Mavs expecting big summer out of Dennis Smith Jr., who is a self-proclaimed gym rat and a key to the franchise’s future

DALLAS – There’s absolutely no doubt in the mind of Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle that Dennis Smith Jr. will put in the necessary heavy work on and off the court this offseason that’ll make him one of the best point guards in the National Basketball Association.

“He’s got an intrinsic competitiveness that was a very positive part of why we wanted to draft him,” Carlisle said during the team’s exit interview. “Again, the refinement of skills is an on-going thing for NBA players. You’ve got to continue to grow, there’s no staying the same.

“You’re either getting better or you’re not getting better. Dennis Smith is going to continue to get better because he’s a smart kid, he sees what the playing field looks like, he knows what his teammates can and can’t do, and he got a good (69) games under his belt and finished strong. Those are all great things.”

A self-proclaimed gym rat, Smith plans to spend the balance of this offseason in the gym working on different aspects of his game. Coming off a pretty solid rookie year this season, the 6-3, 195-pounder knows there’s so much more he can learn about the nuances of the NBA game.

“It’s a lot to work on,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a pretty good summer for me, though.”

Smith said he’s going to work on “being a better player, being a better leader, teammate, being the best Dennis Smith I can be.” He added that his unusual late night practice sessions — where he was busy honing his skills and trying to get a leg up on the competition — are simply a part of his DNA dating back to his high school days in Fayetteville, N.C.

“Sometimes I (practiced) after a game, sometimes I just go until about 2-3 in the morning just putting work in,” Smith said. “It’s just something that I do.

“I did it when I was in college (at North Carolina State), I did it when I was in high school whenever they let me get into the gym back at home. It’s something that got me here (to the NBA) since I’ve been doing this since high school, so once I got back to doing that I think I became a better player and more comfortable and more confident.”

Because Smith approaches the game with all the ferociousness of a bull in a china shop, Carlisle is very anxious to see what improvements the quicksilver playmaker makes over the summer and how his role as a leader evolves.

“His commitment has never been questioned,” Carlisle said. “He’s wired to be a great leader and he has the physical capabilities to become a great player.

“But he’s got enough humility to understand that there’s a significant amount of work involved and he’s gotten a great start this year, there’s no question about it.”

Smith averaged 15.2 points and 5.2 assists in 29.7 minutes per game this season. But with the NBA loaded with superior point guards such as Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Victor Oladipo, Chris Paul and Damian Lillard, Mavs forward Harrison Barnes certainly recognized the game-to-game challenges Smith faced this season.

“Playing the point guard in this league is obviously a very tough position, especially right now this year with the level of elite players that are there,” Barnes said. “But I thought (Smith) did a great job as a rookie just being consistent taking on that challenge every single night.

“He got better as the season went on and I thought he finished on a high note.”

In an era where the point guard position has become increasingly dominant, Smith knew the transition from college to the NBA wouldn’t be like a proverbial walk in the park.

“It was tough,” he said. “It was exciting, though. A lot of these guys I was watching them when I was in middle school.

“So playing against them now, earn my respect, play as hard as possible, and I just keep attacking. They want to win the game just like I want to win the game, so whenever we’re out there you’ve just got to lace them up and go get it.”

Guard Yogi Ferrell said because Smith is such a staunch critic of himself, that should bode well long-term for last year’s No. 9 overall pick in the NBA Draft.

“The biggest thing for him is to not get so down on himself,” Ferrell said. “He’s a competitor and he wants to win especially, so he gets mad at himself when he’s missing shots and not making the right plays.

“But everybody has mistakes. The game’s imperfect. So I think the biggest thing for him is – because he’s such a great player – is just having that mindset just to be a (very tough player) no matter what.”

Guard Wesley Matthews also offered his own suggestions on what Smith can do to elevate his game while becoming one of the important building blocks to the Mavs’ future.

“I think with everything given, he did well,” Matthews said. “Obviously he’s still ridiculously young and there’s a lot of responsibility being at the point guard position, a lot of different personalities, a lot of different playing styles.

“I think for the most part is he went out and he was himself, and that’s what I was proud of. He was cerebral, he wanted to learn, he took it on himself to try to be a better defender towards the end of the season, and that’s tough. That’s tough for a rookie to say, ‘You know what, I’ve been playing all these minutes, doing all this, have all this responsibility, and I want to do better defensively.’ “

Since Smith just turned 20 on Nov. 25, Carlisle acknowledged that the development of Smith’s leadership skills will come in due time.

“The obvious part comes from on court, in practice, those kinds of things,” Carlisle said. “But the part that people don’t realize is as important is his engaging with teammates in the offseason, sweating in the gym with the teammates and coaches.

“I anticipate he’s going to be working out with our summer league team and playing some summer league games with at least one high draft pick and at least one second-round pick and possibly two.”
Smith’s description of his rookie campaign was as expected.

“I think it was a pretty successful year in terms of building for the future,” he said. “I didn’t come in perfect and I’m not leaving perfect.

“But I made strides throughout the season, built really good relationships. And we’ve got great guys in our corner, so I think it was a pretty good year.”