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.