There are some hard truths we must all accept when we talk about young players. They’re going to make plays that will make us get out of our seats, and they’re going to make plays that will make us shake our heads.
The inescapable truth is that Dennis Smith Jr. is only 19 years old, and he won’t turn 20 until Thanksgiving. He’s the second-youngest Maverick ever, and on opening night he’ll be the youngest starter in franchise history. Smith has described training camp as challenging. Rick Carlisle has said the rookie is going to make mistakes that he must learn from. That’s part of the process in this league, especially when you play the most difficult position there is.
Mavs at Hawks Oct. 12, 2017
So far through five preseason games, he certainly has made some errors, but he’s also come a long way in a very short period of time. On Monday against Orlando, he recorded 16 points, seven assists, six rebounds, a steal, and a block. Thursday in Atlanta, he finished with nine points and three assists before exiting with a sprained ankle Carlisle described as not serious.
These last two performances have been mature enough to make Smith appear more like a 25-year-old than a 19-year-old. You’ve got to be careful when expecting too much from rookie point guards because they’re digesting a ton of new information and assuming a heck of a lot of responsibility, and it’s still just the preseason, but these last two games Smith has looked like the kind of player who can handle that burden. He’s living up to the hype.
The most tangible way he’s already making an impact is by pushing the tempo. The Mavs are playing at a pace of 104.01 possessions per 48 minutes when Smith has been on the floor this preseason, a notch above the team’s 102.32 pace overall. Preseason games are typically played at a faster pace than regular-season contests, but Carlisle’s goal is for the Mavericks to run, run, and run some more this season largely because of who’s playing point.
“Most teams would like you to walk it up because it kind of plays into their defense,” Carlisle said. “It lets them get set up and keep focusing on the ball as it moves around. For (Dennis), it just makes the game harder for him to go slow, and it’s an easier game if he can keep that vertical pressure on the defense.”
That term — “vertical pressure” — is not something that’s been too familiar to the Mavericks the last couple seasons. That means getting up the floor moving toward the basket, driving into the paint, and looking to generate points. Dallas ranked 21st in drives per game last season, but the Mavs have been at their best in recent seasons when they’ve had players who can break teams down on the perimeter and get into the lane.
Here’s what he’s talking about.
Smith collected the loose ball himself on the defensive end and pushed the ball up the floor, beginning his drive just five seconds into the shot clock. Notice that the Hawks don’t have any rim protection established before his drive, and Jeff Withey is pulling the opposing center out of the lane and closer to the 3-point lane. (Smith wisely paused to allow Withey back into the play, forcing his defender to pay him attention.) There’s a clear path to the basket open for the taking, and Smith was not only quick enough to find it, but athletic enough to finish over the defender at the rim. That’s an incredible play that most 19-year-olds simply can’t make and it was made possible in part because he got up the floor so early.
“We want to push it every single time, even if there’s a score,” Carlisle said. “The quicker you get it over halfcourt, the greater chance you have to make an early vertical attack on the basket, and it conserves more time to finish out a possession.”
Young players are often criticized for being able to play at only one speed, but Smith has demonstrated he can probe to find open spaces. The next play happens much later in the shot clock against a set defense, but Smith is able to patiently cross over and hesitate to get into the teeth of the defense.
There’s a lot happening in what looks like a pretty simple play. First, Smith sets up a pick-and-roll with Nerlens Noel, forcing Dennis Schroder to defend on Smith’s left side in anticipation of the screen. Smith sees that right is the better way to go, so he quickly crosses over and begins his drive. He then mixes in a quick hesitation dribble to get Dewayne Dedmon thinking about the possibility of a lob to Noel, but the extra few inches of space were all Smith needed to get off a shot himself. He’s so explosive that Dedmon could barely even offer a contest.
Once defenses begin to show Smith more respect, that’s going to open up better looks for his teammates. For example, below Smith finds Maxi Kleber for 3.
Both defenders involved in the pick-and-roll stick with Smith, leaving Ersan Ilyasova to tag against the rolling Withey. Three Hawks defenders are committed to just two Mavs, meaning there’s someone open, and Smith was able to find him with an accurate pass.
“In this league, I’ve got to attack first, and then make my reads from there,” Smith said. “It’s tough for defenders to stay in front of me. If I can beat my man and make the defense collapse, I’m smart enough to make the right read out of that.”
These are the kinds of plays that really good veteran point guards make several times every single night, no matter who’s guarding them. Smith has shown throughout the preseason that he’s capable of making some awe-inspiring plays, but lately he’s showing that he can make the so-called simple ones, too. If he can consistently generate good looks both for himself and his teammates the way he did against Orlando and Atlanta, he could put up some impressive individual numbers and, more importantly, the Mavericks offense is going to fill it up. The 19-year-old hasn’t really looked his age, and in this case that’s a good thing.