There are athletes, and then there are guys like Dennis Smith Jr.
Here’s a player who already won the dunk contest on Twitter over the weekend. He was reportedly dunking two weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL in 2015. Smith is rumored to have a 48-inch vertical leap — eight inches higher than his pre-injury measurement, according to the player — a fact that led Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson to quip that had Smith not torn his knee ligament before his senior high school season, he might be able to leap 50 inches.
These are not things we say about most 6-foot-3 point guards.
“Dennis is the kind of guy that we haven’t had here since I’ve been here,” head coach Rick Carlisle said on our live draft show last week. “His quickness, his ability to attack in space, use screen-rolls and those kinds of things, just from a dynamic athleticism standpoint we have not seen.”
Indeed, Smith is a completely new idea in Dallas. The 19-year-old is the most athletic guard Carlisle has coached since he took over in 2008, and he’s probably the most explosive guard in Mavericks franchise history. The closest comparison would be combo guard Rodrigue Beaubois, who had a breakout rookie campaign before suffering multiple injuries and eventually winding up overseas. But Beaubois was not the playmaker Smith is, and that’s what sets “Junior” apart from other superathletes who have come out of the draft in recent years: There aren’t many players in the NBA with such a strong combination of aggressive explosiveness and pick-and-roll savvy.
The temptation when watching Smith play is to gawk at his vertical while ignoring the rest of his game. It’s understandable, to be sure; aside from Russell Westbrook, Smith is probably already the league’s most violent dunker at the point guard position. But last year at NC State, Smith also handed out 6.2 assists per game, which led the ACC, widely considered the best conference in college basketball. He assisted on more than one-third of his teammates’ made baskets while he was on the floor.
He also scored a relatively efficient 18.1 points per game despite facing constant extra attention from opposing defenses, often in the form of double-teams. Smith’s finest collegiate performance came in a comeback win on the road against the highly ranked and heavily favored Duke Blue Devils. The floor general finished with 32 points, six assists, and two steals. You never want to look too far into one game, but if teams had, Smith might have been the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
That night at Cameron Indoor, Smith flashed most every positive quality you could hope to see from a point guard. It wasn’t simply that he scored, but it was how he scored. It wasn’t just that he had six assists, but it’s how he handed them out. And, again, while you never want to put too much stock into one game — and there’s a lot of film, good and bad, out there on Smith — taking a good, long look at some of the sequences from that evening can give us an idea of the type of player he can become at the next level.
The first thing I like to look for in a point guard is decisiveness at the point of attack in the pick-and-roll. Is there a switch? Did the defender go under? Where are your teammates, and what are their defenders doing? There are half a dozen decisions to be made in half a second, which isn’t easy. But the players who can make those reads and act appropriately — and quickly — enjoy long, fruitful NBA careers. You don’t always need to be exceptionally athletic or young to excel there, either; J.J. Barea is one of the best pick-and-roll point guards in basketball, and he just turned 33. But when you are, it’s a bonus.
Smith faced numerous future pros while at NC State, and all of these guys were focused squarely on him. But why? Because if they didn’t, and they instead hedged with a big man or simply switched, Smith could easily get around the defender.
All it took Smith to realize he had a huge advantage in that moment was one hesitation dribble. Sometimes point guards might turn the corner there and wait an extra dribble or two to attack, and by the time they see the entire floor, it’s already too late to go. Basketball is a game of split-second decisions, and you’ve got to be able to make them faster than your opponent.
In this next play, he’s already been the target of a switch. Smith’s teammate comes up to set a high screen, and the point guard wisely fools his defender into believing the screen-roll dance is about to begin. Instead, Smith quickly crosses over to his right and leaves his defender to give chase.
This is where Smith’s explosiveness comes into play. The player who was switched on to him is 6-foot-8 Amile Jefferson (No. 21), who’s going to play pro basketball. At that size, he’s athletic enough to stick with Smith and potentially threaten the point guard’s layup with a contest. But Smith is explosive enough to create some separation — and is even sneaky enough to launch off his right foot, not his left, as right-handed players typically do, which throws off the challenger even further. Kyrie Irving is notorious for jumping off the “wrong” foot on drives to the basket, a trick he uses to make his shots more difficult to time. Irving, however, is nowhere near the leaper that Smith is. In combination with a 40-plus-inch vertical, the Mavs rookie could, in theory, use a wrong-foot jump to get a relatively clean look at the rim whenever he wants.
The best counter to a point guard who can out-speed bigs and shoot over 1s, especially if he’s not surrounded with dangerous teammates, is to trap and double-team him coming off those screens. After watching Smith get the better of a few big men in the first half, Duke made the choice to double hard in the second half. This is where you see Smith change his process, and you can see the gears spinning.
Early in the second half, Smith is immediately doubled coming off a screen on the left-hand side by Jefferson and Grayson Allen. Jayson Tatum, who went No. 3 overall, comes over to tag Smith’s pick-and-roll partner. By the time Smith can pick his head up, he’s pinned against the baseline and outnumbered 4-to-3, a recipe for disaster. But he somehow gets this pass off.
To be clear, Smith ought to be cooked in the play above. Taking the ball toward the baseline is risky at best, and you’re tempting fate any time you do that while also welcoming a double-team. But he crab-dribbles and somehow sneaks around Jefferson before delivering a left-handed, on-the-money pass to a shooter.
Duke kept the pressure up throughout the rest of the second half, and now we’ll skip ahead to the end of the game to see some of Smith’s best work. The following play is the first in a series that gets you thinking he can make an impact immediately at this level.
With about 3:30 left in the game, Smith takes a high screen moving to his right, and he can sense the double-team coming from first-round pick Harry Giles and senior guard Matt Jones. Rather than panic, Smith keeps his head up and makes this pass.
Now, is that pass risky? Yes, perhaps, but it gets there. Smith’s biggest advantage in that play is he gets the pass off before Tatum reads the play. Some NBA defenders might get there in time, but Tatum didn’t… and Smith won’t be doubled like this when his screener is Dirk Nowitzki. The point is he had the vision to see that pass, and the guts to make it.
A minute later, Smith found himself with the ball again and took a similar high screen. This time, however, NC State knew the pressure would come so the Wolfpack screen the screener — meaning the center screens for Smith, and then uses a screen from the 4-man to free himself up. Watch this gif twice: First, watch how screening the screener throws the defense off, then watch all the Blue Devils’ eyes. They’re all on Smith.
Knowing this, Smith pass-fakes to throw Allen off and give him a clear passing lane to his rolling big man for an alley-oop. He’s a step ahead of the entire Duke defense. That play is a brilliant combination of coaching and court vision.
Finally, one minute after that, Smith again has the ball at the top of the arc, his team up four. The Wolfpack are running the same exact play, with both big men toward the top of the arc and Smith going to his right. Only, this time, Smith moves right and then cuts back left when he notices both Blue Devils defenders are playing to his right hand. NC State screens the screener again, and Smith winds up with a one-on-one against severely over-matched wing Luke Kennard. Smith is winning that battle every time.
Once again, Smith is one step ahead of a well-coached team. Over the course of two minutes late in a close game against a top-ranked team, a double-teamed Smith found his center for two dunks, and then juked another would-be double-team into a double-screen before laying it in himself. He did this as the complete center of attention, the focal point of all five opposing defenders. Now imagine him going to work next to Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes, and potentially Nerlens Noel with shooters like Wesley Matthews and Seth Curry to space the floor. Smith had the luxury of playing in a spread pick-and-roll offense in college, but he’s about to step into one of the most sophisticated offenses in basketball with perhaps the most pristine floor spacing in the league, thanks in large part to his 39-year-old teammate, who cut his teeth in this league before Smith could even walk, let alone jump four feet in the air.
When Rick Carlisle compliments a player, you take him seriously. And when a freshman point guard leads his unranked team to a win at Cameron Indoor, you take him seriously. Again, there’s a ton of film out there on Smith highlighting other strengths and his potential flaws, but his individual performance against Duke stands out as one of the finest of the 2016-17 Division I season. Now it’s his job to maintain that standard at the next level, and Carlisle’s job to put him in position to do so.
Smith has a rare combination of otherworldly athleticism and sharp pick-and-roll skills, which makes him an intriguing prospect in this era of the NBA. He’s perhaps the most exciting rookie to come through Dallas in two decades, and he’s got the upside to make you think that, maybe, the Mavs’ recent youth movement might pay dividends sooner than anyone expected, or at least that’s the hope. Then again, considering only one year ago the Mavericks had a nearly empty roster and no first-round draft pick, they’ve come an awfully long way in just 12 months. Dallas has gone from one of the oldest rosters in the league to piecing together one of the most exciting young cores. As Carlisle has said, this process won’t be easy for Smith, and it won’t be for any of the other young guys, either. But for now, maybe hope is enough.