The Step Back

Dennis Smith Jr. and the Mavericks are a perfect pairing

When it comes to the NBA draft, some teams believe firmly in simply selecting the best player available. They may define “best” as highest floor, highest ceiling, highest reasonable expectation, or something else entirely, but they always take the highest remaining player on their draft board. Other teams believe in looking for the best available fit. They identify a position of need and ensure that the player they draft fills it. Of course, the best case scenario involves finding the perfect blend of talent and fit — the best player available happens to play the exact position where you most need help, and he falls right into your lap.

It’s not so often that such a scenario plays out for the team selecting at No. 9, but it did this season. The Dallas Mavericks were desperately in need of a point guard, and the best player available at the time they picked happened to be North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr. It was just about perfect for the Mavs, but it was also just about perfect for Smith. The Mavericks’ roster fits him like a glove; it’s constructed in such a way that it will amplify his greatest skills and paper over his greatest weaknesses.

Smith is an athletic dynamo, but he didn’t always get a ton of opportunity to show off the full breadth of what he could do when he was with the Wolfpack. He often ran into crowds in the paint due to the lack of spacey shooting surrounding him on the roster, for example. He will not have that issue in Dallas.

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Smith loves to come burning around a screen and attack the paint. There’s nothing that benefits a player like that more than a partner that shoots well enough to keep his defender occupied and away from the ball-handler, and Smith has the luxury of starting his career in a partnership with the greatest pick-and-pop big man in NBA history.

Long is the list of guards that have benefited from Dirk Nowitzki’s presence on the floor. Dirk has been drawing stay-attached coverage from defenders practically since stay-attached coverage has existed, and because of that his pick-and-pop dance partners (players like Steve Nash, Jason Terry, Devin Harris, J.J. Barea, Rodrique Beaubois, Monta Ellis, Yogi Ferrell, and more) have always had freer access to the middle of the floor — and thus the paint — than most other primary ball-handlers in the league. Because of that access, most of the guards that have crossed paths with Nowitzki had the best years of their career while playing in Dallas. (Nash is the exception that proves the rule.)

The second-best thing for such a player is a pick-and-roll partner that spaces the floor vertically. He’s still sitting on the free-agent market but the expectation at this point has to be that Nerlens Noel will return to the fold. (There aren’t really any realistic suitors out there that seem willing to offer a deal the Mavs wouldn’t match.) Noel is a classic dive man in the mold of Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan types. Throw the ball up in the air and he’ll make something happen near the rim. Those types of players draw help from all over the floor, giving their partners excess room to operate. Again, Smith will benefit from having this type of player on his team.

If it were just the dance partners that were in position to help Smith it’d be one thing, but Smith will also benefit from the Mavs having several plus outside shooters on the roster. Harrison Barnes made only 35 percent of his 3s last year, but that was as a No. 1 offensive option. He was a 37.6 percent shooter while playing a supplementary role in Golden State and has shown he can consistently knock down the open looks created for him by penetrating point guards on the pick-and-roll. Wesley Matthews, even in his post-Achilles injury form, has knocked down 36 percent of his treys over the last two seasons. Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell each hit over 40 percent of their triples last season, on more than four attempts per game apiece.

It’ll all add up to Smith being presented with far more advantageous scoring and distributing opportunities in the NBA than he was in college. He, more than any other player in this draft, figures to benefit from the NBA’s more wide-open style of play.

On the other side of the floor, the Mavs are in good position to paper over Smith’s shortcomings. He’s not necessarily an awful defender, but it’s difficult to see him ever being a truly positive force on that end — let alone as a rookie. Most point guards struggle to defend the point of attack and Smith should be no different, but at least he has a guard’s best friend — Noel is a space-defender capable of corralling pick-and-rolls out to the perimeter and following ball-handlers all the way to the rim — protecting his back. Barnes and Matthews, both solid defenders in their own right, will be able to help him to a certain extent as well.

To top it all off, Smith will be coached by the great Rick Carlisle, who if it wasn’t for the existence of the great Gregg Popovich, would get a whole lot more love. As it is, Carlisle is widely considered one of the handful of best coaches in the NBA. Sure, he has clashed with some of his point guards in the past, but he’s also helped all of them take their games to a significantly higher level. Carlisle doesn’t get enough credit for his chameleonic ways — he crafts his offense to suit the personnel on his team, and there’s no doubt that he’s already scheming all sorts of creative ways to put Smith in position to succeed.

Carlisle has shown reluctance at times to giving young players a ton of playing time or the type enough leash to make mistakes and still stay on the floor, but he announced plans to start Smith almost immediately after the draft so it’s clear that Dallas is going to make him a big part of its plans right from the jump. They’re fully invested in maxing out every inch of his potential, and Smith should no doubt benefit from that early commitment to him.

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