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.