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Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki, Dennis Smith Jr.

BBALLBREAKDOWN

Is Dennis Smith Jr. primed for a breakout sophomore season?

Is Dennis Smith Jr. primed for a breakout sophomore season?

The most potent lead guards in the modern NBA are those who can seamlessly step off the ball without skipping a beat. Stephen Curry empowers the Golden State Warriors’ offense because of his electric off-ball movement and historically elite shooting. On the flip side, high-usage, ball-dominant guards can cap their team’s ceiling.

Guards like Russell Westbrook and John Wall cap their team’s offensive upside due to a lack of off-ball utility. Neither commands much gravity as a shooter nor do they zip around the court or slice through defenses off the ball. As a result, almost every offensive possession starts and ends with them, regardless of the surrounding personnel.

After shooting just 31.3 percent on 4.9 three-point attempts and lacking much dynamicity off the ball last season, Dennis Smith Jr.’s fit alongside Dallas Mavericks franchise gem Luka Doncic initially looks hazy. But dig a little deeper and the Smith-Doncic pairing appears more profitable, hinting at a breakout sophomore season for the second-year guard.

Dennis Smith Jr., Rick Carlisle

Prior to last season, Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle had established a history of being conservative with his rookies. But Dallas, lacking the necessary talent to compete for a playoff spot, threw Smith into the fire. He was handed an astronomically high 28.9 percent usage rate as the team’s starting point guard, becoming just the 12th rookie in NBA history to amass a usage rate of at least 28 percent while playing 60-plus games and 25-plus minutes a night. The outcome was an inefficient and inconsistent season, despite shiny box-score averages (15.2 points, 5.2 assists, 3.8 rebounds).

With J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell and Devin Harris (for half the season) — three low-upside options — the roster surrounding Smith dictated he be spoon-fed opportunities, even if he wasn’t exactly ready to be an NBA starting point guard from day one. As a result of the uninspiring lead guard rotation, Smith was usually the lone perimeter shot creator on the floor, making him the bail-out guy on many stagnant offensive possessions:

That poor efficiency — Smith’s 47.3 true shooting percentage ranked dead last among all players with at least 12.5 shots per game last season — was a two-way street, though. He often rifled jumpers early in the shot clock before the ball had been rotated around or hijacked possessions by dribbling the air out of the ball. As a rookie battling through growing pains on a non-playoff contender, Carlisle and Co. afforded Smith a long leash, living with the ugly possessions that come with young, high-usage guards.

Adding Doncic, a crafty and wily ball handler who can create off the bounce, should help to alleviate some of the burden Smith experienced last season. When plays fizzle out, there will be fewer possessions in which Smith is shoveled the ball and instructed to spontaneously generate a basket late in the clock. Doncic will be waiting in the wings to assume that role at times as the two work off each other’s strengths.

Smith rarely played off the ball but displayed a propensity for knifing through scattered defenders — small sample size alert: he ranked in the 80th percentile with 1.39 points per possession on 23 cuts last season. Doncic, the most vicious and cerebral passer from this year’s draft class, will rock defenses off kilter and sling the ball to his backcourt mate, letting him hightail to the rim:

Just envision Doncic warping the geometry of the floor for Smith with passes like this:

While Smith is at his best carving up demobilized defenses, he should provide value beyond the arc next season, having buried 37.2 percent of his 145 catch-and-shoot triples last season. It was his off-the-bounce arsenal that tanked any chances of a respectable clip (27.4 percent on 186 pull-up threes), again the result of his wide-ranging offensive duties and poor shot selection.

Doncic is the type of versatile offensive weapon — he can play on and off the ball, and pierce defenses in a number of different sets  — that can promote Smith’s strengths and, in due time, hide his flaws. Rookies are rarely high-level impact players — Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum are exceptions to the norm — but Doncic is too talented, multifaceted and intuitive to not help elevate Smith’s game. His comfort as a lead ball handler should allow Smith to play off the ball with greater frequency without unhinging the Mavericks’ offense.

Smith isn’t going to become a 40 percent three-point shooter overnight but he should enjoy a hike in efficiency. When he did migrate off the ball last season, Dallas sent him through a flurry of screens near the elbow and with DeAndre Jordan — one of the league’s best screen-setters — now in the fold, Smith is primed to get more looks like this from deep:

In Doncic, Smith will play alongside a ball handler who can probe through the lane and is skillful navigating pick and rolls — one of the many NBA-ready characteristics in his game. Possessions like these, which were few and far between last season, should become more commonplace with Doncic at the helm:

When the 6-foot-3 Smith governs the offense — he’ll have his fair share of opportunities in Carlisle’s multiple ball-handler scheme — his pick-and-roll efficiency (6.1 possessions per game, 0. 71 PPP, 30th percentile last season) will experience a spike as Jordan is a springy and domineering rim-runner. Jordan’s presence alone won’t be a cure-all for Smith’s struggles. Maintaining a live dribble needs to be a point of emphasis for him. Too often did he derail pick and rolls early in the action by picking up the ball and swinging it around the perimeter.

As a top-tier athlete and jitterbug guard, Smith weaved into the lane at will last season. 39 percent of his shots came at the basket (77th percentile among all combo guards, per Cleaning the Glass), though his finishing chops wavered as he converted just 57 percent (29th percentile) of those attempts. Jordan commands gravity as a roll man and will free up more creases in the defenses for Smith, ideally promoting improved efficiency.

dennis smith jr

The Mavericks’ backcourt of the future (and present) will spend long stretches playing together next season. Staggering the contrasting duo for short spurts might work (relative) wonders, too. Doncic is methodical, controlled and über-skilled; Smith is aggressive, explosive and unrelenting. Having Doncic handle the offense to kick off games before handing the reins to Smith, akin to a change-of-pace running back, just after the defense has settled in, might be the type of scenery the former NC State one-and-doner requires to vaporize opponents.

A year of NBA experience plus newfound complementary talent in Doncic and Jordan will accelerate Smith’s development. But some of the growth will need to arise internally. He’ll need to improve as a decision-maker; he’s too liberal with his passing; his general shot selection is appalling at times.

Early on, Doncic’s presence likely won’t make for an easy transition for Smith, whose usage rate and ball-dominant approach will both decrease. Some players are best suited to operate with lots of freedom and the ball in their hands; Smith might be one of them.

The Doncic-Smith backcourt is also going to bleed points defensively. Doncic is a 19-year-old rookie who needs to trim the baby fat on his frame and improve his lateral quickness while Smith’s style resembles that of pickup basketball games. He’s lackadaisical on the ball, hunts for steals off the ball and generally lacks sharp defensive instincts (at least for now).

Dennis Smith Jr.

All of those flaws are OK, though. The Western Conference is a bloodbath and, barring a miracle, Dallas won’t be in the playoff hunt. It can afford to be patient with those inconsistencies as Doncic and Smith get their feet wet together.

At times last season, Smith went to war 1-on-5 without much help. That won’t be the case anymore. Rookies are rarely net positives and Smith fell in line with tradition but he flashed star potential with numerous wrinkles in his game, many of which should lead to a breakout second season.

As the Mavericks prepare to soon brave the post-Dirk Nowitzki Era, it’ll need more than just its Slovenian prodigy to carry the torch. Smith has the opportunity to be that second piece if he improves upon a rookie campaign that was marred by inefficient scoring and putrid defense, garnering stats on a lottery team.

There’s a chance the puzzle pieces in Dallas’ backcourt don’t fit — but it doesn’t seem likely; Doncic and Smith are too talented. The Mavericks hit the jackpot when they traded for Doncic, whose mere addition seemed to shift the narrative surrounding their rebuild. A year from now, it might have also shifted the narrative surrounding Smith, the genesis of Dallas’ long-term vision.