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.

JJ Barea Awarded Community Assist Award

Inside Stuff: Puerto Rico’s Son, J.J. Barea

Kristen Ledlow sits down with Puerto Rico native J.J. Barea to talk about how he and the Dallas Mavericks are helping hurricane relief efforts in his homeland.

DALLAS — A few minutes after he handed J.J. Barea a trophy for receiving the October NBA Cares Community Assist Award, Bob Lanier was gushing about what the Dallas Mavericks’ veteran guard was able to accomplish while helping Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

The award, presented by Kaiser Permanente in recognition of Barea’s continuous relief effort in Puerto Rico, was given to Barea during an on-court ceremony at halftime of Monday’s game against the Boston Celtics. Along with the prestigious award, the NBA and Kaiser Permanente will also donate $10,000 to the J.J. Barea Foundation.

Lanier, the NBA Cares Ambassador, said he’s glad Barea’s heartfelt contributions didn’t go unnoticed.

“By himself, J.J. raised over $500,000 and brought a lot of food and commodities (to Puerto Rico) for the people who need it,” Lanier said. “His whole family has been involved, and his dad is still there helping in the community and helping assist people in need.”

“His heart is behind his words and his actions are behind that.”

A native of Puerto Rico, Barea, if he could, probably wishes he could break up his award and give a lot of different people a piece of it. He described it as an award that should be shared by many.

“I’ve got a great group here in Dallas, starting with my wife and my boys,” Barea said. “And then my Dallas Mavericks family, starting with (owner) Mark Cuban, who has been amazing for the help in Puerto Rico.”

“My foundation is now bigger over there in Puerto Rico. They’re still helping. Every week we go to a different place. All of the support that we get here we can help my hometown.”

Barea acknowledged that Cuban surprised him when he allowed him to use his private airplane to carry much-needed supplies to Puerto Rico not once, not twice, not three times. . .but five times.

“I thought we were going to take it one time, but he just kept filling it up,” Barea said. “He was awesome.”

“Like I told Mark every time we sent a plane, I texted him: ‘There are no words to describe, but thank you.’ “

In conjunction with various partners in North Texas, Barea delivered more than 100,000 pounds of supplies to Puerto Rico, including 14,000 pounds of water, 10,000 pounds of food, 32 generators, and 3,000 pounds of clothing, diapers, cleaning products, medical supplies and toiletries — on just the first trip to the devastated island.

Barea also launched a fundraiser that raised more than $250,000 on YouCaring.com for families affected by Hurricane Maria. In addition, he worked with the Mavs to donate 100 percent of all single-game ticket sales from their Oct. 25 contest against the Memphis Grizzlies to Puerto Rico, and that generated an additional $114,000 for the island’s recovery.

During the last six months the NBA Cares Community Assist Award was handed out the past season, the winners were CJ McCollum, Isaiah Thomas, Zach Randolph, Elfrid Payton, Jrue Holiday and Jimmy Butler. Thomas also won the NBA Cares Season-long Community Assist Award for the 2016-2017 season.

While becoming this season’s first regular-season recipient of the NBA Cares Community Assist Award, Barea simply just wanted to do something to help his home town. He wasn’t in it for the award or world-wide notoriety, but is grateful for the acknowledgement.

“I think it’s great that the league does this,” Barea said. “I know there are a lot of players here throughout my career that has been awesome in the community.”

Lanier noted that it’s a clear-cut process on how Barea was chosen as the award-winner for the month of October.

“There’s a panel of people that look for the impact that players have on communities across the board,” Lanier said. “Depending on how many people are up for the award, there’s a panel of people that look at it, and then everybody takes a vote and they see who they think has the most impact and then we go out and give the award.”

“The blessing for us is we have a lot of players now that are involved in trying to make a difference in communities around the globe.”

Lanier also recognized the roles Cuban and the Mavs played in helping Barea bring some relief to the folks in Puerto Rico. That includes coach Rick Carlisle allowing Barea to skip practice during his first journey to Puerto Rico.

“You’ve got to give Mark Cuban and the Mavs credit that they assisted with Mark’s planes and got a lot of the commodities there,” Lanier said. “I thought that was pretty special that Mark would do that.”

“That shows the kind of heart and consideration that Mark has for not only his players, but for a community that’s far away from here.”

Ordinary citizens also pitched in to assist Barea.

“I’ve got fans in the first row of games, and some of them have given me a check for my foundation,” Barea said. “There are no words to describe it.”

“I just want to thank them for wanting the best for Puerto Rico.”

J.J. Barea receives October NBA Cares Community Assist Award presented by Kaiser Permanente

Inside Stuff: Puerto Rico’s Son, J.J. Barea

Kristen Ledlow sits down with Puerto Rico native J.J. Barea to talk about how he and the Dallas Mavericks are helping hurricane relief efforts in his homeland.

NEW YORK, Nov. 20, 2017 – Dallas Mavericks guard J.J. Barea has received the October NBA Cares Community Assist Award presented by Kaiser Permanente in recognition of his continuous relief efforts in Puerto Rico following devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, the NBA announced today. The award recognizes an NBA player each month who best reflects the passion that the league and its players share for giving back to their communities.

Kaiser Permanente and the NBA are honoring Barea for his work to immediately initiate aid for Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Coordinating five trips to the territory where he was born and raised, Barea used the Mavericks’ team plane, with help from owner Mark Cuban, to personally deliver much-needed supplies in the days after the hurricane. Working with partners in North Texas, Barea has provided more than 100,000 pounds of supplies to the island, including 32 generators, 14,000 pounds of water, 10,000 pounds of food and 3,000 pounds of medical supplies, diapers, clothing, cleaning products and toiletries on the first trip alone.

Barea also launched a fundraiser on YouCaring.com for families affected by the hurricane that has raised more than $250,000, and personally raised nearly $500,000. Additionally, he worked with the Mavericks to donate 100 percent of all single-game ticket sales from their Oct. 25 game against the Memphis Grizzlies to Puerto Rico, generating an additional $114,000 for the island’s recovery.

“Puerto Rico is such a small island and I think help is going to be needed there for at least the next year, maybe longer,” said Barea. “This effort is something I will carry with me forever, and anything I can do to help people put things back in order is a must for me.”

Before the Mavericks’ home game against the Boston Celtics tonight, NBA Cares Ambassador Bob Lanier will present the award to Barea during an oncourt ceremony. In addition, Kaiser Permanente and the NBA will donate $10,000 to the J.J. Barea Foundation.

The NBA Cares Community Assist Award presented by Kaiser Permanente honors the standard set by NBA Legend David Robinson, who improved the community piece by piece. To learn more, please visit http://www.nba.com/communityassist/.

About Kaiser Permanente
Kaiser Permanente is committed to helping shape the future of health care. We are recognized as one of America’s leading health care providers and not-for-profit health plans. Founded in 1945, Kaiser Permanente has a mission to provide high-quality, affordable health care services and to improve the health of our members and the communities we serve. We currently serve 11.8 million members in eight states and the District of Columbia. Care for members and patients is focused on their total health and guided by their personal Permanente Medical Group physicians, specialists and team of caregivers. Our expert and caring medical teams are empowered and supported by industry-leading technology advances and tools for health promotion, disease prevention, state-of-the-art care delivery and world-class chronic disease management. Kaiser Permanente is dedicated to care innovations, clinical research, health education and the support of community health. For more information, go to: kp.org/share.

Barea’s humanitarian trip to Puerto Rico

Practice Report: J.J. Barea

J.J. Barea describes the devastation that hit his native Puerto Rico and the relief efforts he's made with help from Mark Cuban and the citizens of Dallas.

DALLAS – From a logistical standpoint, there were a lot of important moving parts that occurred in order for Dallas Mavericks guard J.J. Barea to make his humanitarian trip to Puerto Rico this past Tuesday.

For starters, a bevy of Mavs’ employees were heavily involved in the process of executing a journey of this magnitude. Particularly since Barea and a dozen of his close friends used one of the airplanes owned by Mavs owner Mark Cuban to fly into the San Juan airport while the once picturesque island is still recovering from the horrific devastation recently caused by Hurricane Maria.

Robert Hart, the senior vice-president of Mark Cuban Companies, admitted that this mission of goodwill was no ordinary road trip. And layers upon layers had to be uncovered before the trip could be consummated.

“It took a lot of people’s efforts,” Hart said. “This is the first time that we’ve ever had to do something this fast for a humanitarian kind of event. I know Mark has been really impressed with our aviation department, because of how fast they could turn this around. Mark is expecting everything at warped speed, and this was really done at warped speed.”

Hart said Cuban first approached him about flying to Puerto Rico last Friday afternoon. That occurred not long after Barea asked Cuban if he could borrow one of his planes so he could take supplies to Puerto Rico, and also bring back his mother and grandmother, among others.

Cuban’s 757 airplane, which the Mavs use to fly to road games, was available. Then came the arduous task of contacting officials in Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, to make sure the flight from Dallas could occur.

“I was in contact with the pilot and all the guys that run the Mavericks’ plane,” Barea said. “And after 100 or more emails and trying to get clearance from Puerto Rico – there were a lot of phone calls to Washington, back to Puerto Rico, back to Washington — finally we got cleared and then we were able to go.”

Since he is a native of Puerto Rico, Barea had to be the main ambassador in facilitating the trip.

“FEMA and the government in Puerto Rico were in control of what aircraft could land in San Juan,” Hart said. “J.J. facilitated and worked directly with the governor of Puerto Rico and his advisors, and was able to work with FEMA and facilitate our ability to fly into San Juan. There were a lot of limitations on our ability to fly in there. You couldn’t just be able to come in and give them a time and date. They had to make sure the traffic was free to bring in aid and supplies from the government and others.”

The Mavs also had to gently work around other pertinent restrictions.

“We were not able to fly at night, so we worked around how we were going to get in there at an earlier enough time that we could unload the aircraft and get out of San Juan before evening,” Hart said. “At that point we also worked with relationships that J.J. had as it relates to getting donations of a lot of soft goods that were needed down to Puerto Rico, as well as the Dallas Mavericks also had connections with charitable organizations who made some generous donations.”

The Mavs’ plane eventually left Dallas Love Field at 5:30 Tuesday morning and was back in Dallas at approximately 7:45 Tuesday evening.

“When we learned that J.J. wanted to take the plane down to Puerto Rico, we were happy to help in any way that we could,” said Katie Edwards, the Mavs’ director of community relations. “There were many emails and lots of people involved here and in Puerto Rico helping us get permission to land and arrange the flight, as well as coordinate donations from J.J.’s Foundation as well as several Mavs partners.”

Dirk Pettitt, the operations director for Mark Cuban Companies, said the belly of the plane the Mavs flew to Puerto Rico was full with supplies. That includes 32 generators/inverters that weighed 140 pounds apiece, 14,000 pounds of water, 10,000 pounds of food, 3,000 pounds of medical supplies, diapers, clothing, cleaning supplies, pet food and toilet paper.

“We bulked out our Boeing 757, meaning that we didn’t exceed our weight capacity, but we exceeded the maximum room capacity,” Pettitt said. “It was stuffed like a pig. And we took down enough fuel to circle for an hour. If we could not land (in Puerto Rico right away), we had enough fuel to get back to Miami and hold until we could get back down there. But ultimately we were able to get into San Juan, we did get fuel and we flew back to Dallas non-stop.”

Danny Bollinger, a photographer for the Mavs for the past 17 years, was on the plane with Barea and 10 others so he could chronicle the images which so many have seen on TV. Bollinger said it took approximately four hours to load the plane with its supplies, and just 90 minutes to unload it.

“On the trip, we just stayed on the tarmac of the airport,” Bollinger said. “They brought in big military-type trucks (to unload the supplies). A bunch of marines, a bunch of locals, J.J.’s family were all there.”

The entire scene was so surreal to Barea. To see the once quaint island of Puerto Rico struggling to stay afloat nearly brought him to tears.

“It’s awful,” Barea said of Puerto Rico. “We’ve been through it before, but nothing like this. Emotionally, (Tuesday) was a little tough when my mom saw me.

“My other brothers are in the states, too, so she was out of contact, but now they’re good. They’re here and they can do a lot, my mom especially. . .Now she can really get on the phones and start helping out a little bit more.”

Dallas attorney Braulio Gonzalez, who grew up in Puerto Rico and is a life-long friend of Barea’s, painted a dark description of things back home.

“It’s like landing in Dallas in December as opposed to landing in Dallas in July,” said Gonzalez, who was on the plane Tuesday with Barea. “Puerto Rico is a beautiful island where mountains are green everywhere, the beaches are amazing blue — and now it’s just brown.

“It doesn’t look like paradise any more. I’m sure it will again, but when we were flying in you start looking and it just looks like a bomb went off. You were lucky if you saw trees with leaves on them.”

Gonzalez credits the Mavs for stepping in and helping the folks in Puerto Rico during this stressful time in their life.

“Mark has always been gracious,” Gonzalez said. “Mark is a true dude, he’s got a big heart and he’s always there. It takes a lot of guts to say, ‘Hey, here’s the plane, take it, whatever you need.’ Mark is truly family.”

Gian Clavell, an undrafted rookie from Colorado State, said one of the reasons he signed with the Mavs this summer was because of the family-like atmosphere they instill.

“That’s why I picked the Mavericks, because of the kind of people that they are,” said Clavell, who also grew up in Puerto Rico. “They care about you.

“From top to bottom, they’re the best people and I couldn’t have made a better decision. That tells you what kind of guy Mark Cuban is, and the Dallas organization. That lets you know that they care about you and your family.”

That message of family-first was amplified even more when Mavs coach Rick Carlisle allowed Barea to skip the first day of practice on Tuesday so he could fly to Puerto Rico.

“When you play for the Mavericks or you work for the Mavericks and you’re a part of Mark’s family, he understands these types of situations,” Carlisle said. “It’s a catastrophic situation down there. People like Mark, they give their heart and soul to people that are the most important to them. It’s great to see, because I know it’s a really tough thing for J.J. to be going through. There’s a lot of attention on it, a lot of turmoil down there, no power, the streets are flooded, four-five hour gas lines. Just craziness down there.”

While the myriad of challenges the Mavs had to overcome in order to get to Puerto Rico were almost like trying to thread a needle, they deemed the critical mission as a success.

“Communication was extremely difficult, as there are no phones and many places are running on generators,” Edwards said. “Wal-Mart and many others donated supplies, water and generators.”

“And we had staff jumping in to leave their normal jobs to buy satellite phones and extension cords and all sorts of things to make sure they had the most critical needs taken care of. I think one thing that is amazing about working for the Mavericks is how quickly we can come together to make things happen.”

Hart said the Mavs will continue to jump through hoops and make other humanitarian trips to Puerto Rico to help those affected by Hurricane Maria.

“We received good news that we now have clearances for both our aircraft to make humanitarian aid flights to (Puerto Rico),” Hart said. “Our 757 will be making a second trip tomorrow (Friday).

“Also, in conjunction with our 767 operator — Atlas Airlines — our 767 will be making its first trip to (Puerto Rico) this coming Monday.”

Hart pointed out that Pettitt was able to accomplish his duties during the mission to Puerto Rico while basically working with half of his staff.

“It was a herculean task what he did to coordinate the logistics of being able to work with our operator of the 757 as well as all the different entities that were donating supplies to the airport, and handle the loading in time for the plane to leave at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning,” Hart said. “Usually we have two people like Dirk that’s working on that.”

“But Dirk was going solo during this period, so it was quite a challenge because Dirk’s colleague was out of town on vacation.”

Indeed, the mercurial behind-the-scenes activities where the Mavs had to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s in rapid-like fashion were remarkable.

“Mark Cuban was awesome, and all the staff with the plane situation,” Barea said. “It’s awesome the way this franchise and this team and the head guy, Mark and coach – they run this.”

“It’s a family and I’m proud and I’ll always be here.”

Hart, meanwhile, complimented those Mavs employees who dropped whatever they were doing to help Barea make this memorable trip to Puerto Rico, where 96 percent of the folks are without power and 48 percent are without drinking water. The response time is an accomplishment the Mavs are proud of.

“We’ve had to do things quickly in a task on certain things,” Hart said. “But this was kind of a lot of different moving parts that had to be addressed in very short order with limited communications on the other end, because we couldn’t get a hold of all the people because there weren’t any cell towers and there wasn’t any electricity in some areas, so it was very difficult.

“I think it was an amazing accomplishment by all the different people that were involved.”

And for the Mavs, because they were able to accomplish all of this at warped speed made the outcome even more rewarding.

J.J. Barea delivers supplies to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, reunites with family

Practice Report: J.J. Barea

J.J. Barea describes the devastation that hit his native Puerto Rico and the relief efforts he's made with help from Mark Cuban and the citizens of Dallas.

The Mavericks officially opened training camp on Tuesday morning, but one player wasn’t in attendance because some things are bigger than basketball.

While his teammates were learning the ins and outs of transition defense, point guard J.J. Barea spent all day on Tuesday delivering much-needed supplies to his native Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria a week ago and has still mostly yet to receive aid. CNN reports that 97 percent of the 3.4 million residents are still without power, and about half the residents do not have running water.

“Usually, when you come in the water is so blue and beautiful. The palm trees are so green and vibrant,” Barea told Mavs.com. “Today, everything is just flat. From the air it was easy to see how physically devastated the island is.”

In lieu of significant federal aid, many athletes in America have launched online fundraisers to raise whatever money they can. That includes Barea, whose YouCaring relief fund had raised more than $120,000 as of Wednesday morning and has been shared online more than 5,000 times. But Mavs owner Mark Cuban decided to take it one step further, loaning the longtime Maverick his plane so Barea could load it up with roughly 40,000 pounds of supplies and deliver them to the people that need them most.

“I am lucky to have an owner like Mark Cuban that has gigantic planes and a bigger heart,” Barea told Mavs.com. “It took just one text to him and five minutes later we were in contact with everyone at the plane. A few hours later we were getting it loaded with food, water, and generators. We bought every generator we could find. We cleaned the shelves. We got it together very quickly.”

More important to Barea, on a personal level, was reuniting with his family. The point guard and his older brothers have been unable to contact their mother and father since the storm hit a week ago. Unfortunately, the people of Puerto Rico are accustomed to waiting out hurricanes — Barea said they were once without power for a month after a storm when he was in ninth grade. However, their past experiences gave the point guard faith that his parents would be OK.

“I was a little more calm because I knew they were prepared for the storm. We know how to handle these things,” Barea told Mavs.com. “But five days without speaking to your family is tough. It’s such a habit. I know people to this day that still haven’t spoken with their families. It’s pretty crazy. My mom has been so stressed and not being able to communicate with me or my other brothers who also live in the states. So seeing her today and hugging her was a good feeling and truly a relief. It means everything to me.”

Barea’s mother returned with him to Dallas on Tuesday night, but his father remained in Puerto Rico to help distribute the supplies and manage the funds raised.

Help is still needed. Gov. Ricardo Rossello told NBC News that without significant aid, the island will “collapse into a humanitarian crisis.” Millions remain without power or water, thousands of homes were completely destroyed, and while planes are able to fly in to deliver supplies, none are flying out of the island, leaving people stranded at airports or anywhere else they can find shelter. The island is devastated.

Barea is grateful that Cuban allowed use of his plane, but the owner better keep his cell phone handy, because Barea hopes to continue using it. His family is safe, but thousands of others are not. Much like the recovery from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, there’s no easy end in sight to getting things back to normal.

“Puerto Rico is such a small island,” he told Mavs.com. “Trying to help people put things back in order is a must for me and the life I was given here. This is something that I will feel forever. And I think help is going to be needed for at least the next year, maybe longer. We will just have to see.”

For more information or to donate to Barea’s YouCaring fund, click here.

Dennis Smith Jr. could open things up for the Mavs’ 3-point shooters

What is the most important position in basketball? Some would say it’s center. If your big man isn’t athletic enough to defend the pick-and-roll or at least score efficiently around the rim, your team might be doomed. Some would say it’s the power forward. Can your 4-man shoot the 3? Can he exploit size mismatches due either to his strength or his quickness? Your power forward’s skill set defines your offense.

Many others, however — probably the majority — would say it’s the point guard position. Now more than ever, the NBA is catered to the quarterback. Nearly every team runs heavy pick-and-roll offenses that feature the point guard in an attacking, scoring-minded role. Gone are the days when 20 starting point guards would average single-digits in scoring. It’s a new era, and your point guard needs to be able to run an offense and score 15 or 20 a night while still creating quality looks for his teammates and defending guys like Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul for 30-plus minutes. Sheesh.

By trading for Nerlens Noel last season and bringing him back for 2017-18, the Mavs shored up their center spot. Noel brings an athleticism and defensive versatility that this club hasn’t seen at that position in years, if ever at all. Dirk Nowitzki is thankfully still playing basketball, and he and Harrison Barnes can both still get you 20 points from the power forward spot. No questions there from a consistency standpoint.

Point guard, however, was the team’s biggest area of need heading into the summer. The Mavericks believe they filled that hole on draft night by selecting Dennis Smith Jr., who now steps into an offense that is practically ready-made for a player of his exact profile. Dallas will start athletes on the wing and at the 5-spot and can spread the floor with as many as four shooters around Smith who have all shot 38 percent or better from deep within the last couple years. All the offense needs is a player who can regularly initiate the sequence that results in a good shot. Ideally, that’s either a dunk or a 3-pointer.

The Mavs had some talented starting point guards last season, but neither were quite like Smith. Deron Williams entered the season as the starter, and while he was a terrific passer and at times a potent scorer from the 1-spot, he doesn’t have Smith’s explosiveness within the pick-and-roll. Williams was brilliant distributing the ball, especially once Nowitzki was healthy again, but he couldn’t attack switches against big men the way Smith projects to be able to. Yogi Ferrell, meanwhile, is a super-quick point guard and was an excellent 3-point shooter in his rookie season, but he doesn’t have Smith’s size or leaping ability. He gained a much better understanding of where his teammates want to be on the floor from a ball distribution standpoint, and hopefully with a full training camp to grow accustomed to these guys, Ferrell can take his passing game up another level this season. He and Smith will likely share the floor for stretches this season.

The Film Room: Dennis Smith Jr.

In this episode of The Film Room, we look at how one particular play illustrates Dennis Smith Jr.'s ability as a point guard.

The hope is that Smith’s game is an amalgam of those of Ferrell and Williams, that he can attack off the bounce like the cat-quick rookie and move the ball like the heady vet. If he can do those things, it could mean the Mavs’ shooters will find themselves in acres of space throughout the season, which could lead to a massive improvement in the team’s 3-point shooting.

Last season a combination of injuries, roster moves, and resting vets down the stretch led to some distorted team numbers. For example, the Mavs shot 36.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in 2016-17, which ranked 21st in the NBA. However, the players they’re bringing back from that team collectively shot 37.0 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, which would have ranked tied for 14th in the league. That might not seem like a significant difference, but considering the Mavs attempted 1,800 of them, it makes a difference across 82 games.

Those same numbers, too, took a massive leap once Dirk Nowitzki returned from injury on Dec. 23. The Mavs didn’t really start ticking offensively until later in the season, but bringing Nowitzki back achieved two things. First, it meant that between Dirk and Barnes, the Mavs could always play a power forward capable of shooting 3s, which opened up the offense. Second, it meant the point guards could always play pick-and-roll with a fearsome jump shooter, which bends defenses in fortuitous ways.

Below is a table showing the primary jump-shooters’ catch-and-shoot 3-point percentages both before and after Nowitzki returned from injury on Dec. 23, when many of their best shooters became even better.

Player C&S 3P% Before Dec. 23 C&S 3P% After Dec. 23 Difference
Dirk Nowitzki 31.6% 39.6% +8.0
Seth Curry 35.5% 43.4% +7.9
J.J. Barea 42.9% 46.7% +3.8
Devin Harris 33.3% 37.0% +3.7
Wesley Matthews 36.3% 38.9% +2.6
Harrison Barnes 36.6% 36.4% -0.2
Yogi Ferrell N/A 40.5% N/A
Totals 36.0% 39.7% +3.7

Of course, Nowitzki’s return wasn’t the only thing to happen that resulted in basically a full-scale improvement in 3-point shooting. Devin Harris and J.J. Barea both missed large chunks of time in the early part of the season, and most importantly once Ferrell came into the fold, the team saw an immediate offensive improvement in that regard. Why? Because for weeks at a time Ferrell was the only player on the roster who could consistently get into the lane.

Ferrell averaged 6.1 drives per game last season for the Mavericks, the most on the team. Most of those lane attacks came against opposing starting lineups, too. That number represents a big increase from Williams’ average of 4.9 drives per game and is a slight uptick from Barea’s 5.6 per game, but the Puerto Rican rarely played against starters. What we’re primarily focusing on is the starting point guard’s ability to get into the paint, because that’s where Smith is likely going to come in. The Mavs offense has to create penetration against opposing front line units to stay competitive early in games and avoid falling behind early.

Assuming Smith clinches the starting job in training camp, he’s presumably going to be playing plenty of minutes with Nowitzki. The German has an unrivaled influence on opponents’ defensive rotations, as his defender never wants to leave him open. That could mean Smith will commonly come off ball-screens with an immediate driving lane to the basket, forcing defenders to slide over and help. That’s going to leave Mavs shooters open all over the floor. In order to achieve all of this, though, a point guard has to have the quickness to attack, the explosiveness around the rim to strike enough fear into the defense to force help, and the court vision to identify the open man.

It’s been a while since the Mavericks have had a player with all three of those traits. The most recent is Monta Ellis, whose blistering off-the-dribble game fueled a top-five Mavs offense for back-to-back seasons from 2013-2015. Just look at everything going on here.

Ellis cruised right through the first line of help defense and into the paint, where the entire Pacers defense collapsed to prevent a layup attempt. That left Jose Calderon wide open for a 3 on the weak side. Nowitzki helped this action, but most of the credit goes to Ellis for so quickly and decisively getting into the lane. He knew he wouldn’t get a shot off, but by drawing so much attention through his action, he created a great look for someone else.

Ellis had a knack for attacking the paint early in the shot clock, and he and Nowitzki developed very good chemistry in the pick-and-pop game. The shifty guard had the freedom to choose whether to use his screen or attack in the opposite direction, and doing so would usually catch the defense off guard. Below, Ellis attacks before the opposing defense is even set, and again he finds Calderon open for 3.

Nowitzki wasn’t even involved in the following play, but his presence was surely felt.

Ellis called for a screen from a different player, then quickly crossed over and got going toward the lane with one hard step and dribble. Nowitzki’s defender was the only other big man on the floor, but he was pulled 25 feet out from the rim. That left only a couple guards to help against the driving Ellis, who once again found Calderon for 3. The Mavericks finished second in the league in 3-point shooting in 2013-14.

Smith is quick and explosive enough to make these plays. Swap out Calderon for Seth Curry or Wesley Matthews and you can have that similar 3-point production on the weak side. Barnes and Nowitzki are obviously no slouches from deep, either, and if Smith plays with Barea, Harris, or Ferrell, he’ll have another lead guard he can trust to hoist the long-range shots too.

He’ll have no shortage of options, but as was the case with Ellis, everything will start with Smith. Can he break down that first line of defense? Can he get into the lane and draw attention? And, if he does all that, can he also make the right pass to the right player at the right time? It’s a tough ask of a 19-year-old rookie, but that’s the kind of thing Smith will have to do multiple times per game for 82 in order for this offense to click at the level it’s capable of reaching. The good thing is Nowitzki and Noel will help him do that by drawing their own attention as a screener, and the shooters are going to be able to convert those looks when they’re there. Smith will only need to focus on doing his job, and fortunately he’s already shown he can do it.

Returning Mavs have the ingredients to put together a much-improved offense

With the Mavericks’ re-signing of Nerlens Noel, the club has solidified its core and essentially guaranteed which players from last season’s roster will return for 2017-18.

Dallas has experienced less year-to-year continuity than many other teams in the NBA since the 2010-11 championship season, but the Mavs have still managed to qualify for the postseason four times in those six years, bucking conventional wisdom. Typically, you would expect teams with extensive roster turnover would struggle from one year to the next, and that’s generally true, but has largely not applied to Dallas in that time. We’ve seen the Mavericks return as few as four players from one season’s roster to the next, but the engine has for the most part kept humming.

The 2016-17 roster was a microcosm of that trend, as the team experienced multiple waves of turnover in the same season. A whopping 24 players suited up for the club, the most since 27 did so during the 1996-97 season. Last year’s roster was decimated by injuries, and Dallas made a series of midseason moves including cuts and trades to send away players in exchange for new ones. The Mavs finished 33-49, but while they obviously weren’t happy with their record, they looked forward to developing the young nucleus of players they’d assembled of Harrison Barnes, Seth Curry, Noel, and first-round draft pick Dennis Smith Jr. — a group which, true to form, was brought together in the span of one calendar year.

This year represents a shift in that trend. The Mavericks are currently set to return 11 players from last season’s roster, with Noel the latest addition. Rounding out the roster are Smith Jr., Maxi Kleber, Josh McRoberts, two-way contract recipient Johnathan Motley, and several players who will be invited to training camp.

There are clear advantages to establishing year-to-year continuity. But the burning question is this: The Mavs won 33 games last season and are bringing back much of that roster. Does that group have what it takes to win more games? Are there any signs this group can improve from 2017? The answer is yes, at least on one side of the ball.

For years, Rick Carlisle has been considered one of the great coaching minds in the NBA, and his offensive system in Dallas is the envy of many coaches around the league. It’s produced serious results for the Mavericks for almost his entire tenure; his teams have finished top-10 in offensive rating six times in his nine seasons. Last year’s club, however, finished just 23rd, which on paper doesn’t look good. But when you take a look at only the 11 players the Mavericks are bringing back, you’ll see something to be excited about.

For this exercise, I took a look at the 2016-17 Mavs’ overall offensive efficiency in terms of points per possession, as well as the team’s efficiency by play type. Then, I compared the entire team’s numbers to only those of the returning 11 players to see how they’d stack up against not only the Mavs, but also the rest of the NBA. The results are pictured in the chart. (Click to enlarge.)

The Mavericks finished bottom-half in many of those offensive categories last season, but the 11 players they’re bringing back collectively finished much higher. For example, they would have combined to finish 10th in points per possession, up from the team’s position in 17th place. The returning Mavs were better at spot-up shooting, scoring in the pick-and-roll both as the ball-handler and the roll man, scoring in isolation and in the post, and when cutting or coming off screens.

The Mavs’ offense consists mostly of those actions. Dallas isn’t a big transition team and the Mavericks don’t run a lot of hand-off plays. They’re not particularly aggressive going after offensive rebounds, either. Generally, when they’re at their best, they’re running a ton of pick-and-roll to get looks at the rim or on the perimeter, and if that fails then they take advantage of size mismatches created by switches in the post.

Point guard injuries hurt the Mavs last season, as it took pick-and-roll scoring largely off the table. It’s difficult for less-experienced point guards to fill in for veterans and immediately replace their production. When players like Deron Williams and J.J. Barea were sidelined with injuries, Jonathan Gibson, Pierre Jackson, and Quinn Cook were called upon as replacements. To take pressure off of them, the Mavs relied more on Harrison Barnes and others in isolation, which allowed him to grow as a scorer but limited ball movement and the free-flowing nature of Carlisle’s sophisticated system. Luckily, Yogi Ferrell later burst onto the scene to make up for that lost production at point guard, and eventually Barea returned to action later in the season.

That’s where the addition of Smith is so key. He projects as an effective scorer in the pick-and-roll because of his combination of quickness and explosiveness, and hopefully Barea will be much healthier this season after being limited to just 35 games last year. Ferrell is also returning, and he really showed signs of improvement as the season went on. Dallas ought to be able to run much more pick-and-roll next season and much less isolation, and that could have very real benefits.

Below is the Mavs’ play type by volume in the Carlisle era, per Synergy Sports. The club’s offensive peak came during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, when Dallas finished third and fifth in offensive rating, respectively. Notice in the chart below which play type is most prevalent.

Each of those two seasons, more than 20 percent of the Mavs’ offense came from pick-and-roll ball-handlers. Fans who remember those two seasons know Monta Ellis was the primary recipient of those possessions, while Devin Harris, J.J. Barea, and a few other players handled the rest of playmaking duties. The next season, 2015-16, Dallas finished 10th in offense, and pick-and-roll ball-handlers used 17.8 percent of their possessions.

Also pay attention to the inverse relationship between pick-and-roll ball-handling (dark blue) and isolation (black). The more pick-and-roll the Mavs run, the less isolation they run. When the ball is moving and the guards are attacking the lane coming off those screens, Dallas is not only scoring more efficiently, but the Mavericks are playing a better brand of team basketball. It’s no coincidence that roll men also profited when ball-handlers used more of the offense — if guards are looking to score at the rim, they’re also looking for teammates at the rim. Dallas finished third in offense in 2013-14, and more than 30 percent of its offense consisted of pick-and-roll ball-handlers or roll men using the possessions. In this era of the NBA, that’s a hugely important source of offense.

The hope is that Smith and the other Mavs guards (including Curry, who after a while grew more comfortable in that role) can use the pick-and-roll to generate more looks and more points within the offense. NBA defenses are the best in the world, but even they haven’t found an answer to dominant ball-handlers. LeBron James, James Harden, Chris Paul, and John Wall spearheaded some of the league’s best offenses this season by using ball screens to get into the lane and break down the opponent. When that happens, it opens things up for teammates around the arc.

Dennis Smith Jr. Highlights

Check out some of All-Summer League First Team Dennis Smith Jr.'s best plays from Las Vegas and NC State!

In the Mavs’ case, that’s Smith, Barea, and Ferrell getting into the paint to clear some space for Wesley Matthews, Seth Curry, Harrison Barnes, and Dirk Nowitzki, he of the 30,000-point club. That’s made even easier with the roll gravity created as Nerlens Noel rumbles down the lane, and both Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri proved to be more than capable roll men last season.

That space will certainly benefit the Mavs’ shooters. Last season, Jan. 12 became a very important date, as it was the night Seth Curry became a full-time starter and Nowitzki was declared starting center. Dallas pledged its allegiance to small-ball for most of the rest of the season, and it all began that night.

Before that date, the Mavs had struggled to consistently knock down 3-point shots, converting on just 34.8 percent from beyond the arc. But the combination of small-ball creating more space, acquiring Ferrell and Noel, and Barea’s return resulted in a much more wide-open attack, and it paid dividends. From Jan. 12 to the end of the season, the Mavs shot 36.1 percent on 3s. For reference, a 34.8 percent mark for the season would have ranked tied for 21st in the NBA, while 36.1 percent would have ranked 14th. The primary players who benefited: Nowitzki, Matthews, and Curry.

The chart below shows their success rate on catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts both before and after Jan. 12. (Not included were Barea and Ferrell, who combined to shoot better than 40 percent on 4.7 catch-and-shoot treys per game after Jan. 12.)

Player Before 3PA/g Before 3pt% After 3PA/g After 3pt% Difference
Dirk Nowitzki 4.0 34.6% 2.1 40.5% +5.9%
Wesley Matthews 5.6 36.4% 4.1 39.4% +3.0%
Seth Curry 2.8 39.6% 3.3 41.4% +1.8%

Not all of this has to do with small-ball and point guard play, but it’s hard to deny the correlation. Once the Mavs created more space, their best and most frequent 3-point shooters shot the ball significantly better.

OK, so what does this all mean? First and foremost, the returning Mavericks scored at a playoff-caliber clip last season. The goal is for them to pick up where they left off, and perhaps take it up another level with the addition of the dynamic Smith. How can they do this? Smith, Barea, and Ferrell — who combined to appear in just 13 games before that key Jan. 12 date — all are able to get into the paint and break down defenses more often than the Mavs guards were able to last season, which could lead to more looks at the rim both for them and for their pick-and-roll dance partners. Meanwhile, defenses might pack the paint to take that away from them, which would lead to open looks on the perimeter for the Mavs’ best shooters, who proved last season that their accuracy would rise with even the slightest extra smidgen of breathing room. If all of those things fail, then somewhere along the line the Mavs will have picked up an advantageous switch, leaving either Dirk or Barnes one-on-one against a smaller player.

Every facet of a team’s offense is connected. Dribble penetration creates havoc, but not if you don’t have any shooting. Solid screen-setting both on and away from the ball creates havoc, but not if you don’t have a ball-handler to utilize that space. Quality 3-point shooting creates more havoc now than it ever has in the history of the sport, but not if you don’t have other players working to set up those looks for you. The Mavericks still must execute at a high level (and hopefully have better injury luck this year than last), but they seem primed to run pick-and-roll and shoot at a high level. Those are the key ingredients to an effective offense, and the Mavs have been one of the league’s best offenses for most of Nowitzki’s career and especially in the Carlisle era. Their mission this season is to prove that last year was the exception, not the rule.