Dennis Smith Jr.’s game doesn’t exactly match his personality.
The same player with the 48-inch vertical leap and practically a feature film-length highlight reel of dunks in gyms around the country is the one who contextualizes his development in Zen-like fashion at his locker after a game when he scored a career-high 19 points and handed out five assists in his team’s first win of the season. His style oozes with confidence, but he’s humble as can be off the floor.
“I’m learning, I’m learning,” Smith said. “What is it, five games in? Four games in? It’s not even a tenth of the season that’s gone by, so I’ve got a lot to learn. But like I said, it’s a process. There’s gonna be some bumps in the road, but I’m doing everything full speed ahead.”
The 19-year-old’s loudest highlight of the night came early on, when he went from basically a dead stop at the 3-point line all the way to the rim in two dribbles, finishing off his drive with a two-handed dunk in traffic.
It’s a play that shines a spotlight on his undeniable athleticism, but the rookie is also developing into a cerebral point guard with a solid grip of the offense, including where his teammates will be, and when they’ll be there.
“He understands that the defense will break down in a split-second,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s got the quickness to get by people. Some of the things he’s doing to generate baskets and fouls and shots for guys, we’ve never had that dimension on this team.”
Smith has appeared in only three of his team’s five games so far this season, but he’s already shown the ability to adapt and improve, which the Mavs say stems from his willingness to learn. The rook has a 3.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio through three games and has assisted on nearly one-third of his teammates’ buckets whenever he’s on the floor. He shined in the second half against the Grizzlies, scoring 14 of his 19 points, including sinking a couple daggers late in the shot clock in the fourth quarter.
Showing up in big moments is as sure a way as there is to win over your teammates. The veterans are constantly providing extra coaching to the young point guard because they see something special in him.
“Sometimes we’ve got to stay in his ear, and he’s receptive. He wants to win,” Wesley Matthews said. “He’s not one of those guys that’s about himself. Sometimes we gotta pick him up to keep him where he’s at because we need him. He made big clutch plays for us at the end of this game. He’s just got an athleticism that you just can’t teach.”
Indeed, his on-court talent is tantalizing. Smith dazzled in the second half as a playmaker, changing speeds or hesitating in the pick-and-roll to give his big men an extra half-second to roll to the rim.
Instincts certainly play a part. Smith states plain and simple that he’s been playing basketball since he was six, so this is nothing new to him. However, his off-court work is definitely playing into his rapid improvement. In addition to private film sessions with Carlisle, Smith is watching film of Baron Davis and Gilbert Arenas to gain an understanding of what’s possible as a guard who can both score and pass. (For example, moves like this.)
That’s another quality that will resonate with veterans. Smith is a young and exciting player, but there are plenty of teenage prodigies will talent who don’t fully embrace the challenge of becoming a star. The Mavs rookie has gotten a head-start on all of that, so it’s no surprise that the veteran players are thrilled to see him succeed.
“Tonight was the biggest night,” Nerlens Noel said. “That last lob he threw, that was something that J.J. really has a good knack for, just probing and dribbling. Dennis did it tonight. I was ecstatic that he’s taking these small steps and learning.”
That his most efficient game came when starting as the lone ball-handler should not go unnoticed. After starting Yogi Ferrell at 2-guard next to Smith in his first two starts, Carlisle turned to a bigger lineup against the Grizzlies with Noel at 5 and Dirk Nowitzki at power forward. Smith shouldered the playmaking burden for most of the night and he responded by handing out five assists against only one turnover.
“Tonight was the biggest amount of responsibility we put on him to start with that group, and really be pretty much the main ball-handler,” Carlisle said. “That’s a lot of responsibility and he did a great job.”
“He’s just like me,” Smith said of his coach. “He hates to lose. So I think that drives both of us.”
For a guy with as seemingly joyful a game as Smith’s — one full of dunking, pull-up jumpers, and forceful play that commands extra defensive attention — the player himself stays eerily calm and collected. He even pumps up the crowd with a cool and quiet confidence. It’s as if he expects this to happen. Nowitzki and other veterans will commonly talk about the importance of not getting too high with the highs or too low with the lows, and Smith’s personality seems to fit in perfectly with that philosophy despite his young age.
He understands how talented he is and what it means to have gained this level of responsibility so early in his career, and he’s willing to accept the extra pressure and attention that comes along with this role. It would be easy for anyone to become overwhelmed by all of that, but Smith is not one of those people. He sees the game in a different way and approaches these situations as merely a new challenge, apparently unfazed by the bright lights. As he says, “it’s just playing basketball.”
“It’s the highest level now, but I’ve worked to be on this level,” he said. “I deserve this opportunity, and I’ve got to own that and earn my keep.”