DALLAS — Although his raw athleticism and pure basketball skills were on full display last month during the MGM Resorts Summer League, the Dallas Mavericks say their investment in No. 9 overall draft pick Dennis Smith Jr. goes well beyond the basketball court.
Last month, Smith averaged 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.2 steals per outing, leading the Mavericks’ summer squad to the semifinals of the tournament and a 5-1 record. In the process, he earned a spot on the All-NBA Summer League First Team after connecting on 45.7 percent from the field and 34.6 percent from behind the three-point arc. Smith’s production solidified the Mavs’ selection in the first round of the draft as the team tries to rebuild from a 33-49 season. But according to Mavs owner Mark Cuban, the first-year floor general checks all the boxes off the court as well, crediting Smith’s character and demeanor during the pre-draft process.
“You know, there’s a lot of stories that circulate throughout the summer or the spring as people get ready to draft and mock drafts. And there’s analysts, there’s scouts and there’s a million and one experts, but we have a great scouting department,” Cuban said following the drafting of Smith back in June. “Dennis is someone we’ve had our eye on since we started scouting this class, and we’ve done a lot of work. We’ve talked to a lot of people. But of all the film and all the games we watched and all the people we talked to, the most impressive interview we had was when we talked directly to Dennis. It’s amazing how you read things, and then when you actually sit down and talk to the person, or have our folks talk to him, the real person comes through. You know, as much as I can brag about his athletic abilities and his basketball abilities, it’s just who he is. We have a team psychologist, Don Kalkstein, and he grills kids. You know, some of them crumble, but not Dennis. Dennis really stood up, and we found out who he really is. You know, that’s led to us being really, really excited. We were shocked when he fell to nine, and we think we got the steal of the draft.”
Bouncing back from an ACL tear that cost him his senior season in high school, Smith showed no signs of the injury while earning Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year and All-ACC Second Team honors during his lone collegiate campaign at North Carolina State. He also was the first player in ACC history to record two triple-doubles in the same season during conference play, averaging 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists during his freshman year and becoming the first player to lead the ACC among freshmen in points and assists since Ed Cota during the 1996-97 season.
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle will now try to take Smith’s do-it-all ability and integrate him into a team full of veterans. And after seeing Smith slip in the draft, the coach expects the rookie to have plenty of motivation to succeed during his first season.
“We know that we’ve got a kid that’s very motivated and that has tremendous ability, and our job going forward here is to give him the tools to have ultimate success to become a great player and to become a franchise caliber player,” Carlisle proclaimed. “I really believe that he understands there’s a lot of work involved. I don’t believe he wants anything handed to him, and I think he has full intention of earning everything. We’re excited to have him here and to get started.
“I’m just really impressed with Dennis’ personality,” the coach added. “He’s obviously a guy that has great confidence, on the one hand. But on the other hand, he has a very obvious humility, and so that’s special to me. … He holds up extremely well to scrutiny, and I think what you see is what you get here. You know, he’s a no-nonsense guy that’s not a big talker. I think he’s a guy that really wants to get out there and provide it.”
That no-nonsense persona comes from the tutelage of his father and Smith’s humble beginnings as a child while growing up in Fayetteville, N.C.
Smith starred at Trinity Christian School, becoming one of the nation’s top recruits after averaging 22.2 points per game as a junior. That season, Smith was also named North Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year. However, while being raised by a single father, Smith was taught lessons of humility to accompany his success on the court. And according to Smith, those lessons will motivate him throughout his NBA career while resenting his family and hometown at a high level on a nightly basis.
“Everybody is not able to make it to this point, especially where I’m from. So, me being able to come out and just play basketball at the highest level is a blessing. I’m thankful for that,” Smith explained last month. “Fayetteville, my family, I’m a product of my environment. You know, I chose the right path, and everybody wants to choose the right path. A lot of people that end up in the wrong things played basketball or football, and they’ve got the same aspirations as I have. And being able to come out and do it whenever they can’t, whether it’s by death or by prison, I think that’s a blessing. I feel a ton of pride representing where I’m from, everybody that can’t do it and my whole family. I take a lot of pride with that. … I think it’s more than just basketball with that. That’s the way I was raised to be as a man. And that’s a credit to my whole family, especially my father. And it just translates from being a man to basketball.”