DALLAS – To get a clear understanding of the progress Dallas Mavericks rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. made this season, his final 10 games serves as that clear indicator.
During those 10 games, Smith averaged 17 points and 6.9 assists and shot 43.5 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from 3-point territory. Those numbers are superior to the statistics he put up overall this season when he averaged 15.2 points and 5.2 assists, and shot 39.5 percent from the floor and 31.3 percent from the 3-point arc.
In revealing the obvious increase in his productivity, Smith knows exactly who gets the lion’s share of the credit.
Smith said: “That’s a big shout out to coach (Rick Carlisle).”
Carlisle and Smith have a unique relationship, as coaches are often closer to their point guard more than other player since that’s the person who runs the offense and assumes the role of a coach on the floor. After the Mavs chose Smith with the No. 9 overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft, Carlisle visited Smith at his home in Fayetteville, N.C., so he could learn more about the 6-2 playmaker.
As the season progressed, the relationship between Smith and Carlisle blossomed to where they were sometimes on the team plane drawing up plays during a road trip.
“The biggest thing I learned about him is he has a really good heart, he’s a really good guy,” Smith said. “He’s a guy that believes in his players, and he did that with me, so that was very vital to our relationship going forward.
“And the way we did that was just honest dialogue, a lot of respect on both ends. The honesty and respect, that was really the two most important things. Once we had that it was pretty good.”
Honesty, Smith notes, is at the core of his existence. And that’s what he got from Carlisle.
“I just appreciate the honesty,” Smith said. “I don’t want nobody that’s going to lie to me.
“Whether it was something brutal or something simple, it is what it is. You’ve got to take it and learn.”
What Smith learned in his first season with the Mavs is that the point guard position in the NBA is littered with elite players. From Stephen Curry to Russell Westbrook to James Harden to Damian Lillard to Kyrie Irving to Kyle Lowry, a slow day at the office for NBA point guards is about as rare as a solar eclipse.
“First-year point guards go through an awful lot learning about the game, learning about the guys that they’re going to be playing against every night,” Carlisle said. “It’s a murderer’s row of guys that are just great players coming at you at the point guard position.
“Look, he took his lumps, but he never back down. He stayed strong, he was defiant in his combativeness to compete and got better and better and better.”
As the 82-game season dragged on, it wasn’t just Smith’s overall awareness of the game that got Carlisle’s attention. It also was his attention to detail in film sessions.
“He made great progress in all areas,” Carlisle said. “The last 10 games he averaged (17 points), almost (seven) assists and shot (35.4 percent) percent from 3 and was plus 21 overall, which is a great sign.
“Again, I think the last 10-game segment is a great sign for this summer and next year.”
Smith also gave kudos to developmental coach God Shammgod for the progress he made over the course of the season.
“Shammgod helped me out a lot, and I was going into the gym late at night,” Smith said. “I felt like I was challenged at the time, so I took it upon myself to get better, and it showed.”
In year two, three, four, etc., of Smith’s development, many are expecting him to be in uniform alongside some of the game’s best during All-Star weekend. He certainly has those types of innate abilities.
“It’s a blessing to be an All-Star,” Smith said. “With things like that — all kinds of accomplishments — I always view it as just working, being the best that I can for my team and everything else will take care of itself.”
Center/forward Dwight Powell has no doubt that All-Star berths will become a regular part of Smith’s future. He saw that type of potential and growth from Smith in his first season with the Mavs.
“I’m really exciting for next season when he has a year under his belt and has a full professional offseason under his belt,” Powell said. “He’s developed a great deal and has learned a lot and spent a lot of time with the right guys on our team and in our system and in our organization.
“I think he’ll really be able to kind of sit back and analyze all that information and those skills that he’s picked up in this offseason, and he’s going to bring a lot to the table next year and that’s exciting.”
Indeed, there was plenty for Smith to absorb during his rookie campaign. Now the challenge is to avoid the sophomore jinx and build off what he was able to accomplish this season.
Especially what he was able to accomplish in the final 10 games.
Asked what he learned about himself this season, Smith said: “Just the value of work. That just kind of reinforces the fact that hard work pays off. The minor improvements that I’ve seen I take as motivation to work even harder.
“Obviously the team goal (of making the playoffs) that we fell short of. Everyone in that locker room, everyone in the front office carries a certain level of responsibility and that sour taste into the offseason. So we’re going to just use that as motivation, but I definitely learned that there are a lot of things that we can fight through and a lot of things that we can take away from this season.”