There has been much debate on Dennis Smith Jr’s role on the Mavericks since the arrival of Luka Doncic, but Dennis definitely has a role to play for the Mavs going forward.
Last night, the Mavs drubbed the Charlotte Hornets out of the gym beating them 122-84 ON THE ROAD! It’s a miracle! Charlotte is 135 miles away from Dennis Smith’s hometown of Fayetteville, NC and that’s as close to home as the NBA gets for him, so he put on a show for his 40-ish friends and family in attendance. Dennis had arguably his best overall game of the season with 18 points, seven assists and three steals in just 22 minutes while playing some excellent defense on potential All-Star Kemba Walker, holding him to 11 points on four of 14 shooting.
And how did this showing affect his backcourt mate that the national media is saying he’s beefing with? Well, Luka had a measly double-double with 18 points of his own to go with 10 rebounds and four assists in 26 minutes. Seems like the two really had trouble balancing the load of running the team…
All this points to the issue of Dennis’ and Luka’s long-term fit together which is being described as fractured or at least increasingly tense by national media outlets. Yes, Dennis took one too many dribbles on his first game back and cost the game in New Orleans. Yes, Luka hates not winning, but it shouldn’t be extrapolated to anything larger than that. Dennis and Luka clearly haven’t. All through the Charlotte game, they were smiling and high-fiving. That’s not what disgruntled teammates do.
Let’s keep in mind that Dennis has missed 12 games this season, so even for the small sample size of 37 games the Mavs have played this year, they have an even smaller sample size where the two have worked together. We don’t have a sample size to prove anything outside of the fact that they need more time together.
No one is arguing that Dennis is as good as Luka, much less better than him. He’s played far less high level & meaningful basketball than Luka thanks to a high school injury and a single college season with a tumultuous team before he joined a tanking Mavericks team. That’s far less seasoning than Doncic who premiered professionally at 16, played three incredible seasons against adults and then came to the NBA. And Dennis knows this.
He has swagger and confidence, but he’s not willfully ignorant that Luka is a great player. He is adjusting his game this year, slowly but surely, to being a combo guard a la Devin Harris. All summer, he worked on his jump shot, now shooting 38% on catch and shoot 3’s (according to Second Spectrum), which is something someone who is willing to play off the ball does. He’s warping his game because he’s smart enough to know that playing next to one of the best rising stars in the NBA will accelerate his career as well.
A Quick Comparison
Let’s look at a pair of teammates everyone would consider an EXCELLENT backcourt at this time and see if they’ve always been magic or they needed some time to grow together: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
The first season that the two players played together with any consistency was during McCollum’s second NBA Season – 14/15 (just like Dennis now…) and their stat lines are as follows according to NBA Stats:
And the following year, after a full season and offseason, something clicked for the tandem and CJ McCollum became a star in his own right.
With time together, the duo turned into as lethal of a backcourt as you can ask for. McCollum was a PG/SG coming in and had to learn to play with a true PG in Lillard. Once they worked out the kinks, it was a match made in heaven.
I am not saying that Dennis will make that exact jump, but it’s worth letting them figure it out. Dennis isn’t taking minutes from anyone supremely better than him that needs to fit with Luka. He’s willing to adjust his game to fit with him and they do vastly different things on the court in different ways. Not to mention that both are still on their rookie contracts for YEARS. There is no incentive to move on for the Mavericks and the numbers bear that out. Luka’s and Dennis’ numbers look reasonably similar to Lillard/McCollum’s numbers from their first year too:
Dennis and McCollum have similar shooting percentages, with Dennis edging out McCollum on minutes and overall scoring, which isn’t a bad thing for a player midway through his second season. He has value and unless a stellar deal can come along that is too good to pass up, Dennis has as much value possible next to Luka. And if it doesn’t work itself out, you have more data to show Dennis’ growth and projection to potential trade partners.
The important thing to remember is that we got Dennis by tanking hoping he’d grow into a player that would help our team win. For a player drafted 9th overall and the 5th PG taken in that draft, he’s been extremely good (I’d take him over every PG in that draft except De’Aaron Fox right now). So he was one piece towards the future, and then we tanked all of last year hoping for another piece to work together.
The Mavs were in a full on rebuild that most analysts and writers expected to take years to come out of. Well, Luka accelerated the timetable on all of that. He doesn’t need to grow into the star he can be: he already is and that accelerates everyone else, too. All of his youth teammates are taking steps forward, but they might not be ready just yet to run with Luka, but they’re working their butts off to try and keep up.
Dennis has grown over his 94 professional NBA games played. He’s now a pretty good little defender, which helps Luka who is not yet a positive on that end. He is playing better off ball and sinking 3s by 7% better than last year, which Luka needs for his assists totals. Dennis pushes the ball up the floor so Luka can take a possession to breathe or set himself in the corner. They’re both under contracts that allow the team to put more winning pieces around them going forward. He helps the team a great deal more than he hurts them. Yes, he’s still going to have growing pains, but they’re worth it in the long run.
FEATURED IMAGE: Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images