This first appeared in the Nov. 20 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, The Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
DALLAS — Early in the third quarter of Saturday night’s game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Milwaukee Bucks, Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle had seen enough.
Consecutive possessions resulted in his rookie point guard, Dennis Smith, Jr., trying to force things, first dribbling his way into a contested, low-percentage look in the lane that missed, then picking up his dribble and lobbing a pass that was snatched away by the never-ending reach of Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Carlisle immediately wheeled around and signaled to the bench for veteran J.J. Barea to replace Smith at the 9:47 mark of the quarter, having decided it was time for his rookie to sit and watch for a bit.
“The dribble was starting to be a little prevalent,” Carlisle said in his typical flat monotone after the game.
Given Dallas’s struggles so far this season — the Mavericks entered the game with the league’s worst record at 2-14, and had lost 10 of their 11 previous games — it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Smith sitting there for the rest of the night, especially given Carlisle’s reputation for being tough on his point guards.
But Smith didn’t pout or complain, and a few minutes later, Carlisle summoned him to go back in. Part of that could be attributed to the Mavericks being on their way to a 111-79 blowout victory.
Just as important, though, was something Carlisle said before the game: that Smith, just a month into his NBA career, is already an essential part of everything Dallas is trying to do.
“You spend a lot of time teaching with film,” Carlisle said in response to a question about trying to ensure bad habits don’t creep in as a team struggles for results. “I spent about a half hour with him tonight before we had our meeting. A lot of it is just communication. If there are things that are going wrong you have to sub him out and talk to him. But he’s an important part of our team. It’s really gotten to the point where our winning is largely dependent on him playing well. That’s a great compliment to him and what he’s been able to establish, but it’s a big responsibility.”
Dallas clearly sees Smith, who will turn 20 on Saturday, as the future of the franchise. And it doesn’t take more than a glance or two to see he has the kind of talent that could make him the fulcrum of the next great Mavericks team, just as the man who has defined the franchise almost since Smith was born, Dirk Nowitzki, is stepping away from the stage.
Becoming that kind of player, however, doesn’t happen overnight. Some games will be like how he played against the Washington Wizards (22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists), Cleveland Cavaliers (21 points, five rebounds, seven assists) or San Antonio Spurs (27 points, including five three-pointers). Then there will be some like Friday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves (eight points on 3-for-12 shooting) and Saturday against the Bucks (five points, two assists and four turnovers).
“I thought when he came back in, after that he did a great job,” Carlisle said. “And, look, he’s seeing different guys every night. These guys are cold-blooded killers coming at him, and he’s learning a lot and doing positive things.”
There isn’t a harder job in the NBA today than playing point guard. The league is teeming with talented floor generals, and for a rookie such as Smith, that means a baptism by fire every night. That certainly was the case Friday and Saturday, when he had a rough time against Minnesota’s Jeff Teague and Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe. And Monday night doesn’t get any easier, with Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics coming to town.
Yet none of this has sapped Smith’s confidence — or, at the very least, his willingness to crack a few jokes along the way.
“It’s not challenging going against him,” Smith said after Saturday’s game, and cracking a smile while doing so, when asked about the difficulties playing against someone such as Bledsoe. “I’m just making some adjustments right now. No one’s challenging for me. No.”
And even as Smith said he was “blessed” by the chance to play against stars he’s been watching regularly since as far back as middle school, he wasn’t ready to admit that he’s awe-struck by those big names.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve gotten used to it,” he said. “It’s just basketball.”
Even as Smith struggles, his physical talent is evident to anyone watching. He has the athleticism to both break defenses down off the dribble and throw down a dunk on just about anyone. At this point, it’s simply a matter of when he gets there. But Carlisle — his quick hook Saturday aside — is still quite pleased with the progress he’s seen thus far.
“A month in, overall, progress is very good,” Carlisle said. “Last night was a struggle, but there’s going to be some nights like that. The important thing is he understands the importance of bouncing back. We point out the adjustments that need to be made and he’s ready to go the next night. These three games we are in the middle of, all against high-level opponents, teams that can defend well, teams that have length, the adjustments have got to be made, and he’ll do it.
“He’s smart. He’s done it every time we’ve challenged him so far.”
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