DALLAS — It took all of 32 seconds Wednesday night for Dennis Smith Jr. to record what should be the first of many highlights in his career.
Coach Rick Carlisle called a play on the Dallas Mavericks‘ first possession designed for the prized rookie — a teenager hyped as 20-year veteran Dirk Nowitzki‘s successor as the face of the franchise — to display his athleticism. From just left of the top of the 3-point arc, Smith passed the ball to Wesley Matthews Jr., got a back pick from Nowitzki and soared to catch a lob pass before finishing with a ferocious, two-handed dunk.
“It’s time to go get it,” Smith thought when told the Mavs would open the season with that play. “I just told him to throw it up and I’m gonna get it wherever you throw it. That’s what I did.”
Welcome to the NBA, kid.
The Mavs weren’t exactly in a celebratory mood after their 117-111 home loss to the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks, but there has been a buzz throughout the organization about Smith from the moment he slipped to the Mavs with the ninth pick in the draft.
This is a franchise that has been searching for a long-term point guard since Jason Kidd’s departure and desperately needs a cornerstone to build around in the coming post-Nowitzki era. The hope is that Smith solves both problems.
There certainly isn’t any reason to ease up on the optimism after Smith’s 16-point, 10-assist debut that put him in statistical company with the two NBA legends who played point guard for the Mavs. Smith became the youngest player in league history (19 years, 327 days) to debut with a points/assists double-double, a distinction that previously belonged to Isiah Thomas (20 years, 183 days). It was the first time since Steve Nash in 2002 that a Dallas player had at least 15 points and 10 assists in a season debut.
“He’s a special athlete,” Nowitzki said. “We’re gonna have a lot of fun watching him hopefully for a long, long time.”
Westbrook, the reigning MVP, and Wall, a perennial All-Star, are probably the only active point guards who compare athletically to Smith. Mavs executive Michael Finley said on draft night that Smith reminded him of prime “Derrick Rose with a jump shot.”
There haven’t been many point guards with the gift of a 48-inch vertical leap. They definitely haven’t played in Dallas. Smith dunked twice in his debut — two more dunks than Mavs point guards had all of last season.
Yet Smith isn’t just a raw athlete. He has remarkable poise and vision for a player his age. His assist total against the Hawks could have been a lot higher if not for Nowitzki (4-of-14) and Harrison Barnes (3-of-13) missing several open looks Smith created for them.
Aside from wearing a “The Princess and the Frog” backpack postgame — veteran guard Devin Harris allowed Smith his pick of Disney princesses — the teen really didn’t look much like a rookie.
“That’s just having a feel for the game,” Smith said. “I’ve been playing point guard since I was like 6 years old. I just go in and do what I do. I’ll find guys, I’ll be aggressive. It’s just about going in and having a feel for it.”
Cuban, perhaps conveniently forgetting about Rajon Rondo’s brief, bad tenure with the Mavs, calls Smith “as good a passer as we’ve had since J. Kidd.”
Veteran backup point guard J.J. Barea, who has lasted a dozen years in the league in large part due to his fiery personality, raves just as much about Smith’s competitiveness. Barea might advise Smith not to seek out midair collisions, such as when he got hammered while trying to dunk over two Hawks in the third quarter, but he loves the kid’s fearlessness.
“He’s not going to back up from nobody,” Barea said. “That’s a good thing.”
Smith might not be able to lead the Mavs to many victories this season. Not many rookie point guards immediately take lottery teams to the playoffs.
But the Mavs, whose draft results over the past decade have been dreadful, finally have a rookie who provides hope for the future and highlights right away.