Dennis Smith Jr.’s raw athleticism helps Mavs keep pace with NBA’s new trend at point guard

DALLAS — After seeing newly-named MVP Russell Westbrook dominate the NBA en route to a record number of triple-doubles in a season, the Dallas Mavericks are hoping that a player with similar athletic ability can also take the league by storm next year.

This season, Westbrook averaged 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists, becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson during the ’61–62 campaign to average a triple-double for an entire season. He also broke Robertson’s record for most triple-doubles in a single season with 42, lifting the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 33-9 record in those games. Westbrook’s dominance speaks to a growing trend in the league of athletic and explosive lead guards to welcome in a new era. That said, the Mavericks hope the selection of former North Carolina State freshman standout Dennis Smith Jr. with the No. 9 pick in last week’s NBA Draft has a similar impact on their team next season.

“I believe it translates well,” the 19-year-old Smith proclaimed during his introductory press conference with the Dallas media last week. “Russell Westbrook is super athletic, and that’s a guy I watch a lot of. And he dominated this year. He had a great year, and I think that’s largely due to how athletic he is compared to other point guards. I believe I can be similar to that, in terms of above-average athleticism. … Russell Westbrook is just relentless. He attacks at every opportunity, and he competes every possession.”

Possessing a 48-inch vertical, Smith’s athleticism was well publicized after one season at the collegiate level. His ability to impact the game in a multitude of ways is also something that figures to elevate the play of the Mavericks after a 33-49 season.

The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder averaged 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists last season, shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 35.9 percent from behind the three-point arc. In the process, Smith earned Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year and a spot on the All-ACC Second Team after becoming the first player in ACC history to record two triple-doubles in the same season during conference play. The Mavs now hope Smith’s athleticism and do-it-all play translates to the next level. And according to Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, Smith’s pure athleticism should complement 13-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki at the offensive end.

“I couldn’t be more excited about adding Dennis Smith to the roster,” Nelson said. “He’s an electric young player with tons of potential. Obviously, he’s young and minutes are earned in this league, but his skillset is rare. I think he’ll be a terrific fit. He’s a pick-and-roll player with big-time athleticism and tons of potential. And I think with [Mavs coach Rick Carlisle] and specifically the system that we play, it’s a really, really good fit. This was the guy that we were after. And if we had drafted a lot higher, he was the guy that we had circled. A strange set of circumstances panned out, a surprise pick or two, and we got our guy. So, again, positionally it fits. Really, the big hole was at point guard. He fits in really well with our guys, our chemistry and where we’re going. We think he can be a nice building block in our retool. And with Dirk specifically, he and Dirk in the pick-and-roll is exciting to think about. So, we think it’s really good in the here and now. It gives us a building block to move forward with, and we are just excited.”

Smith played at Trinity Christian School and averaged 22.2 points per game as a junior before being named North Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year. However, after tearing his ACL, Smith was forced to miss his senior season in high school and rehab his way back onto the court. The Fayetteville, N.C., native then showed no signs of the injury during his only season in college, dazzling fans with explosive plays on a regular basis. But according to Mavs owner Mark Cuban, Smith won’t be able to rely on simply his athleticism in order to be effective in the league.

“Dennis is someone we’ve had our eye on since we started scouting this class,” Cuban explained. “Dennis is a money player. He’s here to produce, and the results will speak for themselves. You know, we can project, we can hope and we can talk about a lot of different things, but it’s all just talk until he walks out to the court. But the good news is, as you heard him say, he works hard, he prepares and he watches tape. There’s a lot of kids that will come in, and just because they’ve been so much better physically and athletically than everybody at the different levels they’ve competed at they don’t really take the cerebral approach. Knowing that Dennis likes to watch film, knowing that he likes to learn, I think that’s going to be the difference maker. … Like I said earlier, we can watch him athletically, but it’s how he approaches the game, it’s his cerebral approach to the game and his willingness and desire to learn that makes the difference between a guy with All-Star potential and somebody that actually reaches that potential. So, we’re hoping when he walks on the court, I’m not going to say who he compared himself to with a jump shot, but hopefully he has that kind of rookie year.”

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