In a year of firsts for rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., his most recent development is the first step into what might be his most exotic challenge yet: playing basketball without the basketball in his hands.

“It’s just a new world for him,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said.

Smith has run point for his entire hoops life, and rightfully so. He is exceptionally quick, has advanced court vision, and can perform athletic feats that most players at his position today cannot and will not match. But there’s more to the sport than what you can do when the ball is in your hands, especially when playing for a coach whose ideal lineup includes at least one other player who can facilitate the offense.

Smith is wonderful in the driver’s seat, particularly in the pick-and-roll. The Mavericks score 0.962 points per possession whenever Smith either uses a pick-and-roll possession himself or passes to a roll man, cutter, or spot-up shooter, per Synergy Sports. That mark ranks ahead of every other guard from the 2017 NBA Draft, save for Sacramento’s Frank Mason, in what’s been an excellent rookie class and includes the likes of Donovan Mitchell, Lonzo Ball, and De’Aaron Fox. While there’s plenty of room for improvement — it’s a mid-level efficiency mark league-wide — it’s a very nice mark for a rookie to achieve and leads you to believe that in time he could potentially become one of the top pick-and-roll guards in a league which lives by that play.

Every good NBA offense, however, features another player or two, or three, who can handle the ball and make plays for themselves and for others. You can’t rely too much on one player to do all the heavy lifting or else the defense can load up on that one player and choke off your point of attack. In particular, the Mavericks have been at their best offensively under Carlisle when they’ve played multiple ball-handlers: Jason Terry and Jason Kidd worked together, and Monta Ellis teamed up with both Jose Calderon and Chandler Parsons. Smith is the only current starter who’s going to run a significant number of pick-and-rolls, but his experience with a Mavs reserve has helped open him up to the new world of making plays away from the action.

Smith and J.J. Barea have shared the floor for only 6.4 minutes per game this season, but that’s been enough for the rookie to help identify things he must do to improve in that capacity.

“(J.J.’s) great at the point guard position,” Smith said. “So my thing is (to say) ‘Hey man, you get the ball and you do what you do, and I’m gonna fill in the role.’ I’ve been making adjustments to play off the ball and I think it’s been working.”

To be clear, spending seven minutes per game playing primarily off the ball isn’t costing Smith too many opportunities to make plays. Currently he’s got a 28.9 usage rate, per Basketball-Reference, which ties Allen Iverson and Ron Harper for fourth-highest all-time among qualified rookies. (Usage rate measures the percentage of possessions a player uses while on the floor, via a shot, foul, or turnover.) He’s involved at a nearly unprecedented level for a first-year player, and for someone his age as well; every player ahead of him on that list was also older (and had more NCAA experience) during their rookie NBA season.

Of course, Smith is a confident guy and would probably love to have the ball in his hands at all times, even if he’s used at a historic rate. It might not be as fun to wait for the ball to find you, but involving as many ball-handlers as possible is one way Carlisle sees to develop the kind of system that can lead the Mavericks out of youth movement and back into contention.

“We’re in the midst of an NBA rebuild here,” he said. “From the standpoint of wins and losses, it is painful. Oftentimes, progress is not seen in terms of wins and losses. The good thing about our situation is that for us to win … precision is necessary. Those are habits that, through this painful period, we’ve got to develop and recognize. We’ve got to learn how to protect one another. We’ve got to be extremely unselfish.”

Given his high usage rate both this season and throughout his entire basketball career leading up to this exact moment, you can forgive Smith for not being accustomed to doing something unfamiliar for the first time at the highest level of the sport. The experiment didn’t produce immediate results, to put it lightly. But Smith’s individual shooting splits with Barea also on the floor both before and after a mid-December six-game absence due to injury suggest that he’s certainly made noticeable progress in that role lately. All the numbers below come from

Dennis Smith Jr. with J.J. Barea Minutes Smith FG% Smith eFG% Smith TS%
Before Injury 126 33.3% 36.3% 35.5%
Since Return 99 42.1% 50.0% 54.0%
Difference +8.8 +13.7 +18.5

When you see outrageously improved numbers like that, even considering the relatively small sample size, it’s hard to deny the notion that there’s legitimate progress being made. What could it be? What, if anything, is Smith doing better that he wasn’t doing as well before?

For starters, Smith’s knocked down 39.0 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season, which is a very good rate. Whether it’s Barea or another player initiating the action, Smith has shown he can knock down a shot if he has some space and can get his feet set. Once players begin respecting your shot, you can begin to anticipate and then attack close-outs against an off-balance defense.

Here’s an example from last night. Just before the gif begins, Barea has missed a mid-range shot and the Mavs have gathered the offensive rebound. Smith believes he’s drawn a favorable matchup and wants the ball, but Barea doesn’t give it to him. For a moment, he looks a little irked.

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But remember: Be unselfish! Smith quickly identifies what must be done. Instead of standing still, he directs Wesley Matthews to flash up to the top of the key while Smith fills the weakside corner.

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And it’s a good thing he got there, too, because Barea couldn’t find enough space for a shot off the ensuing pick-and-roll, so he found Smith in the corner. Immediately upon catching, Smith noticed a driving lane and pounced on the opportunity. Fearing another dunk, the defense crashed down but forgot about Harrison Barnes in the opposite corner, who Smith found with a nice pass.

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That’s not a play Smith can make unless he’s ready to make it. When you’ve got the ball in your hands the entire possession, you can take your time and pick your spots. But when you’ve got to make a play off the catch, sometimes you only have 0.5 seconds to make a decision or else your window of opportunity closes.

That was an encouraging play to see Smith make. Not every ball-dominant point guard is going to be so accommodating to their playmaking teammates. For example, according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Wizards point guard John Wall has spent 76.57 percent of floor time either standing still or walking, the largest such share among all rotation players, according to tracking data from Second Spectrum. Unless he’s directly involved in the play, Wall’s probably not going to be moving a ton to create a favorable play for a teammate. Smith, meanwhile, hasn’t fallen victim to that sort of mindset, and has instead found ways to fit in with and better understand the entire offense.

“Something like playing off the ball with Barea really helps Dennis understand another position on the floor, too, kind of the thinking part of the 2 position,” Carlisle said. “Those kinds of things are always a big bonus because the reality is, over time, he’s gonna have the ball an awful lot. He’s gonna have to be on the same wavelength as every single guy that he’s playing with because he has the ball so much. That just helps him understand better.”

Smith has improved as a finisher around the rim as the season has progressed, as well, up from 53.9 percent in the restricted area before the injury to 57.0 percent afterward, per NBA Stats. Earlier this year, he was more prone to attacking the bucket directly, which led to several of his attempts being contested heavily or blocked outright. As he’s watched more film and gained a better feel for the game, though, he’s been able to better use his athleticism to avoid a direct confrontation, instead using his stratospheric hang time to create a more favorable shot opportunity. When attacking a close-out, the defense is expecting the ball-handler to do something, but instead it has to adjust to Smith.

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This is going to matter a heck of a lot for the rest of this season, but more importantly five or 10 years from now, too. The Mavericks covet playmaking guards and wings, so whether it’s through the draft, free agency, or simple player development, it’s very likely that Dallas will aim to add another player or two into the mix who can create for themselves and for others, particularly in the pick-and-roll. Smith may very well have a super-high usage rate for his entire career, but he’s got to share the load with someone and must be ready to be an effective player when those plays happen.

From a development standpoint, it’s good to see Smith figuring out all aspects of the game in his first season. As the roster continues to improve from a depth and playmaking standpoint, Smith and the Mavericks are likely to reap the benefits in years to come.

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