As preseason play gets underway, all eyes are on Dennis Smith Jr. The Dallas Mavericks’ first-round draft pick electrified crowds in Las Vegas during Summer League with his effortless athleticism. Now, though, he’ll be facing NBA talent night in and night out. How he responds is everything. While expectations are high, making the leap from college to the pros is anything but easy.
After just a few weeks, though, Smith Jr’s ability is already receiving praise from his future-Hall-of-Fame teammate Dirk Nowitzki.
“I’ve rarely seen an athlete like this at the point guard spot,” Nowitzki said. “Just freakish. He goes down the lane – how easy he goes and just pushes off his calves a little bit and next thing you know he’s at the rim. Just really quick, really explosive.”
Smith may make getting to the rim look easy, especially when coming around screens set by the Big German, but questions remain about his all-around game. Coming into the draft, defense was a big unknown for the rookie. At North Carolina State, that side of the ball wasn’t preached. In the NBA, Smith Jr. can’t afford to focus on only one end. That said, head coach Rick Carlisle has seen improvements in his game thus far.
“He made big strides this summer defensively,” Carlisle said at Media Day. “He learned a lot about the NBA game. He certainly has the tools. I believe at this point in time he understands that there’s going to be a real urgency to be a very good, solid defender, particularly at the point guard position in order to stay on the floor. Because you’re getting attacked almost every night by some kind of guy like [Russell] Westbrook or Chris Paul or somebody that just has unbelievable talent, skill, that whole thing.
“I don’t think Dennis is under any false notion that any of this is going to be easy. He did well this summer but he had a few humbling moments this summer too, which happens to rookies in summer league.”
It won’t be easy. Smith Jr., who will start for the Mavericks this season, will face every challenge that it entails, including the reputation of his head coach. Carlisle asks a lot from his rookies. If they don’t meet those expectations, he’s not conservative with the crook. Smith Jr., though, knows what’s expected and that he’s going to have to earn his role on the court and in the locker room.
“I got to earn the respect from my peers,” Smith Jr. said. “That’s what I’ve been working on doing -- being a great teammate, trying to come out there and be a leader. And I’m only 19 years old. [Carlisle]’s telling me there’s going to be some bumps but if I make it full speed ahead, I should be able to bounce back.”
It’s going to take Smith Jr. time to adjust to the NBA. There’s no question about that. As the first meaningful draft pick the team has had in years, however, there’s no denying the degree of elation his presence brings to the team.
“I understand the level of excitement,” Carlisle said. “People should be excited. This kid is going to show some really amazing things that we haven’t seen at the point guard position ever with this franchise.”
If everything goes according to plan, there’s no reason Smith Jr. can’t meet the lofty expectations in front of him.