons at Colorado State, where he was named Mountain West Player of the Year and to the conference’s First Team All-Defense as a senior, and hit 40.6 percent for Miami in Summer League. He’s tough and skilled, two traits a coach like Rick Carlisle holds in very high regard.

The 23-year-old also shares Puerto Rican heritage with his new teammate J.J. Barea. Coincidentally, Barea spent the latter part of the Puerto Rican BSN season coaching Indios de Mayaguez. Meanwhile, Clavell kicked off his pro career by playing three games for Brujos de Guayama, playing 32 minutes across three games. Once adversaries (kind of), and now teammates, they’ll share a locker room during training camp.

PJ DOZIER

PJ Dozier was one of the breakout players of March Madness, performing at a very high level on both ends of the floor for an upstart South Carolina squad that very nearly advanced to the national championship game. The 6-foot-6 guard scored in double-figures in each of his team’s six postseason games, including the conference tournament. During that time he averaged 15.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game on 48.7 percent shooting from the field.

The Gamecocks had an astonishing defense last season, and Dozier was a major component of their success. South Carolina limited opposing offenses to just 0.804 points per possession in 2016-17, which ranked sixth out of 259 D-I teams and No. 1 among teams from major conferences. Dozier himself is such an intriguing defensive prospect because of the tenacious nature with which he plays and his incredible length. Despite standing just 6-foot-6, he’s got a 6-foot-11 wingspan. In combination with his ability to defend multiple positions, that makes him a defensive ace starter kit.

The 20-year-old improved as a 3-point shooter last season, with still hopefully some improvement yet to come. After shooting just 21.3 percent from deep as a freshman, Dozier improved to 29.8 percent during his sophomore campaign. You’d like to see guards shoot at least near the mid-30s from beyond the arc to make it in the NBA, so that’s one area the Mavs coaches will surely focus on with the young guard. If he can add a reliable jumper to his arsenal, he could be a very effective player for a long time.

Returning Mavs have the ingredients to put together a much-improved offense

With the Mavericks’ re-signing of Nerlens Noel, the club has solidified its core and essentially guaranteed which players from last season’s roster will return for 2017-18.

Dallas has experienced less year-to-year continuity than many other teams in the NBA since the 2010-11 championship season, but the Mavs have still managed to qualify for the postseason four times in those six years, bucking conventional wisdom. Typically, you would expect teams with extensive roster turnover would struggle from one year to the next, and that’s generally true, but has largely not applied to Dallas in that time. We’ve seen the Mavericks return as few as four players from one season’s roster to the next, but the engine has for the most part kept humming.

The 2016-17 roster was a microcosm of that trend, as the team experienced multiple waves of turnover in the same season. A whopping 24 players suited up for the club, the most since 27 did so during the 1996-97 season. Last year’s roster was decimated by injuries, and Dallas made a series of midseason moves including cuts and trades to send away players in exchange for new ones. The Mavs finished 33-49, but while they obviously weren’t happy with their record, they looked forward to developing the young nucleus of players they’d assembled of Harrison Barnes, Seth Curry, Noel, and first-round draft pick Dennis Smith Jr. — a group which, true to form, was brought together in the span of one calendar year.

This year represents a shift in that trend. The Mavericks are currently set to return 11 players from last season’s roster, with Noel the latest addition. Rounding out the roster are Smith Jr., Maxi Kleber, Josh McRoberts, two-way contract recipient Johnathan Motley, and several players who will be invited to training camp.

There are clear advantages to establishing year-to-year continuity. But the burning question is this: The Mavs won 33 games last season and are bringing back much of that roster. Does that group have what it takes to win more games? Are there any signs this group can improve from 2017? The answer is yes, at least on one side of the ball.

For years, Rick Carlisle has been considered one of the great coaching minds in the NBA, and his offensive system in Dallas is the envy of many coaches around the league. It’s produced serious results for the Mavericks for almost his entire tenure; his teams have finished top-10 in offensive rating six times in his nine seasons. Last year’s club, however, finished just 23rd, which on paper doesn’t look good. But when you take a look at only the 11 players the Mavericks are bringing back, you’ll see something to be excited about.

For this exercise, I took a look at the 2016-17 Mavs’ overall offensive efficiency in terms of points per possession, as well as the team’s efficiency by play type. Then, I compared the entire team’s numbers to only those of the returning 11 players to see how they’d stack up against not only the Mavs, but also the rest of the NBA. The results are pictured in the chart. (Click to enlarge.)

The Mavericks finished bottom-half in many of those offensive categories last season, but the 11 players they’re bringing back collectively finished much higher. For example, they would have combined to finish 10th in points per possession, up from the team’s position in 17th place. The returning Mavs were better at spot-up shooting, scoring in the pick-and-roll both as the ball-handler and the roll man, scoring in isolation and in the post, and when cutting or coming off screens.

The Mavs’ offense consists mostly of those actions. Dallas isn’t a big transition team and the Mavericks don’t run a lot of hand-off plays. They’re not particularly aggressive going after offensive rebounds, either. Generally, when they’re at their best, they’re running a ton of pick-and-roll to get looks at the rim or on the perimeter, and if that fails then they take advantage of size mismatches created by switches in the post.

Point guard injuries hurt the Mavs last season, as it took pick-and-roll scoring largely off the table. It’s difficult for less-experienced point guards to fill in for veterans and immediately replace their production. When players like Deron Williams and J.J. Barea were sidelined with injuries, Jonathan Gibson, Pierre Jackson, and Quinn Cook were called upon as replacements. To take pressure off of them, the Mavs relied more on Harrison Barnes and others in isolation, which allowed him to grow as a scorer but limited ball movement and the free-flowing nature of Carlisle’s sophisticated system. Luckily, Yogi Ferrell later burst onto the scene to make up for that lost production at point guard, and eventually Barea returned to action later in the season.

That’s where the addition of Smith is so key. He projects as an effective scorer in the pick-and-roll because of his combination of quickness and explosiveness, and hopefully Barea will be much healthier this season after being limited to just 35 games last year. Ferrell is also returning, and he really showed signs of improvement as the season went on. Dallas ought to be able to run much more pick-and-roll next season and much less isolation, and that could have very real benefits.

Below is the Mavs’ play type by volume in the Carlisle era, per Synergy Sports. The club’s offensive peak came during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, when Dallas finished third and fifth in offensive rating, respectively. Notice in the chart below which play type is most prevalent.

Each of those two seasons, more than 20 percent of the Mavs’ offense came from pick-and-roll ball-handlers. Fans who remember those two seasons know Monta Ellis was the primary recipient of those possessions, while Devin Harris, J.J. Barea, and a few other players handled the rest of playmaking duties. The next season, 2015-16, Dallas finished 10th in offense, and pick-and-roll ball-handlers used 17.8 percent of their possessions.

Also pay attention to the inverse relationship between pick-and-roll ball-handling (dark blue) and isolation (black). The more pick-and-roll the Mavs run, the less isolation they run. When the ball is moving and the guards are attacking the lane coming off those screens, Dallas is not only scoring more efficiently, but the Mavericks are playing a better brand of team basketball. It’s no coincidence that roll men also profited when ball-handlers used more of the offense — if guards are looking to score at the rim, they’re also looking for teammates at the rim. Dallas finished third in offense in 2013-14, and more than 30 percent of its offense consisted of pick-and-roll ball-handlers or roll men using the possessions. In this era of the NBA, that’s a hugely important source of offense.

The hope is that Smith and the other Mavs guards (including Curry, who after a while grew more comfortable in that role) can use the pick-and-roll to generate more looks and more points within the offense. NBA defenses are the best in the world, but even they haven’t found an answer to dominant ball-handlers. LeBron James, James Harden, Chris Paul, and John Wall spearheaded some of the league’s best offenses this season by using ball screens to get into the lane and break down the opponent. When that happens, it opens things up for teammates around the arc.

Dennis Smith Jr. Highlights

Check out some of All-Summer League First Team Dennis Smith Jr.'s best plays from Las Vegas and NC State!

In the Mavs’ case, that’s Smith, Barea, and Ferrell getting into the paint to clear some space for Wesley Matthews, Seth Curry, Harrison Barnes, and Dirk Nowitzki, he of the 30,000-point club. That’s made even easier with the roll gravity created as Nerlens Noel rumbles down the lane, and both Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri proved to be more than capable roll men last season.

That space will certainly benefit the Mavs’ shooters. Last season, Jan. 12 became a very important date, as it was the night Seth Curry became a full-time starter and Nowitzki was declared starting center. Dallas pledged its allegiance to small-ball for most of the rest of the season, and it all began that night.

Before that date, the Mavs had struggled to consistently knock down 3-point shots, converting on just 34.8 percent from beyond the arc. But the combination of small-ball creating more space, acquiring Ferrell and Noel, and Barea’s return resulted in a much more wide-open attack, and it paid dividends. From Jan. 12 to the end of the season, the Mavs shot 36.1 percent on 3s. For reference, a 34.8 percent mark for the season would have ranked tied for 21st in the NBA, while 36.1 percent would have ranked 14th. The primary players who benefited: Nowitzki, Matthews, and Curry.

The chart below shows their success rate on catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts both before and after Jan. 12. (Not included were Barea and Ferrell, who combined to shoot better than 40 percent on 4.7 catch-and-shoot treys per game after Jan. 12.)

Player Before 3PA/g Before 3pt% After 3PA/g After 3pt% Difference
Dirk Nowitzki 4.0 34.6% 2.1 40.5% +5.9%
Wesley Matthews 5.6 36.4% 4.1 39.4% +3.0%
Seth Curry 2.8 39.6% 3.3 41.4% +1.8%

Not all of this has to do with small-ball and point guard play, but it’s hard to deny the correlation. Once the Mavs created more space, their best and most frequent 3-point shooters shot the ball significantly better.

OK, so what does this all mean? First and foremost, the returning Mavericks scored at a playoff-caliber clip last season. The goal is for them to pick up where they left off, and perhaps take it up another level with the addition of the dynamic Smith. How can they do this? Smith, Barea, and Ferrell — who combined to appear in just 13 games before that key Jan. 12 date — all are able to get into the paint and break down defenses more often than the Mavs guards were able to last season, which could lead to more looks at the rim both for them and for their pick-and-roll dance partners. Meanwhile, defenses might pack the paint to take that away from them, which would lead to open looks on the perimeter for the Mavs’ best shooters, who proved last season that their accuracy would rise with even the slightest extra smidgen of breathing room. If all of those things fail, then somewhere along the line the Mavs will have picked up an advantageous switch, leaving either Dirk or Barnes one-on-one against a smaller player.

Every facet of a team’s offense is connected. Dribble penetration creates havoc, but not if you don’t have any shooting. Solid screen-setting both on and away from the ball creates havoc, but not if you don’t have a ball-handler to utilize that space. Quality 3-point shooting creates more havoc now than it ever has in the history of the sport, but not if you don’t have other players working to set up those looks for you. The Mavericks still must execute at a high level (and hopefully have better injury luck this year than last), but they seem primed to run pick-and-roll and shoot at a high level. Those are the key ingredients to an effective offense, and the Mavs have been one of the league’s best offenses for most of Nowitzki’s career and especially in the Carlisle era. Their mission this season is to prove that last year was the exception, not the rule.

NBA rookies select Dennis Smith Jr. as their favorite for Rookie of the Year

Dennis Smith Jr. Highlights

Check out some of All-Summer League First Team Dennis Smith Jr.'s best plays from Las Vegas and NC State!

Fans and media have admired Mavs point guard Dennis Smith Jr.’s game since draft night, but today the Mavs rookie received perhaps even more meaningful praise, this time coming from his peers.

In a survey for NBA.com, Smith’s fellow first-year players voted him most likely to win the Rookie of the Year award. The NC State product received 25.7 percent of the vote, beating out Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball (20.0 percent) and 76ers floor general Markelle Fultz (17.1 percent). The rookies also voted him tied with Suns forward Josh Jackson for third-most likely to have the best career, earning 10.5 percent of the vote.

Smith made a heck of an impression on his peers at the Las Vegas Summer League, where he averaged 17.3 points and 4.2 assists in six games. The Mavericks went 5-1 in the desert, advancing all the way to the semifinals of the 24-team tournament. He earned a spot on the All-NBA Summer League First Team.

“I think a lot of people are underestimating how good he is right now and how good he’s going to be in the NBA,” one top-10 pick told NBA.com’s John Schumann.

Despite being drafted fairly high at No. 9 overall, Smith was surprisingly the fifth point guard taken on draft night, behind Fultz, Ball, De’Aaron Fox (Sacramento), and Frank Ntilikina (New York). As loaded as this point guard class seems to be, the rookies were still surprised Smith was selected as relatively low as he was. He finished second in the “Which rookie was the biggest steal?” category at 13.5 percent, finishing just behind Utah’s Donovan Mitchell (13th overall, 18.9 percent).

And to no one’s surprise, the rookies are impressed with Smith’s hops. He was named most athletic in a landslide, earning 43.6 percent of the vote. The next-closest rookie was Oklahoma City wing (and Dallas product) Terrance Ferguson, who earned 12.8 percent. Click here to see the full survey.

The accolades and honors keep coming for Smith ahead of his first NBA season. He’s shown enough in college and Summer League to excite fans and players alike, and it seems like his Mavericks debut will be the most heavily anticipated in many years. It could be a tough road out of the gate for the rookie, as he’ll have to face off against some of the league’s best players in his first month on the job, but I’m sure he’s looking forward to the challenge. That’s part of playing the point guard position these days.

The Mavs open up preseason play at home against the Milwaukee Bucks on Oct. 2. Dallas will open up the 2017-18 regular season at home against the Atlanta Hawks on Oct. 18.

Mavs sign center Jeff Withey

Scout’s Eye: Jeff Withey

Check out a breakdown the newest Maverick Jeff Withey's game.

DALLAS — The Dallas Mavericks announced today that they have signed free agent center Jeff Withey. Per team policy, terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Withey (7-0, 230) is a four-year veteran who was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round (39th overall pick) of the 2013 NBA Draft. His draft rights were acquired by the New Orleans Pelicans on July 10, 2013. He spent his first two seasons in New Orleans before signing with the Utah Jazz as a free agent on Aug. 24, 2015. He has averaged 3.3 points, 2.6 rebounds and 10.3 minutes in 197 career games (15 starts) with New Orleans and Utah.

The San Diego, Calif., native played four years at the University of Kansas where he saw action in 117 career games (76 starts) for the Jayhawks. In his senior campaign, Withey averaged 13.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per contest while earning NABC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, First Team All-Big 12 and Second Team All-American.

What must Dennis Smith Jr. do to land atop Mavs’ all-time rookie leaderboards?

The Mavericks once drafted a player in the lottery who started fewer than half his team’s games during his rookie season, compiling measly per-game averages of 8.2 points and 3.4 rebounds. This player, who didn’t make an All-Rookie team but was drafted ahead of five players who did, shot 40.5 percent from the field and just 20.6 percent from beyond the arc. By all accounts, it was not a good debut season.

That same player would go on to redefine a position, make 13 All-Star teams, win an MVP and Finals MVP, and score 30,000 career points. We’re talking about Dirk Nowitzki.

A player’s first season is not always indicative of the player he will one day become. Some guys have terrific rookie seasons but below-average careers. Others, like Nowitzki, have bad inaugural campaigns but wind up enjoying Hall-of-Fame careers.

All of this is to say that Dennis Smith Jr.’s rookie year is about to begin, but there’s a good chance we won’t see anything more than just a tiny glimpse of what kind of player he’ll become in the NBA from his first 82 games. Expectations are high, and he’s an extremely exciting player, but he needs time to grow. This will only be year one of hopefully many, many more to come.

That said, let’s envision for a moment the best-case scenario: He has a great rookie year. Everything we thought and hoped about him turns out to be true, and he plays well all season long. Where would that place him among the franchise’s best rookies?

Let’s take a look at some of the most successful Mavericks rookie campaigns in a few areas to get a better idea of the players who have come before Smith so we can place his upcoming season in historical context. (Note: To qualify for the following lists, a player had to play at least 1,000 minutes in his rookie season, or the equivalent of 1,000 minutes during lockout-shortened seasons.) All stats come courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

POINTS PER GAME

Player Season Pts/gm
Jay Vincent 1981-82 21.4
Jamal Mashburn 1993-94 19.2
Mark Aguirre 1981-82 18.7
Sean Rooks 1992-93 13.5
Rolando Blackman 1981-82 13.3

The thing that strikes me most of all about the above list is that three of those guys were on the same team. The Mavs were in just their second season as a franchise in 1981-82, so the roster was full of young players; in fact, there were only two players on the team older than 26. Vincent, Aguirre, and Blackman all finished top-six on the team in minutes per game, and they finished as the team’s top scorers.

It’s going to be tough for Smith to score close to or above 20 points per game as a rookie point guard, especially because he’s playing on a team with so many other veterans who receive plenty of play-calls, namely Nowitzki and Harrison Barnes. I would also be surprised to see Smith lead the team in minutes per game, as Vincent did in 1981-82. Still, he can certainly contend for that fourth-place spot if he’s efficient and wise in his shot selection. Yogi Ferrell (11.3 points per game) proved last season that points are there to be had for young Mavs point guards.

Other notable players on that list include Jason Kidd (11.7) in sixth place, Ferrell (11.3) in seventh place, and Nowitzki (8.2) way down in 16th place.

ASSISTS PER GAME

Player Season Ast/gm
Jason Kidd 1994-95 7.7
Yogi Ferrell 2016-17 4.3
Mike Iuzzolino 1991-92 3.7
Jamal Mashburn 1993-94 3.4
Mark Aguirre 1981-82 3.2

Kidd was an amazing passer throughout his career, quite literally from the beginning. His mark of 7.7 dimes per game is 16th-highest ever among NBA rookies. Meanwhile, Ferrell pops up high on yet another Mavs rookie list, this time finishing second among qualified players. He really did produce at a high level in just 36 appearances.

Jim Jackson barely missed the 1,000-minute minimum, playing 938 minutes as a rookie in 1992-93. He averaged 4.7 assists per game that season as a rookie, in addition to 16.3 points. Another notable name on the list is Devin Harris, who averaged just 2.2 assists per game as a rookie in 2004-05, although he averaged fewer than 16 minutes per game that season. The tough thing about per-game lists is you’ve got to both produce and receive a healthy amount of playing time. Smith will likely have to earn every minute.

Smith will almost certainly break into the top-five in this category, especially if he ends up as the starter. Will he surpass Kidd’s mark of 7.7? That might be tough to do. But could he challenge Ferrell for second place? Maybe.

3-POINTERS MADE

Player Season 3PM
Jamal Mashburn 1993-94 85
Jason Kidd 1994-95 70
Jae Crowder 2012-13 63
Yogi Ferrell 2016-17 60
Mike Iuzzolino 1991-92 59

What do you know? Ferrell finishes toward the top of another list. His mark of 60 3s in 36 games is pretty impressive — that 1.7 3s per game clip is by far the highest in Mavs history, and actually ranks top-20 in NBA history, although he only played 36 games. Finishing just outside the top-five in made 3s is Dorian Finney-Smith, whose 56 treys last season ranks sixth-best all-time among Mavs rookies.

It’s important for this one to recognize that the 3-point shot was still basically brand-new in the early- to mid-’80s, when the Mavs built a pretty deep roster primarily through the draft, so those guys rarely ever shot the long-ball. For example, Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper attempted just seven 3s combined during their rookie seasons. Even all-time sharpshooter Dale Ellis attempted just 29 in his first year. Therefore, the rest of the top-10 is filled with more recent names such as Rodrigue Beaubois, Harris, and Nicolas Brussino. (For those curious, Nowitzki made just 14 during his rookie season, which is one fewer than Jonathan Gibson made last year.)

Smith drained 55 treys last year for NC State at a clip of 1.7 per game on 4.8 attempts. I’m not sure he’ll take the same volume of attempts this season, which might limit the number of makes. Anything above 100 would be historically high, anyway, as only 40 rookies ever have reached that milestone. Damian Lillard holds the record with 185, and Steph Curry is second with 166. He’s certainly got a chance at the top spot if he gets the minutes, though.

FREE THROW ATTEMPTS PER GAME

Player Season Ast/gm
Jamal Mashburn 1993-94 5.5
Sean Rooks 1992-93 5.4
Jay Vincent 1981-82 5.0
Mark Aguirre 1981-82 4.8
Jason Kidd 1994-95 3.5

Here’s the list that would be great to see Smith’s name on at season’s end. Beating Kidd’s mark of 3.5 would mean not only that Smith played enough minutes to qualify, but that he was aggressive enough and drew enough defensive attention to be fouled. You can’t sit on the outside all night and shoot five free throws. You’ve got to earn those whistles, especially as a rookie.

Smith will certainly have every opportunity to drive the ball when he’s on the floor, as the Mavs’ entire offense is built around using pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop to manipulate defenses and open up driving and passing lanes all over the floor. Smith has proven he’s athletic enough to find those alleys and explosive enough to rise up for the shot in practically any situation. If he can play within the offense and create looks for himself at the rim, the free throw attempts will come. Those are easy points.

It’s going to be interesting tracking all this stuff during the regular season, comparing Smith not only to his contemporaries, but also to those who have come before him within this organization. He’s got the potential to be a special player, so it would be cool to see that manifest itself in its rookie year. But, as Nowitzki’s rookie year showed us, a player’s first season doesn’t always tell us everything about him. If Smith doesn’t average 15 points a game, it doesn’t mean he’s going to be a bust. Likewise, he could score 20 a night this season and that could be his career-high mark. You just never know.

What we do know, though, is that we’ll get to watch his development process up-close for years to come, and that’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun.