Dennis Smith Jr. was having his best game before ankle injury in Brooklyn

NEW ORLEANS – The unfortunate set of circumstances surrounding the sprained left ankle injury Dennis Smith Jr. suffered Saturday night against the Brooklyn Nets is that the rookie point guard was well on his way to engineering the best game of his NBA career.

Smith’s injury occurred with 3:30 remaining in the third quarter when he inadvertently stepped on the foot of Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie. At that point, Smith had played just 23 minutes and had contributed 21 points, five assists and two blocks, and was 9-of-17 from the field and 2-of-5 from behind the 3-point arc.

Smith’s career-high point total is 27, which he secured during a Nov. 14 contest against the San Antonio Spurs. And the most field goals he’s made in a game (11) occurred in a Jan. 16 game against the Denver Nuggets.

Plus, the two blocks Smith picked up against the Nets tied his career high. In other words, the North Carolina State product was in the midst of one of those sterling all-around performances for the ages before he sustained the injury which sidelined him for the rest of the game.

“He was making stuff happen for us, especially when we were making stops,” forward Dirk Nowitzki said. “He was pushing the ball, he was attacking and he was getting in the lane and finishing over some of their big guys.

“That’s what he does for us. We need him to attack, we need him to make things easier for himself and his teammates, and he had a ballgame going. Unfortunately, injuries are a part of the game.”

Smith’s show-stopping performance against the Nets served as a solid bounce-back game for him after he committed a couple of crucial turnovers late during Friday’s game in Toronto, which the Mavs lost 122-115 in overtime. Meanwhile, Smith made it a point to admit that what happened against the Raptors was nothing more than an aberration and a valuable teaching tool, and what happened against the Nets showed he had already put that star-crossed experience north of the border in his rearview mirror.

“It just means I’m becoming an NBA player,” said Smith, who won’t play in Tuesday’s game in New Orleans. “They say that the biggest thing for me to learn is next play, or next game and next shot. That’s part of the learning process.

“I didn’t know why things were the way that they were (against the Raptors). But I’m going to do what I do — keep attacking.”

To a man, the Mavs know Smith’s learning process is on the up-tick – sans the injury.

“He’s a competitor, and as a competitor you have short-term memory in this league,” Nowitzki said after the 114-106 loss to the Nets. “He knows that (Friday) night, there’s nothing you can do about it.

“You’ve got to set the tone for us again as one of our leaders on the floor. I thought he had a ballgame going (against Brooklyn).”

Smith did have one of those memorable games in the making. Until the injury suddenly interrupted things.

As Smith lay on his stomach on the Barclays Center floor following that untimely contact with Dinwiddie’s foot, fellow Mavs rookie forward Jalen Jones couldn’t help but think of the worse-case scenario.

“I was actually kind of worried,” Jones said. “I thought he tweaked (the ankle) way worse than he did.

“It was a little panic attack for a minute. But I’m just glad he’s alright.”

Before the Mavs left their team hotel in New York on Sunday afternoon, Smith was still wearing the walking boot he was fitted for on Saturday. However, he was all cheerful and said he’s doing just fine.

“I was very relieved (the X-rays were negative) because I (have) missed time due to an injury, so that’s the last thing I want to have happen,” Smith said. “I want to finish the year out strong and I can’t do that if I’m hurt.”

This was not Smith’s first run-in with the injury bug. As he was making his NBA debut with the Mavs he suffered a left knee effusion opening night against Atlanta and missed the ensuing two games.

Smith also sustained a left hip strain and was sidelined for six games from Dec. 8-18. In addition, the mercurial playmaker sat out the Mar. 10 contest against Memphis with soreness in his left knee.

Yet, the way Smith crashed to the floor and didn’t immediately get up made his latest injury – at first glance – appear as though it would be something much more problematic.

“We probably dodged a bullet,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

The Mavs’ medical staff will obviously treat Smith’s injury with kid’s gloves, as they do all injuries. Carlisle said on Sunday that Smith will be out on Tuesday in New Orleans. Smith just remembers when he suffered a torn ACL in high school – forcing him to miss his senior season – how he was overly anxious to get back on the court.

The Mavs obviously won’t rush Smith back onto the court under any circumstances. Management knows he’s too valuable for what they’re trying to accomplish next season and beyond.

“I’m trusting their decision,” said Smith, referring to his playing status for the balance of this season. “Like I said, I don’t want to make anything worse.

“That’s how I messed my knee up (in high school). So I’m trusting them.”

Notes: The Mavs (22-48) conclude their four-game road trip Tuesday at 7 p.m. CT when they play the New Orleans Pelicans. The game will air locally on Fox Sports Southwest and 103.3 FM ESPN. It also can be heard in Spanish on KFLC AM 1270. . .The Mavs are 1-2 on this road trip. They defeated the New York Knicks (110-97) last Tuesday before losing games to Toronto (122-115 in overtime) this past Friday and to Brooklyn (114-106) this past Saturday. . .Following the contest against the Pelicans, the Mavs fly back to Dallas where they’ll play a two-game home stand Thursday against Utah and Saturday against Charlotte. . .Rookie forward Jalen Jones, one of the Mavs’ two players armmed with a two-way contract, doubled his career-high when he poured in 16 points in Saturday’s game against the Nets. Jones knows he has to be ready to produce when his opportunity arises. “You just got to adjust to whatever is given to you,” said Jones, who also grabbed seven rebounds against the Nets. “I knew what came with a two-way (contract) – a lot of going up and down (from the G-League), up and down. You just got to be prepared and ready for the moment. You just got to go out there and just give it your all.” Forward Dirk Nowitzki was impressed with the performance by Jones. “He gave us a huge boost and I’m happy for him,” Nowitzki said. “He’s so quiet. He just comes in and works hard. It’s good to see young guys work hard and have their work pay off.”. . .Only nine of the Mavs’ 17 players participated in Saturday’s game against the Nets. And – save for the obvious injuries — that was purely by design. Injuries kept Salah Mejri (right hamstring strain), Seth Curry (left leg surgery) and Wesley Matthews (fractured right proximal fibula) out of the game. Harrison Barnes and J.J. Barea, meanwhile, simply rested after the Mavs played Friday night in Toronto. Elsewhere, Dorian Finney-Smith played against Toronto and sat out the game against the Nets due to injury recovery management. Nerlens Noel, in the meantime, dressed for the game against Brooklyn, but didn’t play because he also was under the injury recovery management protocol. In addition, Jameel Warney dressed for the Nets’ contest, but didn’t play because of a coach’s decision. Coach Rick Carlisle said Barnes and Finney-Smith will likely be available to play Tuesday against New Orleans, and added that “I’m sure” Noel will play against the Pelicans. As far as anyone else’s status for the Pelicans’ game, Carlisle said he’ll let that be known on Tuesday. . .Jameel Warney’s 10-day contract expires after the game against the Pelicans. Warney has appeared in three games and is averaging 5.7 points and three rebounds in nine minutes per contest, and is shooting a robust 58.3 percent from the field.

Dennis Smith Jr. representará a los Dallas Mavericks en el All Star Weekend (Dennis Smith Jr. will represent the Dallas Mavericks on the All Star Weekend)

A lo largo de su historia los Dallas Mavericks solo han estado representados en dos ocasiones en el concurso de mates. Así como sí que hay más tradición de jugadores Mavs formando parte del concurso de triples, Dallas no ha tenido grandes matadores que pudiesen participar en este evento, y de entre los que sí que lo hicieron probablemente Dennis Smith Jr. sea el que más potencial tenga para salir victorioso cuando tome parte el próximo sábado en el Verizon Slam Dunk Contest.

La última vez que un jugador con la camiseta de los Mavs se presentó a un concurso de mates fue Michael Finley en 1997 en el All Star de Cleveland, y quedó tercero. En la otra única ocasión anterior a aquella Tony Dumas no pudo pasar de la primera ronda en 1995, terminando en sexto lugar. Por lo tanto los Mavs no tienen representación desde 1997, el año en el que nació el propio Dennis Smith Jr.

“Estoy emocionado. De pequeño siempre lo veía, y es excitante finalmente haber llegado hasta ahí y que mi familia pueda verlo,” dijo Dennis Smith Jr. “Va a ser una gran experiencia para mí. Cuando participó Finley fue el año que yo nací, así que ha pasado mucho tiempo desde entonces. Es genial poder salir y representar a la ciudad y a la organización, y creo que puedo dar espectáculo en el nombre de Dallas.”

A Smith se le ilumina la cara hablando de sus recuerdos viendo participar en el concurso a Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady y Steve Francis. Sus rivales no lucen nombres tan legendarios como estos por ahora, pero sin duda serán adversarios complicados que se lo pondrán muy difícil, empezando por Donovan Mitchell, rookie también con mucha explosividad, el ahora jugador de los Cavaliers Larry Nance Jr., quien continúa con la saga de machacadores después de la participación de su padre, y el guard de los Pacers Victor Oladipo, que este año ha dado el salto al estrellato.

“Bueno, no tengo otro consejo más que decirle que se cuide. Eso es lo que siempre me dicen cuando soy yo el que vuelva,” dijo Rick Carlisle, quien pilota una avioneta en su tiempo libre. “Tengo la sensación de que vamos a ver cosas que no hemos visto antes a alguien de su altura, y lo estoy deseando. He visto algunas de las cosas que es capaz de hacer y que no ha revelado en público, y estoy deseando ver lo que hace con tanta atención.”

Las casas de apuestas dan como favoritos a Junior y a Mitchell. Sin embargo, Smith asegura que no le preocupa la competencia. El base está seguro de que tiene suficientes trucos bajo la manga para llevarse el trofeo.

“No miro a mis adversarios para nada. No me preocupan en absoluto,” dijo un Smith pleno de confianza. “Son ellos los que tienen que compararse conmigo. Yo voy a salir a hacer lo que mejor sé hacer, y el resto se arreglará ello solo.”

“Algo que podemos decir sobre Dennis es que precisamente no le falta confianza,” dijo Harrison Barnes. “Él dice que va a hacer cosas que no hemos visto nunca antes. Yo pienso ‘oh, el ultimo par de años han sido bastante buenos, así que si tienes algo que no hemos visto estoy deseando verlo’. Pero tengo confianza máxima en que va a ganar.”

Además de en el concurso de mates el sábado, Smith también estará entre los participantes del Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars del viernes. Allí compartirá equipo en el Team USA con promesas como Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Donovan Mitchell, De’Aaron Fox o Brandon Ingram, y se enfrentará al Team World liderado por Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Domantas Sabonis y Dario Saric. Tanto Yogi Ferrell (sophomore) como Maxi Kleber (rookie) vieron truncadas sus esperanzas de participar debido al alto nivel de los jugadores de primer y segundo año en la liga.

“Eso también va a estar genial,” dijo Smith sobre el partido de rookies y sophomores. “Hay jugadores jóvenes realmente buenos en esta liga, también en el Team World. Tienen un equipo muy talentoso así que espero que sea muy competitivo. Estoy deseando salir a jugar y conseguir una victoria.”

Durante toda la temporada ya hemos visto muestras de lo respetado que es el rookie de los Mavs por parte de estrellas de la liga. Futuros Hall of Famers como LeBron James o Chris Paul han alabado a Smith en la prensa y las redes sociales, y la percepción general es la de que se trata de uno de los mejores proyectos dentro de una de las camadas de rookies más potentes que hayamos visto en los últimos años. Hace unos días, era una leyenda de los mates como Vince Carter quien animaba al rookie a “salir y ganar” el concurso.

Aun así, esta será la presentación oficial de Dennis Smith Jr. para los aficionados casuales y los fans internacionales. Con su participación con el Team USA del viernes y, especialmente, en el concurso de mates del sábado, todos los ojos de los seguidores de la NBA estarán puestos en él, el foco se centrará en su número, y todos podrán conocer a la futura estrella de los Dallas Mavericks.

Tan lejos como llegue su nombre llegarán los Mavericks, no solo en el All Star, sino también en el futuro de la franquicia.

Dennis Smith Jr. ready to put on a show for the city of Dallas

2018 Slam Dunk Contest: Dennis Smith Jr.

Check out Dennis Smith Jr.'s best dunks so far this season ahead of the 2018 Slam Dunk Contest on February 16th at 7 PM CT, airing on TNT.

The first time Dennis Smith Jr. dunked was in the eighth grade.

When most eighth graders were worried about who they’re taking to the junior high dance, Dennis was in a gym having his friends throw him alley-oops until he finally caught one with two hands for his first dunk.

Six years later, Smith Jr. is one of four players competing at NBA All-Star weekend for the rights to be called slam dunk champion.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet. I am humbled by it,” Smith Jr. said as we chatted a day after he was officially named a participant.

On February 17, he’ll join Donovan Mitchell, Victor Oladipo and Larry Nance Jr. in the slam dunk contest as the headline event of All-Star Saturday night.

“It is great man. I think it will be really big for the city of Dallas,” Smith Jr. said. “I think it will be big for the organization. The last guy to do it was Michael Finley in 1997. I think it will be a show for our city.”

Finley, and his infamous cartwheel dunk, finished third that year in Cleveland. Tony Dumas gave it a go in 1995, but failed to make it out of the first round. Smith Jr. will be the third player in franchise history to compete in the event.

Even though this is Smith Jr.’s first time competing in an NBA dunk contest, it will technically be the third dunk contest he’s participated in. As for the first two that took place during his time in high school … he won them both.

The unprecedented leaping ability at such a young age became evident when Junior registered a 42-inch vertical his sophomore year. But for him, leaping was innate.

“It was natural. I wasn’t in the weight room or nothing crazy like that so I say it was natural,” Smith Jr. said.

It wasn’t until he tore his ACL in 2015 that he began really working on his legs due to the extensive rehab.

“I actually had to work on my legs and develop strength in my legs,” he said.

Almost two years after tearing his ACL, Smith Jr. would record his highest vertical to date during a pre-draft workout with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“48 inches … yeah, that is the highest ever,” Smith Jr. said when I asked him about that Lakers workout and his personal-best vertical.

The leaping ability has always been there, but the most underrated part of dunking is something that Smith Jr. never really had and it’s something he never will have either.

“Hand size. Unless I tell them, they don’t know, but I can’t palm the ball,” Smith Jr. said. “So people wonder how I dunk … I think that is the most underrated part of dunking.”

It doesn’t look like hand size is bothering him too much, though.

Mavs Rookie Flying High!

Dennis Smith Jr. is playing above the rim for the Dallas Mavericks this season.

Standing at 6-3, with a 48-inch vertical, Smith Jr. has always been the most explosive pound-for-pound player on the court. As we talked about the adrenaline that comes from dunking on an opposing player and the confidence that exudes from it, his initial response pointed right back to the impact it has on the team, not just himself.

“It gets the team going,” Smith Jr. said. “It can be a momentum shifter whenever you get a poster so I think there is a ton of adrenaline involved in that.”

On if there is someone in the league he would really like to dunk on, Dennis went with an answer that made us both laugh and one I didn’t see coming.

“Yeah, Dirk,” Dennis said as he laughed.

Growing up in the mid-2000’s in North Carolina, Smith Jr. just missed Michael Jordan’s glory days … but it was another North Carolina high schooler that’s his favorite dunker of all-time.

“Probably T-Mac,” Smith Jr. said when I asked him about his favorite high-flyer. “I like Jordan too though, but I only saw his highlights. I saw T-Mac’s live.”

As he mentioned Tracy McGrady as his favorite dunker, I instantly thought back to my personal favorite dunk contest in 2000 when Vince Carter stole the show in Oakland. As I reminisced with Dennis about my memories of that night, I asked him if he recalled that classic contest.

“I was three,” Smith Jr. said as we both shared a laugh. “But I’ve seen highlights of that. They’re running it on NBATV all the time. That was crazy.”

As for his personal favorite, Smith Jr. went with the recent battle between Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon in 2016.

My last question for Junior: If you could compete in a four-man dunk contest against any three dunkers in NBA history, who would you want to go against?

“Michael Jordan. Vince Carter and Nate Robinson … you got to show love for Nate. He was amazing,” Smith Jr. said.

Dennis on the dunk contest

Dennis Smith Jr. dishes on playing in the 2018 slam dunk contest and rising stars challenge.

Dennis might not be going up against Jordan or Carter in Los Angeles on the 17th, but the group of contestants surrounding him hold their own when it comes to throwing down.

Victor Oladipo was a contestant in 2015 when he came in second to Zach LaVine. As for Larry Nance Jr., it might be his first time participating, but the contest has history throughout his family. His father, Larry Nance, won the event in 1984 when he defeated Julius Erving. Donovan Mitchell, another explosive rookie, replaced Aaron Gordon after he was forced to withdraw due to injury.

Smith Jr. knows he will have to come prepared, so he’s formed a team to help get him ready for the event.

“I have some things up my sleeve. I have a nice little team working with me,” he said. “We have a couple of dunks that we know that I am fully capable of doing and they should be 50s.”

The brightest lights on the biggest stage will be shining down on Dennis Smith Jr. in Los Angeles Saturday, but for the 20-year-old young man, this is all just a dream come true coming from Fayetteville, North Carolina.

“You know where I am from man. I haven’t been to L.A. man outside of basketball,” Smith Jr. said as he thought about the magnitude of not only going to the event, but participating in it.

In fact, this is the first NBA All-Star weekend he’s ever attended. You couldn’t ask for a better stage to keep that undefeated streak alive.

Now go win that thing, Junior.

Dennis Smith Jr. to compete in 2018 slam dunk contest

2018 Slam Dunk Contest: Dennis Smith Jr.

Check out Dennis Smith Jr.'s best dunks so far this season ahead of the 2018 Slam Dunk Contest on February 16th at 7 PM CT, airing on TNT.

DALLAS – The Dallas Mavericks announced today that rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. will compete in the 2018 Verizon Slam Dunk as part of State Farm® All-Star Saturday Night. The event will take place at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles on Saturday, Feb. 17, and be shown live on TNT.

Smith (6-3, 195) will become just the third player in Mavericks history to compete in the slam dunk contest, along with Tony Dumas and Michael Finley. Finley finished third at the event held in Cleveland in 1997, while Dumas failed to advance past the first round of the 1995 competition held in Phoenix.

The explosive guard out of North Carolina State, who was also selected to play in the 2018 Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars on Friday, Feb. 16, holds averages of 14.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 0.95 steals and 28.9 minutes per game in 44 games (all starts) for Dallas this season.

Smith ranks second on the Mavericks in scoring, assists and steals per game. He also ranks third on the team in dunks (26), behind power forwards Dwight Powell (47) and Maxi Kleber (32). Among rookie leaders, Smith ranks fifth in scoring, 11th in rebounding, fourth in assists, fifth in steals and seventh in minutes per game.

The Verizon Slam Dunk will be the third and final event held on State Farm® All-Star Saturday Night. It will be preceded by the Taco Bell Skills Challenge and the JBL Three-Point Contest. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. CT on TNT.

Dennis Smith Jr. selected to play in 2018 Rising Stars game

DALLAS – The Dallas Mavericks announced today that rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. was selected to compete for the U.S. Team in the 2018 Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars at All-Star 2018 in Los Angeles. The game will be played at the STAPLES Center in L.A. on Friday, Feb. 16, and will air live on TNT at 8 p.m. CT.

Smith (6-3, 195) holds averages of 14.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.97 steals and 28.4 minutes per game in 39 games (all starts) for Dallas this season. He ranks second on the Mavericks in scoring, assists and steals per game. Among rookie leaders, Smith ranks fifth in scoring, 10th in rebounding, fourth in assists, fifth in steals and seventh in minutes per game.

The ninth overall pick in this past year’s draft has produced nine 20-point games, two double-doubles and one triple-double for Dallas in 2017-18. Smith has also recorded 10 double-digit scoring quarters, seven of which have come in the fourth.

In his NBA debut, Smith delivered a team-high-tying 16 points and a game-high 10 assists against Atlanta on Oct. 18, becoming the youngest player in NBA history (19 years, 327 days) to record a point-assist double-double in his NBA debut.

The former North Carolina State guard racked up 142 points and 49 assists in his first 10 career games, joining LeBron James (168 points and 64 assists in 2003-04) and Kyrie Irving (166 points and 52 assists in 2011-12) as the only teenagers in NBA history to reach those totals in their first 10 career NBA contests.

Smith recorded his first career triple-double with a team-high 21 points (8-12 FGs, 5-7 3FGs) to go along with a career-high 10 rebounds and a career-high-tying (game-high) 10 assists in 31 minutes in Dallas’ 128-120 win at New Orleans on Dec. 29. Smith (20 years, 34 days) became the third-youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double (Lonzo Ball, LeBron James).

NBA assistant coaches were again responsible for selecting the players to compete in the Rising Stars event this year. The coaches were required to vote for four frontcourt players, four guards and two additional players at either position, in order of preference, for each team (U.S. Team and World Team). They were also required to vote for a minimum of three rookies and three sophomores for each team.

Dennis Smith Jr. is learning to play without the ball

In a year of firsts for rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., his most recent development is the first step into what might be his most exotic challenge yet: playing basketball without the basketball in his hands.

“It’s just a new world for him,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said.

Smith has run point for his entire hoops life, and rightfully so. He is exceptionally quick, has advanced court vision, and can perform athletic feats that most players at his position today cannot and will not match. But there’s more to the sport than what you can do when the ball is in your hands, especially when playing for a coach whose ideal lineup includes at least one other player who can facilitate the offense.

Smith is wonderful in the driver’s seat, particularly in the pick-and-roll. The Mavericks score 0.962 points per possession whenever Smith either uses a pick-and-roll possession himself or passes to a roll man, cutter, or spot-up shooter, per Synergy Sports. That mark ranks ahead of every other guard from the 2017 NBA Draft, save for Sacramento’s Frank Mason, in what’s been an excellent rookie class and includes the likes of Donovan Mitchell, Lonzo Ball, and De’Aaron Fox. While there’s plenty of room for improvement — it’s a mid-level efficiency mark league-wide — it’s a very nice mark for a rookie to achieve and leads you to believe that in time he could potentially become one of the top pick-and-roll guards in a league which lives by that play.

Every good NBA offense, however, features another player or two, or three, who can handle the ball and make plays for themselves and for others. You can’t rely too much on one player to do all the heavy lifting or else the defense can load up on that one player and choke off your point of attack. In particular, the Mavericks have been at their best offensively under Carlisle when they’ve played multiple ball-handlers: Jason Terry and Jason Kidd worked together, and Monta Ellis teamed up with both Jose Calderon and Chandler Parsons. Smith is the only current starter who’s going to run a significant number of pick-and-rolls, but his experience with a Mavs reserve has helped open him up to the new world of making plays away from the action.

Smith and J.J. Barea have shared the floor for only 6.4 minutes per game this season, but that’s been enough for the rookie to help identify things he must do to improve in that capacity.

“(J.J.’s) great at the point guard position,” Smith said. “So my thing is (to say) ‘Hey man, you get the ball and you do what you do, and I’m gonna fill in the role.’ I’ve been making adjustments to play off the ball and I think it’s been working.”

To be clear, spending seven minutes per game playing primarily off the ball isn’t costing Smith too many opportunities to make plays. Currently he’s got a 28.9 usage rate, per Basketball-Reference, which ties Allen Iverson and Ron Harper for fourth-highest all-time among qualified rookies. (Usage rate measures the percentage of possessions a player uses while on the floor, via a shot, foul, or turnover.) He’s involved at a nearly unprecedented level for a first-year player, and for someone his age as well; every player ahead of him on that list was also older (and had more NCAA experience) during their rookie NBA season.

Of course, Smith is a confident guy and would probably love to have the ball in his hands at all times, even if he’s used at a historic rate. It might not be as fun to wait for the ball to find you, but involving as many ball-handlers as possible is one way Carlisle sees to develop the kind of system that can lead the Mavericks out of youth movement and back into contention.

“We’re in the midst of an NBA rebuild here,” he said. “From the standpoint of wins and losses, it is painful. Oftentimes, progress is not seen in terms of wins and losses. The good thing about our situation is that for us to win … precision is necessary. Those are habits that, through this painful period, we’ve got to develop and recognize. We’ve got to learn how to protect one another. We’ve got to be extremely unselfish.”

Given his high usage rate both this season and throughout his entire basketball career leading up to this exact moment, you can forgive Smith for not being accustomed to doing something unfamiliar for the first time at the highest level of the sport. The experiment didn’t produce immediate results, to put it lightly. But Smith’s individual shooting splits with Barea also on the floor both before and after a mid-December six-game absence due to injury suggest that he’s certainly made noticeable progress in that role lately. All the numbers below come from nbawowy.com.

Dennis Smith Jr. with J.J. Barea Minutes Smith FG% Smith eFG% Smith TS%
Before Injury 126 33.3% 36.3% 35.5%
Since Return 99 42.1% 50.0% 54.0%
Difference +8.8 +13.7 +18.5

When you see outrageously improved numbers like that, even considering the relatively small sample size, it’s hard to deny the notion that there’s legitimate progress being made. What could it be? What, if anything, is Smith doing better that he wasn’t doing as well before?

For starters, Smith’s knocked down 39.0 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season, which is a very good rate. Whether it’s Barea or another player initiating the action, Smith has shown he can knock down a shot if he has some space and can get his feet set. Once players begin respecting your shot, you can begin to anticipate and then attack close-outs against an off-balance defense.

Here’s an example from last night. Just before the gif begins, Barea has missed a mid-range shot and the Mavs have gathered the offensive rebound. Smith believes he’s drawn a favorable matchup and wants the ball, but Barea doesn’t give it to him. For a moment, he looks a little irked.

But remember: Be unselfish! Smith quickly identifies what must be done. Instead of standing still, he directs Wesley Matthews to flash up to the top of the key while Smith fills the weakside corner.

And it’s a good thing he got there, too, because Barea couldn’t find enough space for a shot off the ensuing pick-and-roll, so he found Smith in the corner. Immediately upon catching, Smith noticed a driving lane and pounced on the opportunity. Fearing another dunk, the defense crashed down but forgot about Harrison Barnes in the opposite corner, who Smith found with a nice pass.

That’s not a play Smith can make unless he’s ready to make it. When you’ve got the ball in your hands the entire possession, you can take your time and pick your spots. But when you’ve got to make a play off the catch, sometimes you only have 0.5 seconds to make a decision or else your window of opportunity closes.

That was an encouraging play to see Smith make. Not every ball-dominant point guard is going to be so accommodating to their playmaking teammates. For example, according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Wizards point guard John Wall has spent 76.57 percent of floor time either standing still or walking, the largest such share among all rotation players, according to tracking data from Second Spectrum. Unless he’s directly involved in the play, Wall’s probably not going to be moving a ton to create a favorable play for a teammate. Smith, meanwhile, hasn’t fallen victim to that sort of mindset, and has instead found ways to fit in with and better understand the entire offense.

“Something like playing off the ball with Barea really helps Dennis understand another position on the floor, too, kind of the thinking part of the 2 position,” Carlisle said. “Those kinds of things are always a big bonus because the reality is, over time, he’s gonna have the ball an awful lot. He’s gonna have to be on the same wavelength as every single guy that he’s playing with because he has the ball so much. That just helps him understand better.”

Smith has improved as a finisher around the rim as the season has progressed, as well, up from 53.9 percent in the restricted area before the injury to 57.0 percent afterward, per NBA Stats. Earlier this year, he was more prone to attacking the bucket directly, which led to several of his attempts being contested heavily or blocked outright. As he’s watched more film and gained a better feel for the game, though, he’s been able to better use his athleticism to avoid a direct confrontation, instead using his stratospheric hang time to create a more favorable shot opportunity. When attacking a close-out, the defense is expecting the ball-handler to do something, but instead it has to adjust to Smith.

This is going to matter a heck of a lot for the rest of this season, but more importantly five or 10 years from now, too. The Mavericks covet playmaking guards and wings, so whether it’s through the draft, free agency, or simple player development, it’s very likely that Dallas will aim to add another player or two into the mix who can create for themselves and for others, particularly in the pick-and-roll. Smith may very well have a super-high usage rate for his entire career, but he’s got to share the load with someone and must be ready to be an effective player when those plays happen.

From a development standpoint, it’s good to see Smith figuring out all aspects of the game in his first season. As the roster continues to improve from a depth and playmaking standpoint, Smith and the Mavericks are likely to reap the benefits in years to come.

Dennis Smith Jr.’s ‘constant attacking mode’ gave Mavs goosebumps in win vs. Raptors

Dennis Smith Jr. had a night so good that Rick Carlisle caught himself looking ahead at what’s to come for his team’s 20-year-old rookie point guard.

“Tonight convinced me that this kid’s gonna be a great player,” Carlisle said.

Wait: He’s talking about the Smith that scored just eight points on 3-of-14 shooting, right? Based on the box score, this was one of the rookie’s least impressive statistical performances of the season. But if there’s one thing we learned tonight, it’s that box score stats alone can hardly tell the story of a game.

“I had a perfect statistical stat line,” Smith said. “We won the game.”

That aside, here’s one stat that will shine a little light on what made his night so glorious: Smith led the team with 21 paint attacks, per team analytics, which by my unofficial tally is a career-high for a game. He did it in just 26:36 of playing time, too, meaning he drove the lane almost once per minute. He was relentless, especially in the first quarter. The Mavs got the ball into the paint on 20 of their first 25 possessions of the game, and turned those 20 trips down the floor into 25 points. On a night in which Wesley Matthews’ defense on DeMar DeRozan led the way on that end, Smith was unquestionably the driving force on the offensive side.

“He was just in a constant attacking mode,” Carlisle said. “Defensively, he was really good and aggressive. He pushed himself to a level tonight that gave our team goosebumps to watch.”

“(Carlisle) gave me the green light,” Smith said. “What I did tonight, that’s what he wants me to do every night: Come out and attack, find guys that are open, make it easier for everybody.”

One man can’t beat a defense by himself, but Smith is in a unique position of power within the Mavs’ offense. Carlisle admitted earlier this season that not only has the rookie had to adjust his game to the pros and his team’s system, but the coach has also had to adjust his own style to meet the needs and strengths of his first-year player. That entails not only giving Smith the green light to attack at all times and from every angle – even if it means waving off ball screens and going one-on-one – but it also manifests itself in the Xs and Os. Carlisle added more width to the Mavs’ fast break whenever Smith is on the floor, moving the wings all the way out to the 3-point line, in an effort to give him virtually the entire floor to work with. The earliest example of that shift I can remember is when the Nuggets came to town earlier this month. Smith had a field day in transition in the first half of that game.

Carlisle’s thought process: If Smith can get to the paint it means that defenses are going to have to adjust in one way or another, and the Mavs have the personnel to exploit every counter. For example, if teams put quick point guards on Smith, Dallas will run a bevy of pick-and-rolls and off-ball screens until that player is matched up against the bigger Dirk Nowitzki or Harrison Barnes, both of whom can punish size mismatches with the best of them. One alternative is to put a longer player, like a small forward, on Smith to start a possession, but then you run into the problem of who’s switching onto him after a ball screen. Is Nowitzki’s man, often the center, going to guard Smith one-on-one? I don’t think so. Many power forwards aren’t agile enough for the challenge, either. When the 20-year-old maintains an attacking mindset, there aren’t many players in the world who can stay in front of him.

The best way to limit him is to swarm him at the rim, but that results in helping off of a shooter or a roll man, which leads to easy points. Smith would almost prefer that tactic, not only because it gets him easy assist opportunities but also because it helps his teammates get off to strong starts. “Whenever I’m attacking early, it sets them up for easy shots,” Smith said. “It gets everybody into a rhythm.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Smith takes a beating most nights and he’s rarely rewarded with whistles for his efforts. Before the Toronto game, he ranked 17th in the NBA in drives per game at 12.3 (a number that will rise a bit after tonight), but he earns just 1.0 free throws per game on those drives, per NBA Stats. Among the top-50 qualified players by drives that’s the seventh-lowest free throw rate, and many of the players “ahead” of him on that list pass out of drives significantly more often than Smith does. Rookies have to earn whistles, or so they say.

He’ll also develop better moves than simply straight-line driving into a prepared big man. Smith is working on adding a floater to his arsenal, and one can only hope that he’ll learn some of J.J. Barea’s whirling dervish moves by osmosis. Barea is a master of contorting his body to protect himself and the ball, and although Smith is a much more explosive athlete, picking up on some of those techniques would likely lead not only to a higher field goal percentage, but also potentially to more free throws, too.

Despite all that, the rookie has maintained a sense of humor about his low free throw rate, joking that his girlfriend isn’t a fan of all the scratches and bruises he’s collecting along the way. The officials probably won’t take that opinion into consideration, but Smith still smiles about it. “It’s all good,” he said. “It ain’t gonna stop nothing. It’s gonna be the same thing: Keep attacking.”

“It’s hard,” Carlisle said. “It requires so much energy and will.”

“It’s just about being fearless,” Smith added. “Just go in, take the hits. It is what it is. That’s what I’m supposed to do – go in and attack, regardless of whether they’re there or not.”

This was just his 27th NBA game, with hundreds more still to come. It’s important to remember how long this process can take for young players, but Smith put together one of the most impressive 3-of-14 nights you’ll see in this league. If he can play with that level of aggression and force every night, he’ll have no problem turning those shooting numbers around in time, as his wisdom catches up to his otherworldly athletic talent. The win might be the only stat that matters to him, but the rest of his numbers will be a heck of a lot prettier, too.