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.

I’m not here to call Mark Cuban a liar. But let’s just say he might have played a convincing joke on us.

During a small pre-game press scrum in Sacramento at the very end of the regular season, I asked the Mavs proprietor what his club would do in the summer in order to improve. What do they need? What’s the missing piece?

“We’ll have depth,” he replied, “but we have to get that pass-first point guard.”

He referenced the need to acquire a point guard of the “pass-first” nature a few more times in the coming days, and then word got out that the Mavericks were indeed going to sign a pass-first guard. Turns out it the pass-first guy was Tony Romo all along, or at least that’s what was suggested when Cuban gave me a knowing grin the night the transaction was announced.

It was a joke, at least partly. We kinda got duped.

While it’s certainly true that the Mavericks value guards who can pass — that much is obvious — the truth is Dallas has performed better in recent seasons when its initiators have scored at a high level.

Since the beginning of the 2012-13 season, the Mavericks are 89-52 when a playmaker has scored at least 20 points, per Basketball-Reference. In all other games, they are 17 games under-.500. The Mavs were 16 games under this season, and a common issue the club faced all year long was inconsistency at the point guard position, mostly due to injury.

Who all qualifies in that group? “Playmaker” is a vague title, after all. When looking back through old games, I counted the following players who scored 20+ at least once in that group: Darren Collison, Derek Fisher, Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Devin Harris, J.J. Barea, Raymond Felton, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams, Jonathan Gibson, and Yogi Ferrell. These are the guys who bring the ball up the floor and do the bulk of the initiating, mostly via pick-and-roll.

Why exactly does this matter? Dallas answered that question on draft night when it selected Dennis Smith Jr., a super-athletic point guard from NC State who scored 18.1 points a night in college. He can attack the lane like Ellis but finishes with a ferocity that reminds you of Russell Westbrook. Smith figures to be a guy who can score a fair amount of points at the next level, so this is clearly a pertinent topic.

The following chart shows the Mavs’ record in games in which each of those guys reached the 20-point threshold, in order of most qualifying games.

Player Seasons Mavs Record
Monta Ellis 2013-15 51-26
Deron Williams 2015-17 13-10
J.J. Barea 2014-present 10-4
Darren Collison 2012-13 3-4
Devin Harris 2013-present 4-0
Jose Calderon 2013-14 2-2
Raymond Felton 2014-16 2-2
Rajon Rondo 2014-15 3-0
Yogi Ferrell 2017-present 1-2
Derek Fisher 2012-13 0-1
Jonathan Gibson 2016-17 0-1

Ellis recorded both the most games and was responsible for the most wins by far. During his time in Dallas, the Mavericks won 49 games one season and 50 games the next and had one of the best offenses in the league. Much of the club’s success was predicated on his ability to use ball-screens and get into the paint, where he could either score or make a pass to find the open guy.

Dirk Nowitzki has a lot to do with the success of each of those players, but his partnership with Ellis was particularly prosperous because Nowitzki’s unique influence on the relationship between floor spacing and opposing defenses was the perfect complement to Ellis’ exceptional quickness. The Mavericks hope that Dennis Smith Jr. can step in and have a similar impact, only he has the chance to be a better finisher around the basket than any of the small guards who came before him because of his soaring, 48-inch vertical leap.

Rick Carlisle has hinted that Smith could step in and be the starting point guard right away. He’ll obviously need to earn that role, and that starts in Summer League, followed by training camp and the preseason. But if he does start, he figures to spend a lot of time playing with Nowitzki and Nerlens Noel, should the Mavs retain the restricted free agent. Because of the attention those guys command, and because the Mavericks spread the floor with some of the most prolific 3-point shooters in the NBA, Smith could have a ton of space to work in.

This is where the Mavericks force opposing teams to “pick their poison,” so to speak. If Smith gets it going and is having a strong scoring night, opponents will have to apply more pressure to him. But that only opens things up even further for his teammates, namely Nowitzki and the shooters. Do opponents want to give those guys clean looks, or do they want to pack the lane in hopes of stopping the layup line resulting from endless pick-and-rolls? It’s a tough choice, but it’s one Dallas hopes to pose opponents on a nightly basis. That singular problem was the driving force behind the Mavs’ terrific offense from 2013-15, when the club finished top-five in offense in back-to-back seasons.

The surest way to force that paradox onto opponents is by the head of the snake scoring the ball. Want to load up and apply pressure to stop Steph Curry, James Harden, and LeBron James? OK, but that means things will open up for their teammates. The most successful teams in the modern NBA have ball-handlers who can make plays for themselves and for others, and it appears Smith has what it takes to do just that.

Smith obviously isn’t on the same level as players like James and Curry right now, but within the Mavs’ offensive system the hope is that he can play a similar role as a ball-handler who can also score — or, better yet, as a scorer who can also handle the ball. Any time a Dallas guard has done that in the last four seasons, the Mavericks have won games more than 63 percent of the time, roughly a 52-win pace.

So, with all due respect to Mr. Cuban, whose reported secretive tactics on draft night kept even the league’s best reporters in the dark, maybe a “pass-first” point guard isn’t what the Mavs had in mind all along. Your point guard needs to pass, of course, but in this era he’s also got to score, and both Smith and the Mavericks hope that the rookie can step in and fill it up immediately.

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