LAS VEGAS — Dennis Smith Jr. didn’t play cards with his teammates, put on a pair of Beats by Dre headphones or catch a nap during the first team flight of his NBA career. He wanted to work, not that he had much choice in the matter.
Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle sat side by side with Smith and spent the two and a half hours it took to fly to Las Vegas putting the No. 9 pick in the draft through a video tutorial. They watched a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, with Carlisle particularly emphasizing details of the Dallas point guards’ defense against MVP Russell Westbrook.
They studied some of the Mavs’ offensive sets and discussed Smith’s responsibilities, how he’d fit and situations he should expect to see, the rookie impressing Carlisle with his intellectual curiosity for the game.
“His eyes light up when you turn on NBA film,” Carlisle said proudly a couple of days later, fresh off watching Smith light up the Phoenix Suns’ summer league team for 25 efficient points in 27 minutes, driving and finishing in electrifying fashion for several buckets.
“I like your point guard,” a Western Conference coach told Carlisle as they greeted each other after the game.
The Mavs, whose draft room erupted with glee when the New York Knicks selected Frank Ntilikina with the previous pick and left Smith on the board for Dallas, really like their point guard. So much so that Carlisle, without prompting, declared on draft night that he projected Smith as an instant starter and impact player.
“I appreciated it,” Smith said. “That’s one of the great minds in basketball. He’s one of the best coaches in the league, if not the best. When he said that, it’s high praise, but that means I’ve got to come in and put in the work, if he’s got that much faith in me.”
There is a buzz around the Mavs, who haven’t had a draft pick develop into a long-term starter in Dallas for more than a decade, that the 19-year-old Smith might be the franchise player they so desperately need with Dirk Nowitzki (the No. 9 pick in 1998) entering his 20th season and in the midst of his twilight.
“I think that he has amazing ability that needs to be brought along the right way,” Carlisle said. “That’s on all of us. That’s on Mark [Cuban], on me, on our coaching staff, our training staff, our strength and conditioning staff. You don’t just declare a guy a franchise cornerstone player. You help put him in the position to get there. That’s going to be our plan.”
Smith says he sees the glass as half full when asked about slipping to No. 9 in the draft, stressing that he’s ecstatic with his situation, landing with a franchise that features one of the NBA’s premier coaches and respected, unselfish veterans to help groom him. However, he can’t deny that he felt it was a slap in the face to see eight players picked before him, including four point guards.
“You could say that, because I believe that I’m the best player, as should everybody else,” Smith said. “They do their work, but I definitely took it as an insult.”
It’s never wise to come to grand conclusions during the first week of summer league, but Smith certainly looked like a Rookie of the Year candidate while leading the Mavs to wins in the first two games, averaging 19.5 points on 50 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists. Everyone in the league knew that Smith, whose vertical leap measured at 48 inches, possessed elite athleticism. He has impressed in Vegas with a rare blend of aggressiveness, poise and discipline.
“He’s strong, plays with force, but he also plays with great vision and good discipline,” Carlisle said. “That’s a really unusual thing for a young guy like that.”
The Mavs, who have had 14 players start at point guard in the five seasons since Jason Kidd’s Dallas departure, identified the position as their primary need early in the draft preparation process. Carlisle, who started studying for the draft in March with the Mavs out of playoff contention, instantly fell in love with Smith’s game.
“The one thing that I remember thinking to myself right off the bat is, there’s no way this guy’s going to be there at No. 9,” Carlisle said, chuckling at the Mavs’ luck. “I thought he was a top-five talent for sure.”
Some questions about Smith’s character might have contributed to the Mavs’ good fortune. North Carolina State went 15-17 in Smith’s lone season, with coach Mark Gottfried getting fired in February, and frustration was frequently evident in Smith’s body language. He got a bad rap for being a lazy, unwilling defender and there were whispers about him being a bad teammate.
Smith never fell out of the top five on Dallas’ board, and the Mavs did extensive homework on his character when it appeared that he could be available when they picked. Their findings reinforced that he was a player they wanted, according to Mavs owner Mark Cuban.
Cuban had Don Kalkstein, the Mavs’ sports psychologist, interview Smith and expected to get a mixed review afterward. Kalkstein instead told Cuban that Smith was one of the best interviews he had ever done.
Smith never visited Dallas before the draft, but Carlisle, president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson and team executive Michael Finley asked him several pointed questions during a 30-minute FaceTime conversation days before the draft. Smith struck them as “a kid that was very confident but had an appropriate level of humility,” as Carlisle put it.
“It was perception over reality,” Cuban said. “We talked to people around him, talked to people he had played with, people who had worked with him. None of those [negative] things came out. It was the exact opposite — great teammate, tough situation with the coach getting [fired late in the season]. The perception wasn’t reality. We just had to find out for ourselves.”
A perception of Carlisle is that the coach is particularly tough on rookies and on point guards.
“I’m both,” Smith said with a big smile. “It’s cool, though.”
Carlisle scoffs at his reputation regarding point guards and rookies: “I think if you ask Yogi Ferrell, he’d say that it was a pretty good situation meeting up with me.” Ferrell, a midseason call-up from the D-League, was a second-team All-Rookie selection last season.
Smith says he’s fine with being coached hard, pointing to his background as a football player, a cornerback who had a scholarship offer from Wake Forest and interest from many other programs before deciding to focus on basketball after his sophomore year of high school. He’s eager to learn and is grateful that Carlisle’s commitment to him is strong enough that they’ve had individual sessions in the gym every day that Smith has been in Dallas.
Smith also readily admits that he needs to be taught how to play defense. He believes that. He also understands that orchestrating the offense to make sure that established players like Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews are getting the ball when and where they want it is the key on-court factor in determining how impactful he can be as a rookie.
“I don’t have to hunt for buckets,” Smith said, figuring he’ll score plenty within the flow of Carlisle’s pick-and-roll-intensive system. “They’re going to come naturally. I’m going to get to the rack. That’s a given.”
Carlisle has butted heads with point guards over playcalling in the past, most notably Rajon Rondo, and has perhaps the thickest playbook in the league. But, as he did for Ferrell, Carlisle plans to scale things back significantly this season. He wants Smith to operate within a simple structure that allows him to focus more on making plays than running plays.
If Smith coasts, Carlisle won’t hesitate to start Ferrell or veteran J.J. Barea at point guard and make the rookie earn the job. But the reality is that the Mavs are in the early stages of a rebuilding process, and the development of their prized lottery pick is as important as anything this season. Carlisle insists he can deal with Smith’s anticipated rookie growing pains because the potential short- and long-term gains are so promising.
“He’s got a unique skill set and unique ability level athletically that we haven’t had at that position in my nine years,” Carlisle said. “Fans are going to see a different element to our game because of him. There’s no question about that. It’s a different kind of force that he brings to the game at the point guard position. We’re excited.
“This is great for our franchise. I’m a loyal franchise guy, and this is something that we desperately need.”