Let’s get all the qualifiers out of the way at the top.
It’s only Summer League. It’s only been two games. Some of his opponents won’t be in the NBA next season.
Wouldn’t you rather your most significant rookie in nearly 20 years be playing well than struggling?
Dennis Smith Jr. hasn’t been perfect in Las Vegas, but he’s been pretty darn good so far. The rookie is averaging 19.5 points in 26 minutes per game, adding 7.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 steals, and shooting 50 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from beyond the arc. Dallas is +12 through two games when he’s on the floor, and the Mavericks are 2-0.
The stat line is impressive, and the wins certainly matter, but what’s stood out most about Smith through his debut weekend with Dallas is the confidence and poise with which he’s played, and how he’s asserted himself in advantageous situations. With the exception of a few unforced errors in the third quarter of Sunday’s 88-77 win against Phoenix, Smith appears to have played with the type of basketball IQ you’d expect from a veteran, not a 19-year-old rookie.
The numbers are impressive. He’s scored a point per possession as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and is 6 of 9 from the field in isolation. He’s attempted a higher volume of free throw attempts than other talented scorers in Vegas like 2016 lottery pick Buddy Hield and 2017 No. 3 overall pick Jayson Tatum. Smith has shown he can get downhill whenever he wants, and he looks confident attacking anyone at the rim, even against guys who are nearly a foot taller than him.
“Super confident. Super confident,” he said. “I work hard on my athleticism, explosiveness, attacking. I went through that a lot, that exact scenario. I’m very confident coming off the screen and going at a big.”
Doing so often leads to contact and punishment, but Smith embraced it Sunday against Phoenix, taking nine trips to the free throw line. For reference, all the Mavs’ point guards last season combined for just one game with nine or more attempts from the charity stripe, per Basketball-Reference. The ability to consistently get into the paint is what’s made players like Monta Ellis, Raymond Felton, and J.J. Barea so valuable to the Mavericks during the past few seasons. It appears Smith could be the next guy to take on that role.
In order to do that, you’ve got to be aggressive, smart, and quick. Smith has shown he’s all of those things, but he’s also got tremendous explosiveness, which can lead to plays like this.
That near-dunk faced challenges from Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, two recent lottery picks and legitimate NBA players. Smith almost brought down the house on that play, but had to settle for two free throws (and a mention in this article).
There’s more to that play than a wow factor, though. Smith didn’t get the chance to show this as much against Chicago as he did Sunday against Phoenix because of the way the Bulls defended the pick-and-roll, but against the Suns the rookie point guard was able to size up switched big men and take them off the dribble over and over again. In the clip above, Smith gets by Bender in one or two dribbles. He did the same thing here, where you can see the entire play develop.
“Switch-everything” defenses are en vogue right now across the league, meaning opponents will switch practically every screen, everywhere, even if it’s an off-ball screen to get a player open. Smith is probably going to be switched against big men a majority of the time this season, which could mean good things for him. Not to pick on Bender, who could develop into a very good player in this league, but Smith got around him too easily for Phoenix to continue to defending him like that. Eventually they moved 2017 No. 4 pick Josh Jackson to defend Smith, but the Mavericks still used screens to put Smith into open space, where he continued to force contact against Chriss.
Simply put, Smith didn’t see this kind of coverage against the Bulls, who most of the time blitzed and double-teamed Mavs pick-and-rolls to apply extra pressure to Smith. That played a huge role in limiting him to 14 points, as it forced him to give up the ball and rely on his teammates. Clearly it was OK with Dallas, though, as the Mavs scored 91 points in 40 minutes.
He did face a switch on one memorable play, where he got to show off his ability to seemingly glide through the air. As Smith gets downhill against one Bulls big, he sees the other coming, but he arrives too late and Smith jumps too high to be bothered by the extra help.
And when big men begin to back off further out of fear, that’s when Smith can patiently dribble into a good look from 3.
None of this stuff is rocket science, but that’s the point. He’s just making the right decision, and in this case the right decision also happens to be the easy one.
NBA teams typically don’t play as aggressively as Chicago did very often in the NBA, so Smith is much more likely to see repeated switches in the regular season. “I just take whatever’s there,” Smith said. “It was there today. It wasn’t there (against Chicago).” The problem the Mavs have been posing to the league for years, though, is that switching is a huge risk. The 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki isn’t going to be bothered by most point guards, and in his first season with the Mavs Harrison Barnes did a good job of taking advantage of those size mismatches, particularly in the high post and on the block.
But until Yogi Ferrell arrived to the scene, last season the Mavs didn’t have a younger point guard who could use his speed and quickness to get around switched big men. J.J. Barea and Devin Harris can still beat 4s and 5s off the dribble, but what Smith was able to do in the above plays is simply unfair. Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle has said himself he’s never coached a guard as athletic as Smith during his time in Dallas, and that could unlock even more potential for the offense.
Teams haven’t been able to afford switching smalls onto the Mavs’ best bigs, and now they won’t be able to switch bigs onto the Mavs’ point guards, either. That’s a good answer to switch-everything defenses, or at least to the ones without super-athletic big men like Draymond Green who have shown they can stay with smaller players.
There’s much more to playing point guard in the NBA than just dribbling around bigger, slower players. You’ve got to understand where and when your teammates want the ball, and you’ve got to make important decisions in less than one second. You have to be able to fool players 10 years older than you, and you’ve got to do it at a time when there’s arguably more talent at the point guard position than ever before.
But this has been a good start for Smith, even though it’s only in an exhibition tournament. (It should be noted, though, that the Bulls and Suns have more NBA players on their roster than many other teams in Las Vegas.) Smith’s numbers are impressive, but in this case the what isn’t as important as the how. He’s performing well by doing things that he’s going to have to do at the next level: taking advantage of switches, and by reading the defense and responding accordingly. It’s not as simple as that, but it also kind of is. The entry-level, requisite question for today’s point guards is: “Can you play pick-and-roll?” Smith clearly can, and that’s good news because he’s going to be doing a LOT of that in Dallas.