LAS VEGAS — Rick Carlisle has always loved Dennis Smith Jr.’s game. But it was a pre-draft meeting, weeks before Smith’s name was called on the Barclays Center stage, where Carlisle became convinced this was the Mavericks’ guy.
“I liked his combination of confidence and humility,” the Dallas Mavericks head coach tells SB Nation. “When talking to him before the draft about our situation, he just had a strong belief in himself. That was clear. He had that belief without being cocky or arrogant. I admire that.”
That humble confidence is a huge credit to how Dennis Smith Sr. raised his son and daughter as a single parent in Fayetteville, N.C, molding Junior — as he calls him — into who he is now. It’s why Smith will insist Jr. is added to the back of his Mavericks jersey.
“It’s more than basketball with that,” Smith says when asked about Carlisle’s words. “That’s the way I was raised to be as a man. That’s a credit to my whole family, especially my father. It just translates from being a man on to basketball.”
After spending time with the senior Smith in Las Vegas this week, Carlisle agrees:
“I’ve gotten to know his dad a little bit, sat with him during the second game, and I can see why he’s a kid with strong character.”
Smith, the ninth overall pick in last month’s NBA Draft, joins the Mavericks as a future face of the franchise, something made even more important due to Dirk Nowitzki’s career drawing near an end. The Mavericks hadn’t owned their own top-10 draft pick since Nowitzki was selected No. 9 in 1998. They felt certain that Smith was a top-five talent in the draft, putting him out of their reach.
But when the New York Knicks selected Frank Ntilikina one pick before, Carlisle says the Mavericks draft room erupted into “thunderous applause” knowing the guy they truly wanted was still on the board.
Through three games in the Las Vegas Summer League, the 19-year-old Smith is averaging 18 points on 47 percent shooting while adding five assists per game. In his first matchup, he wowed the Thomas & Mack Center crowd with his pregame dunks. The following day, he dropped 25 points on the Suns. In Game 3, he stuck a dagger three-pointer into the hearts of the Miami Heat.
After Smith was selected on draft night, Carlisle said he expected him to be the team’s opening day starting point guard. Whatever you’ve heard about Carlisle’s reputation for favoring veterans over rookies, set it aside.
“He’s a kid who’s gotta be out there,” Carlisle says. “I’ve projected him as a starter, and so far, I’m not coming off of that.”
As one member of the Mavericks front office tells me: “He might be even better than we thought.”
Asked if he believed he should have been the draft’s top selection, Smith doesn’t hesitate.
“Of course,” he says immediately.
But Smith is also self aware.
“Everybody believes they should be the first pick, but that’s not everybody’s destiny,” Smith says after his third summer league game. “It can’t be. Mathematically, that don’t add up.”
Smith may not forget the eight teams who passed on him anytime soon, but he feels “ultra thankful” to end up in the situation that he did. The four teams drafting before Dallas were the Knicks, Bulls, Magic, and Kings. None of them have a proven young core like the Mavericks.
That idea would have been laughable just a year ago. Last June, the Mavericks’ two best prospects were Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell, who will both have to fight to even play consistently next season. Even last year, Mark Cuban was still pushing the team towards a playoff run with established veterans, only to see Dallas start the year 4-17.
“You react to the circumstances you’re in,” Mark Cuban told SB Nation. “Some of the guys that were older were hurt. We’re not going to get any younger (that way).”
So the Mavericks jettisoned Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams when it was clear they weren’t helping. After signing 25-year-old Harrison Barnes and 26-year-old Seth Curry in July 2016, they nabbed undrafted rookie Yogi Ferrell from the recycling bin and traded for 23-year-old Nerlens Noel on a steal of a deal. Now, they’ve added Smith, who might be the most important of them all.
(Noel, a restricted free agent, hasn’t re-signed yet — the two sides are still “not close,” a league source tells SB Nation — but it’s still a safe assumption he ends up back in Dallas before the summer’s up.)
It’s a sensational rebuilding project completed in Dallas in just a year. In a stacked Western Conference, there’s a good chance the Mavericks fall short of the playoffs. But for the first time in more than a decade, that’s fine. The team’s timeline to really compete remains in the future.
When exactly? The answer depends on Smith and his development.
Smith is nervous for his first game, he admits afterwards, but it hardly shows. In fact, his calmness under pressure is what impressed his coaches the most. Both Carlisle and Mavericks summer league coach Jamahl Mosley laud one sequence where Smith quickly moves past several bad plays. That defies nearly every predraft scouting report, which listed “attitude” as a negative.
“He comes to the bench, his head’s down for half a second, I said something to him really quick, and next thing you know he comes out and makes three (good) plays,” Mosley says. “Things like that, most young players are in the tank for the next five possessions. He turned it around just like that.”
In other areas, Smith marches ahead. He can weave through traffic like an out-of-control taxi cab or bully his way into defenders, dislodging them and clearing space for a short shot. He has full confidence in his jump shot, which he’ll use to fall away in the lane when a defender stops him a little short, or step back for a three when a poor soul gets switched onto him in a pick-and-roll.
His passes tend to find open teammates rather than him threading the needle to someone where it looked like there was no space. But given how much work it takes to stop Smith from scoring, there’s will always be open teammates when the ball’s in his hands.
“He’s aggressive without being out of control,” Carlisle says. “He’s got vision, he sees people, he delivers the ball on time and on target, and he’s going to get the ball in the basket.”
Smith must improve defensively, a side of the ball that was mostly ignored during his one year at NC State. But he talks about it openly, calling his work on that end a process while describing the methods that he’s hoping to perfect. Everything the Mavericks know about Smith — and everything that Smith has shown himself so far — points to him being a player who will take those challenges in stride.
After Smith scores 16 points and the dagger three in his third summer league game, he is asked to compare himself and his game to another point guard. At first, he demurs, not wanting to play that game.
“I watch about every point guard in the league,” Smith says. “It’s a long list if I start naming names.”
But when pressed, Smith relents: “I’ll say (Russell) Westbrook and (Derrick) Rose.”
Two point guards, of course, who have both won NBA MVP.
Humble confidence. There’s no doubt Smith has that.