The Mavericks once drafted a player in the lottery who started fewer than half his team’s games during his rookie season, compiling measly per-game averages of 8.2 points and 3.4 rebounds. This player, who didn’t make an All-Rookie team but was drafted ahead of five players who did, shot 40.5 percent from the field and just 20.6 percent from beyond the arc. By all accounts, it was not a good debut season.
That same player would go on to redefine a position, make 13 All-Star teams, win an MVP and Finals MVP, and score 30,000 career points. We’re talking about Dirk Nowitzki.
A player’s first season is not always indicative of the player he will one day become. Some guys have terrific rookie seasons but below-average careers. Others, like Nowitzki, have bad inaugural campaigns but wind up enjoying Hall-of-Fame careers.
All of this is to say that Dennis Smith Jr.’s rookie year is about to begin, but there’s a good chance we won’t see anything more than just a tiny glimpse of what kind of player he’ll become in the NBA from his first 82 games. Expectations are high, and he’s an extremely exciting player, but he needs time to grow. This will only be year one of hopefully many, many more to come.
That said, let’s envision for a moment the best-case scenario: He has a great rookie year. Everything we thought and hoped about him turns out to be true, and he plays well all season long. Where would that place him among the franchise’s best rookies?
Let’s take a look at some of the most successful Mavericks rookie campaigns in a few areas to get a better idea of the players who have come before Smith so we can place his upcoming season in historical context. (Note: To qualify for the following lists, a player had to play at least 1,000 minutes in his rookie season, or the equivalent of 1,000 minutes during lockout-shortened seasons.) All stats come courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
POINTS PER GAME
The thing that strikes me most of all about the above list is that three of those guys were on the same team. The Mavs were in just their second season as a franchise in 1981-82, so the roster was full of young players; in fact, there were only two players on the team older than 26. Vincent, Aguirre, and Blackman all finished top-six on the team in minutes per game, and they finished as the team’s top scorers.
It’s going to be tough for Smith to score close to or above 20 points per game as a rookie point guard, especially because he’s playing on a team with so many other veterans who receive plenty of play-calls, namely Nowitzki and Harrison Barnes. I would also be surprised to see Smith lead the team in minutes per game, as Vincent did in 1981-82. Still, he can certainly contend for that fourth-place spot if he’s efficient and wise in his shot selection. Yogi Ferrell (11.3 points per game) proved last season that points are there to be had for young Mavs point guards.
Other notable players on that list include Jason Kidd (11.7) in sixth place, Ferrell (11.3) in seventh place, and Nowitzki (8.2) way down in 16th place.
ASSISTS PER GAME
Kidd was an amazing passer throughout his career, quite literally from the beginning. His mark of 7.7 dimes per game is 16th-highest ever among NBA rookies. Meanwhile, Ferrell pops up high on yet another Mavs rookie list, this time finishing second among qualified players. He really did produce at a high level in just 36 appearances.
Jim Jackson barely missed the 1,000-minute minimum, playing 938 minutes as a rookie in 1992-93. He averaged 4.7 assists per game that season as a rookie, in addition to 16.3 points. Another notable name on the list is Devin Harris, who averaged just 2.2 assists per game as a rookie in 2004-05, although he averaged fewer than 16 minutes per game that season. The tough thing about per-game lists is you’ve got to both produce and receive a healthy amount of playing time. Smith will likely have to earn every minute.
Smith will almost certainly break into the top-five in this category, especially if he ends up as the starter. Will he surpass Kidd’s mark of 7.7? That might be tough to do. But could he challenge Ferrell for second place? Maybe.
What do you know? Ferrell finishes toward the top of another list. His mark of 60 3s in 36 games is pretty impressive — that 1.7 3s per game clip is by far the highest in Mavs history, and actually ranks top-20 in NBA history, although he only played 36 games. Finishing just outside the top-five in made 3s is Dorian Finney-Smith, whose 56 treys last season ranks sixth-best all-time among Mavs rookies.
It’s important for this one to recognize that the 3-point shot was still basically brand-new in the early- to mid-’80s, when the Mavs built a pretty deep roster primarily through the draft, so those guys rarely ever shot the long-ball. For example, Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper attempted just seven 3s combined during their rookie seasons. Even all-time sharpshooter Dale Ellis attempted just 29 in his first year. Therefore, the rest of the top-10 is filled with more recent names such as Rodrigue Beaubois, Harris, and Nicolas Brussino. (For those curious, Nowitzki made just 14 during his rookie season, which is one fewer than Jonathan Gibson made last year.)
Smith drained 55 treys last year for NC State at a clip of 1.7 per game on 4.8 attempts. I’m not sure he’ll take the same volume of attempts this season, which might limit the number of makes. Anything above 100 would be historically high, anyway, as only 40 rookies ever have reached that milestone. Damian Lillard holds the record with 185, and Steph Curry is second with 166. He’s certainly got a chance at the top spot if he gets the minutes, though.
FREE THROW ATTEMPTS PER GAME
Here’s the list that would be great to see Smith’s name on at season’s end. Beating Kidd’s mark of 3.5 would mean not only that Smith played enough minutes to qualify, but that he was aggressive enough and drew enough defensive attention to be fouled. You can’t sit on the outside all night and shoot five free throws. You’ve got to earn those whistles, especially as a rookie.
Smith will certainly have every opportunity to drive the ball when he’s on the floor, as the Mavs’ entire offense is built around using pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop to manipulate defenses and open up driving and passing lanes all over the floor. Smith has proven he’s athletic enough to find those alleys and explosive enough to rise up for the shot in practically any situation. If he can play within the offense and create looks for himself at the rim, the free throw attempts will come. Those are easy points.
It’s going to be interesting tracking all this stuff during the regular season, comparing Smith not only to his contemporaries, but also to those who have come before him within this organization. He’s got the potential to be a special player, so it would be cool to see that manifest itself in its rookie year. But, as Nowitzki’s rookie year showed us, a player’s first season doesn’t always tell us everything about him. If Smith doesn’t average 15 points a game, it doesn’t mean he’s going to be a bust. Likewise, he could score 20 a night this season and that could be his career-high mark. You just never know.
What we do know, though, is that we’ll get to watch his development process up-close for years to come, and that’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun.