The Mavericks finally return from the All-Star break tonight when they take on the Lakers in L.A. It was a long but much-needed layoff for the club for many reasons, not the least of which is the players had some extra time to recover from the sheer number of games, 58, on the schedule ahead of this year’s break.
Through late-January, Dennis Smith Jr. heard a lot of questions about the notorious “rookie wall,” a term used to describe a drop-off first-year players traditionally experience around that time of year. After all, Smith appeared in only 32 games in his lone college season at NC State; the Mavs played their 32nd game on Dec. 20. Surprisingly, Smith didn’t appear to fall victim at all to that dreadful period of time, aside from a five-game mini-slump early in the month. In fact, by and large Smith has actually gotten stronger as the season has worn on, improving his numbers and efficiency virtually across the board while also playing heavier minutes.
Tonight, the rookie returns to L.A. — where he spent last weekend playing in the Rising Stars Challenge and competing in the dunk contest — to kick off the final third of his rookie campaign. What can we expect from him down the stretch, when he might receive even more playing time?
Smith returns to action tonight in the middle of a 22-game streak of scoring in double-figures. It’s the third-longest stretch by any rookie in franchise history. By scoring at least 10 points tonight, he’ll tie Jamal Mashburn for second place at 23 straight games.
Scoring is obviously not the only stat that matters, but if you’re going to do one thing very well during your first season, scoring the basketball is a nice place to start. Smith’s streak stretches all the way back to Dec. 29, a road game in New Orleans, when he recorded 21 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds and became the third-youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. That game was his sixth played since returning from a six-game absence due to injury, and it was only the eighth time in his career he played at least 30 minutes in a game. At the time, it seemed pretty obvious that a guy putting up triple-double numbers should play as much as possible that night, but in retrospect that game represented a possible turning point in his rookie season.
In the 28 games before Dec. 29, Smith held modest averages of 13.4 points and 4.0 assists per game. Those are far from bad numbers for a player who entered the league as a teenager and has to square off against the likes of Chris Paul, John Wall, and Kyrie Irving every night. But in the last 22 contests beginning with the tilt in New Orleans, Smith’s numbers have surged to 16.7 points and 6.0 assists per game and has seen a rise in other per-game and many efficiency stats as well. Below is a breakdown of his numbers before and after that night.
(For an explanation of true shooting percentage (TS%) or effective field goal percentage (eFG%), scroll to the bottom of our Advanced Stats Glossary!)
This last 24-game stretch coming out of the break represents the third and final chunk of the season for Smith. Will we see similar increases this time around? An increase in any stat would push him into fairly rare company — he has a chance to become only the 17th player in NBA history to average at least 15 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds as a rookie. Should he extend his double-digit scoring streak and even push his scoring average closer to 17 points per game or more, he could garner serious consideration for All-Rookie First Team honors and set himself up for a terrific sophomore campaign.
That’s what the homestretch of this season is about, especially for Smith and his fellow young teammates. They want to finish what’s been a difficult season for the team in the standings on a high note heading into a summer that will surely be crammed with workouts and film sessions. Where has he already shown progress, and where might more come?
Coming out of NC State, it was clear Smith possessed impressive ability in the pick-and-roll. His combination of aggression when going toward the rim and his handles left little doubt that he’d be able to create for himself, and although he didn’t play with as much NBA-caliber talent as many other college stars did, he showed good enough floor vision to make you feel confident it would translate over to the NBA level.
That has happened quicker and more convincingly than I thought it would, to be honest. Smith is terrific when finding spot-up shooters and cutters with his passes in the pick-and-roll. Per Synergy Sports, Smith’s 270 passes that have led directly to a shot, foul, or turnover out of the P&R have led to 1.122 points per possession for the Mavericks. That mark ranks 24th among 100 players to have made at least 100 such passes. He’s ahead on that list of names such as James Harden, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, and even Chris Paul.
Smith’s seemingly telepathic connection with Wesley Matthews fuels his passing efficiency. This season, Matthews is shooting 43.8 percent from beyond the arc following a pass from Smith, per NBA Stats. In particular, Smith’s ability to find Matthews in the corner and on the wing, even through traffic, has generated several open 3-pointers.
Even the greatest offenses can’t rely on basic high pick-and-roll sets to beat good defenses unless you have superior talent. Smith’s combination of game-breaking athleticism and cat-like quickness — and his increasingly effective use of changing speeds — draws defensive attention like a magnet. Opponents are now collapsing before the screen is even set. Smith has been masterful at finding open players despite all this extra pressure, whether they’re dotting the perimeter or cutting toward the basket.
The one place Smith stands to improve the most is when finding roll men. Per Synergy, his passes to roll men out of P&R actions have produced 1.018 points per possession, which ranks in the 40th percentile league-wide among all players. Much of that simply has to do with the fact that Smith sends a lot of passes to Dirk Nowitzki and Harrison Barnes, who both often spot up in the mid-range far more often than the rim-running big men most guards hook up with in the P&R. (Breaking news: Dunks are easier than 18-foot jumpers.) But with Nerlens Noel’s return looming potentially as early as tonight, plus a recent uptick in role and minutes for Dwight Powell, Smith figures to have more rim-rolling targets the rest of the way. Lately he’s beginning to find more success hunting for lob passes to Powell and Maxi Kleber, too, which is promising.
If Smith is going to continue to draw such a huge amount of attention (in that Rockets play, for example, the entire defense is watching him at the 3-point line and almost ignoring Powell) it means players like Powell, Kleber, Noel, and Salah Mejri can continue to slip by unnoticed and put themselves in position for dunks. Those guys can all get up, too, which means a game could turn into a highlight reel of dunks at any moment.
The 3-point shot is like social media: Everyone is doing it, so you’re a weirdo if you choose not to. If you’re a point guard, you simply have to be able to knock shots down from long-range, otherwise defenders can constantly sink under screens or sag off you when you’re away from the ball. That’s what makes Smith’s progress so good to see. Of course you don’t want 33.1 percent to be the best mark of his career when some of the best point guard shooters are up near or above 38-39 percent, but he’s not toast by any means if he can’t get above 35 or 36 percent. John Wall, for example, is shooting a career-high 35.8 percent from deep this season, and he’s 27 years old. Russell Westbrook has never shot above 34.3 percent. You can be a great player in this league without a great 3-point shot, but if you can develop a great 3-point shot, you’re gonna be even better.
It usually takes even the best players a while to develop that shot, anyway — way longer than the length of a rookie season. Some of the very best point guards in the NBA were 20 years old during their rookie campaigns; the 3-point shooting numbers of Mike Conley (33.0 percent), John Wall (29.6), Chris Paul (28.2), and Russell Westbrook (27.1) don’t look terrific in retrospect, but today Conley and Paul are two of the best shooters at that position in the league, while Wall is an All-Star mainstay and Westbrook is polishing off his MVP trophy.
From a statistical standpoint, Smith is actually a pretty strong spot-up shooter. He’s connected on 38.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers this season, per NBA Stats, a better mark than Damian Lillard’s (33.1) this season and nearly as good as All-Star Kyle Lowry’s (40.2). That number indicates that when Smith has the chance to get his feet set, he can knock down 3s at a really high level. Shooting off the dribble, however, is another thing entirely. Smith has shot 27.7 percent on the much more difficult pull-up 3s this season. Concepts like shot selection and understanding the balance between scoring and passing as a point guard have certainly contributed to that mark, and those are qualities that can take a long time for even superstars to nail down. But Smith’s high catch-and-shoot accuracy gives you reason to believe that with another couple years of work, he can develop a much more consistent, reliable outside shot off the bounce.
It’s important to understand that developing a point guard takes a long time, usually years. For the first few months, Smith was learning things ranging from how to pack a bag for a road trip to where Dirk Nowtizki likes to catch the ball at the right elbow after a screen when the defense sags and the corner is empty. You have to start small and grow bigger from there by feeding him concepts at a steady rate. Smith has shown he’s a fast learner, and that’s hopefully going to help him out in this formative years. And depending on who you talk to, smoothing out a jump shot isn’t super high on the priority list. That’s something that will come in time — perhaps this summer, perhaps next summer, or heck, maybe never. You never know with any of this. But for now, Smith is learning the NBA game, learning his teammates’ and his opponents’ tendencies, and learning how to run an offense. The jumper has already shown itself a bit, but it might not make its grand appearance this season.
Finishing at the rim
Leaving this point for last is kind of burying the lead, though, as we all know Smith’s game is predicated first and foremost on his ability to break defenses down off the dribble, get into the paint, and look to finish at the rim. He’s got unheard-of vertical explosiveness and some pretty extreme self-confidence, a combination that would have produced some internet-breaking highlights had he been able to finish the dunks in traffic. But as Smith has become more seasoned, he’s begun to understand that while the big guys in this league might not be as athletic as he is, they’re still world-class — and with an extra foot on their wingspan to work with, a 7-footer is a staunch opponent for a point guard to routinely challenge above the rim.
Sometimes, players can develop in such an obvious linear fashion that it doesn’t make much sense for a dummy with a keyboard like me to try impressing you with my prose. Instead, it’s easier to just show what I’m talking about. Smith’s field goal percentage on shots from within five feet of the rim improved on a monthly basis from October through January, a very impressive feat considering his age.
||FG% < 5 feet
His accuracy has seen a bit of a decrease from January to February, but he still has four games left this month to see if he can boost it back up closer to (or higher than) 56 percent. For reference, Russell Westbrook shot 45.7 percent from within five feet as a rookie, per NBA Stats, and he’s shooting 57.8 percent from that range this season. John Wall, meanwhile, is converting on 58.4 percent of those shots this season, up from 54.3 percent as a rookie. (Why do I keep coming back to this players for comparison? Smith is similar in size and explosiveness to Westbrook, and in my opinion in playing style to Wall, although the Wizards guard has a height advantage.)
One big storyline following Smith’s game this season is his relative inability to draw consistent whistles when driving to the basket. Whether that’s a skill or simply a case of a rookie needing to earn respect, the fact of the matter is Smith draws fouls when driving to the rim less often than just about any other player who drives at an above-average rate. Heading into the All-Star break, 61 players drove the ball at least seven times per game. Smith ranked 12th among them in drives and 16th in field goal attempts on drives, but just 53rd in free throw rate, attempting one free throw for every five shots he takes. The leaders, including Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden, shoot one free throw for every two field goal attempts.
As the season has worn on, however, Smith has begun shooting more free throws. Since that pivotal Dec. 29 date, he’s earning nearly one free throw for every four field goal attempts (up from one for every six before Dec. 29), indicating that he’s becoming more effective at drawing fouls.
No one in the world goes to an NBA game in hopes of watching a free throw shooting contest, but the truth is the best players take a ton of shots from the charity stripe. As Smith continues to establish himself and work on ways to use his body to create contact, he’s going to be able to turn missed shots into free throws, which will not only improve his scoring average and put big men in foul trouble, but it will also improve his efficiency.
Smith has received a nearly unprecedented level of responsibility for a rookie in this organization. He inherited the starting point guard role at just 19 years old and has played major minutes on a team with older, more experienced players at his position and others, too. Rick Carlisle has brought Smith along quickly but carefully, and Junior has responded to his coaching very well; Carlisle said he’s watched more film with Smith than any other rookie he’s ever coached. That’s steep praise from such a meticulous coach.
Now that his rookie season has entered the homestretch, it’s going to be important to see him continue his development and show more signs of improvement. He’s already come a long way this season and has certainly met expectations, exceeding them in many areas. But even though it’s now kind of late in the season, his work is not yet finished. On the contrary, it’s really only getting started.