The NBA is hard for 29-year-olds. It’s hard to imagine how impossible it must seem to a 19-year-old, let alone a teenage point guard with high expectations and plenty of veteran teammates to feed.
But that’s the situation Mavs rookie Dennis Smith Jr. finds himself in right now. The preseason favorite for Rookie of the Year starred at the Las Vegas Summer League playing against mostly his fellow first-year peers, but the real test began with his first week of training camp at the helm of an offense featuring the No. 6 all-time scorer, an emerging go-to player, and more space and shooting than most other offenses in the league.
That sounds like a dream scenario for a first-year player, as Smith will be able to lean on the most reliable jump-shooting 7-footer in league history and plenty of other guards who are able to make plays off the dribble. It certainly will help him once he’s able to find his footing, and that’s part of the reason people are so eager to see him play. But an education is still an education, and just one week into his pro career, Smith still has plenty to learn.
“Not too much is coming easy right now, which is good,” Smith admitted last week. “It’s beauty in the struggle.”
Smith has been on a steady diet of practice and one-on-one film sessions with head coach Rick Carlisle throughout camp so far, and the rookie has wisely taken those meetings very seriously. He went so far as to thank Carlisle personally after one practice last week for spending all that time with him.
Other veteran guards on the team like Devin Harris and J.J. Barea have said it won’t be an exceptionally smooth road for the 19-year-old, at least in the early going. Fortunately for Smith, however, he has those two in his corner, and they’ve been there before. The pick-and-roll might come natural for the No. 9 overall pick in the 2017 draft, but learning how to dictate pace, change speeds, and locate and deliver the ball to teammates in their favorite spots are just some of the prerequisites for being a premier point guard. That’s the level Smith hopes to reach.
“I’ve got to make my mistakes full-speed ahead, and I’ve just gotta keep trucking,” Smith said. “It’s gonna happen. You can’t really learn anything if you don’t make mistakes.”
Added Carlisle: “He’s making some spectacular plays, and there’s always gonna be mistakes you have to learn from. But his attitude his great. The physical element he brings to the team is really unlike anything we’ve had at the point guard position.”
A week of two-a-days, weightlifting, and some time in the team theater watching game tape from last season’s team is all good and well, but until the actual games begin there’s only so much Smith could have learned. That changed on Friday, when the Mavs scrimmaged in front of a crowd at American Airlines Center. Smith shot 1 of 7 from the field, adding three rebounds and two assists against one turnover. He nearly brought the house down with a thunderous dunk attempt that rimmed out near the end of the game.
The Mavs enjoyed a day off on Saturday, but first thing Sunday morning Smith was back in the film room with Carlisle, reviewing tape from the exhibition with the teenager who seems wise beyond his years.
“We watched film with him (Sunday) morning and showed him some good things having to do with tempo and spacing, and yesterday during practice he made really good adjustments,” Carlisle said after Monday’s shootaround. “The learning curve is pretty steep, but we’re trying to keep things as simple as possible, and he’s just gotta keep making those adjustments.”
Smith said one of the primary functions of those film sessions is to gain an understanding of how the Mavs played last season, with Carlisle showing ways Smith can push the tempo within those same sets. Dallas is hoping to ramp up the pace this season, and one way to do that is by starting Dirk Nowitzki at center. They’ll also often play two-point guard sets, which should take some of the playmaking load off Smith’s shoulders. But for a team that ranked 21st in drives and 25th in points per game from drives last season, Smith is going to have to pick up a lot of that slack himself.
That first opportunity will come tonight, when the Mavs play the Milwaukee Bucks in the first preseason game of the year. Smith will be going up against reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, which will add an interesting subtext to things. Another, cooler layer: The Bucks are coached by Jason Kidd, whose floor-general capabilities helped lead the Mavs to a championship six years ago. His shoes have frankly yet to be filled long-term since his departure in 2012, but hopefully Smith can one day do that.
While Smith is a spectacular player, he’s still got a long way to go to reach that level. The good thing, though, is that the rookie so far has been willing to put in the work both on the floor and in the classroom to reach that level. This first game is just step one.
“Tonight is where things really are on display, so we’ll find out a lot more (against Milwaukee),” Carlisle said. “He’ll learn an awful lot in a very short period of time.”