Can Dennis help Dallas be dominant?

When the Dallas Mavericks drafted Dennis Smith Jr. in the 2017 lottery, fans were excited by the young and explosive guard from NC State. In his rookie year, Smith played like most score-dominant rookies do by putting up nearly 15 Field Goal Attempts per contest, but only making about six. He showed flashes of his highly-lauded explosiveness with the capability to burn defenders on the perimeter with a lightning-quick first step and some NBA Jam-like hops to boot. It was clear though that he needed to work on his ability to finish at the rim once he got there and that he didn’t have the shot creation ability to run the Mavs offense by himself. Gee, if only the Mavs could find a player who could allow Dennis to get off the ball more, continue to work on his jumper and could help him manage the offense to relive his burden… Insert European wonderboy Luka Doncic who checks the box with a big bold check mark in all of these categories and also looks to be one of the best rookie prospects to enter the league in years. The relief that Doncic brings to this team has allowed Smith to play off the ball more, shows his playmaking in tandem with Luka, and becomes a surprisingly good on-ball defender at his size, which is increasingly important in today’s score-heavy NBA. But Houston (err, Dallas) we have a problem, and that problem starts with one word: numbers.

While Doncic has helped Smith improve his numbers almost across the board, the two together are averaging as a net negative to the tune of a -9 rating. Opposing teams have a better rating when the two are on the floor together than they do when just one is on, which is surprising since the two are both very good individually. This problem stems mostly from Smith having to play off-ball more than he’s used to, to the tune of 3 less shots per game this season as opposed to last. While his shooting percentages from two and three are up, the eye-test shows Smith ball watching quite a bit when Luka is manning the offense. Smith has been prone to be an easy cover when he’s off-ball, commonly being found on the perimeter’s corner with his hands on his knees just watching the Slovenian savant break down opposing guards. In situations where you would want Smith to move around the perimeter without the ball to show off his enhanced deep shooting touch or cut to the rim to blast off a trampoline for a dunk, we often find Dennis catching the ball off a Doncic pass without his feet squared to the hoop. As far as the moving around the perimeter and hands off the knees things go, that’s just effort, which is hard to teach. What we can expect to improve though is his cutting, which at this level is much more about timing, and increased success will come with more time in the League.

On the defensive end Smith and Doncic have the ability to be a nice 1–2 punch in the backcourt. Building on what we saw from Dennis the other night, where he had a game-winning block on the bigger Tobias Harris who backed Smith down for a turnaround jumper, Smith looks like a better defender this year. Smith’s explosiveness allows him to stay in front of speedy guards, and his active hands make setting up plays and driving to the hoop an annoying task for opposing points. While Doncic doesn’t have the athleticism or speed to stay with these types of players, Smith has the ability to become a 3&D lockdown perimeter player at his size. Where Smith really disappoints on D is his off-ball defense, where we often find him getting caught ball watching, allowing his assignment to slip easily to the basket or move freely around the perimeter for several seconds before Smith relocates them.

The fact that Smith’s deficiencies on both offense and defense are effort-driven isn’t the most promising thing in the world, but it’s important to remember that guards like him usually don’t reach their peak till several seasons in to their careers. Score-heavy and speedy guards like Kemba Walker and Zach Lavine — to name a few — have shown that just because you don’t start out as a game changer doesn’t mean you can’t become one. Will Smith be as impactful to his team as Kemba? Maybe, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s too early to ship Smith off the island. While it’s true that Smith’s trade value — if he never develops into much more — is at an all-time high right now, I’m not really sure what the point of trading him is. For a Dallas team that’s still several moves away from being a contender, what’s the point of getting better this season with a more veteran player, just to get body-slammed in a West that’s deeper than a Steph Curry three? Wouldn’t they want to let some of the big pieces like Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis shift while the Mavs develop their young guys? I’m not saying they should tank, but hell, Dallas already has a transcendent talent in Doncic and has a top-10 attendance record with a very deep draft on the horizon. Dallas isn’t in the race for a Zion Williamson or RJ Barrett, but the Mavs should feel content with winning a few dozen games while they build chemistry and a culture, then look to strike when they have the players to even think about going for another Championship.

In the meantime, Dennis Smith Jr. should continue to work on his shot from deep (once his wrist isn’t tweaked), keep maturing as an NBA player who hangs his coat on defensive effort and IQ and continue to make the top 10 plays every couple of days when he ices a defender and demolishes the rim.