Dennis Smith, Jr. has a birthday coming up, just around Thanksgiving. At that point he’ll be twenty. Some days it shows, some days it doesn’t.
The NBA is funny when it comes to rookies. The ones we really remember are the ones who never struggle at all. Dennis, obviously, isn’t even close to Philadelphia's mighty Ben Simmons in the rookie of the year race. Simmons, who’s averaging 18 points, nearly 8 assists, and 9 rebounds through the first eight games of his NBA career, is blowing the doors off the league in ways that might reasonably remind people of a young LeBron. But that doesn’t mean that Smith’s early contributions – averaging 11 points and nearly 6 assists – is at all disappointing.
Of course, it’s also clear that Smith is not going to be Simmons, or any player who had an easy transition. There have been some really bright spots – his opening night double-double (16 points, 10 assists), his 19-point night in the win against Memphis – but there have also been some struggles. Smith has shot 50% or more in two of the six games he’s played, and under 30% in three others. He was 1-7 against Utah, and his minutes dipped for reasons that are self-explanatory. Considered objectively, he’s shot poorly, passed poorly, and has yet to have a game where he really pours it in.
What Smith has done has shown what his skills could be. The dunks, obviously, are crazy, but frankly his leaping ability is kind of a sideshow. Smith is shooting poorly from three but has shown the ability to hit the long ball – as in a 3-6 shooting night against Memphis. He’s passed poorly, and has had massive turnover problems recently. But he also has dished out a bunch of nice assists, and is currently averaging more than anyone but Deron Williams managed last year.
In other words, he's struggling at the things rookies tend to struggle at, especially ones who were college freshmen less than a year ago. He needs to adjust to NBA defenses and NBA three-point lines. But while nothing is ever guaranteed, the kid really looks like he’ll be able to do that, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that started happening soon.
One thing you can’t say about Smith? That he’s not getting a chance to show what he can do. Through 8 games, Smith is averaging 28.2 minutes a game, more than all but three players (Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews, and Yogi Ferrell). That will likely change when Seth Curry comes back, but it's not a given. If Rick Carlisle’s offense is known for anything, it’s finding ways to get guards involved.
If Smith fulfills his potential, the Mavericks might have one of the better point guards in the game in a few years' time. It’s been a very, very long time since that’s been true for them – far more often they’ve boasted players like Jason Kidd, or the current iteration of J.J. Barea, cagey veterans who know what they’re doing but can’t do as much of it any more. If Smith progresses like he can, the Mavs have at least something to build around, which is what they really need.