DALLAS — He’ll likely be handed a heavy offensive responsibility as soon as he steps onto the court to begin his rookie season with the Dallas Mavericks. But while leading the Mavericks’ offensive attack during the 2017-18 season, first-year floor general Dennis Smith Jr. will also be forced to defend a gauntlet of opposing point guards to start his rookie year.
Monday, the NBA and the Mavericks released the team’s schedule for the ’17-18 season. Beginning his NBA career against Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder at home on Oct. 18, Smith will then find himself matched up against No. 5 overall draft pick De’Aaron Fox, veteran lead guard George Hill and the Sacramento Kings two nights later. From there Smith will see some of the Western Conference’s top lead guards during his first week in the league with four straight games against perennial All-Star candidates like Houston’s Chris Paul, two-time MVP Stephen Curry of Golden State and Memphis’ Mike Conley. A date against No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz looms from there when the Mavs welcome in the Philadelphia 76ers on Oct. 28. And with early-season matchups against Washington’s John Wall, Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, scoring champion Isaiah Thomas of Boston, San Antonio’s Tony Parker, Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon of Milwaukee and reigning MVP Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City to come in November, Smith will immediately be thrown into the fire on the defensive end of the floor.
“This is a fact: There’s no player that comes into this that can be totally prepared to play defense in the NBA with the pace, the strength difference, the speed difference and all those kinds of things. But I think Dennis understands that staying on the court to do that means you’ve got to be strong in both areas,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said of Smith’s defensive abilities earlier this summer. “It’s important to attack the guy that’s going to be attacking you at the other end, but you’ve got to be able to guard him, too. And you’ve got to have a system in place where your teammates can help you do that, so that’s going to be one of the biggest parts of his learning curve. You know, I expect the offensive stuff to happen pretty naturally just based on what I’ve seen on film, but NBA defense is a different metabolic situation. There’s a lot to learn, and he understands that.
“You know, people are going to be coming at him hard as a rookie and as a guy that’s coming in with some accolades, some hype and things like that, and I think he understands it. I think he’s looking forward to that.”
The 19-year-old Smith’s offensive game is well publicized after becoming the first player to lead the ACC among freshmen in points and assists since Ed Cota during the ’96-97 season during his lone collegiate campaign at North Carolina State. He also filled up the stat sheet last season with the Wolfpack, averaging 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists while shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 35.9 percent from behind the three-point arc.
Perhaps more importantly, Smith collected a staggering 1.9 steals per game by showing an uncanny ability to play the passing lanes and create turnovers. Still, according to the cat-quick guard, he still has a lot to learn about playing defense at the NBA level. That learning process may be sped up during the Mavericks’ early-season schedule.
“I want to learn exactly how to play defense,” Smith confessed back in June. “You know, that’s not something that was really pressed about last year. And with the staff we had, we were more of an offense-oriented team, so we really didn’t learn too much about defense. I’m looking forward to learning a lot about it this year, and I think that will be the main thing — learning how to play.”