DALLAS — He comes into the NBA as one of the most athletic and explosive players in this year’s draft class. Now, first-round draft pick Dennis Smith Jr. will be asked to use that raw athleticism in order to develop into one of the league’s best two-way players.
Selected by the Dallas Mavericks with the ninth overall selection in last week’s draft, Smith comes into the league with high expectations already placed on his broad shoulders. The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder averaged 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists while shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 35.9 percent from behind the three-point arc during his lone collegiate season at North Carolina State. He also earned the Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year Award and a spot on the All-ACC Second Team after leading the league in assists and finishing sixth in the conference in scoring. Smith will now be asked to step in and immediately elevate a Dallas offense that ranked 30th in scoring (97.9 ppg), 27th in assists (20.8 apg) and 23rd with an offensive rating of 103.7. But according to Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, Smith’s development at both ends of the floor will be the focus in Year 1 as the team tries to foster the full potential of the budding star.
“We’re excited, and we know that we’ve got a kid that is extremely motivated and that has tremendous ability. And our job going forward here is to give him the tools to have ultimate success to become a great player and to become a franchise-caliber player,” Carlisle said Friday during Smith’s introductory press conference with the Dallas media. “You know, I really believe that he understands there’s a lot of work involved. I don’t believe he wants anything handed to him, and I think he has full intention of earning everything. And we’re excited to have him here today and to get started.
“This is a fact. There’s no player that comes into this that can be totally prepared to play defense in the NBA with the pace, the strength difference, the speed difference and all those kinds of things. But I think Dennis understands that staying on the court to do that means you’ve got to be strong in both areas,” the coach explained. “It’s important to attack the guy that’s going to be attacking you at the other end, but you’ve got to be able to guard him, too. And you’ve got to have a system in place where your teammates can help you do that, so that’s going to be one of the biggest parts of his learning curve. You know, I expect the offensive stuff to happen pretty naturally just based on what I’ve seen on film, but NBA defense is a different metabolic situation. There’s a lot to learn, and he understands that.”
Smith’s offensive game is unquestioned after becoming the first player to lead the ACC among freshmen in points and assists since Ed Cota during the 1996-97 season. The Fayetteville, N.C., native also showed glimpses of being able to impact the game in a multitude of ways after becoming the first player in ACC history to record two triple-doubles in the same season during conference play. However, despite his offensive prowess and hard play, Smith admits that he has much to learn on the defensive end in order to reach his full potential.
Smith, 19, averaged a staggering 1.9 steals per game last season with the Wolfpack, showing an uncanny ability to play the passing lanes and create turnovers. However, the cat-quick guard confesses that he still has to learn the proper way to play defense within a team system, hoping to pick up Carlisle’s defensive principles and philosophies quickly during his first season. And despite naysayers doubting his defensive abilities and effort level coming into the draft, Smith looks forward to giving the Mavericks a spark at both ends of the floor next season against a gauntlet of point guards in the Western Conference.
“I just go out and play my game, and everything else will take care of itself,” Smith explained. “(Criticism) wasn’t frustrating. Like I said, I go out there and try to be the best Dennis Smith Jr. I can every game. My teammates appreciated my effort, my coach and the rest of the staff approached my effort to a maximum level, so I think I did a good job with that. And they feel the same.
“I want to learn exactly how to play defense,” he added. “You know, that’s not something that was really pressed about last year. And with the staff we had, we were more of an offense-oriented team, so we really didn’t learn too much about defense. I’m looking forward to learning a lot about it this year, and I think that will be the main thing — learning how to play.”