Dennis Smith Jr. proving he isn't the player his pre-draft rep suggested he was

Dennis Smith Jr. is averaging 19.3 points in his last three games. (AP)
Dennis Smith Jr. is averaging 19.3 points in his last three games. (AP)

When Dennis Smith Jr. sat down for pre-draft meetings, everyone attempted to delve into his character. He finished a promising one-and-done freshman season at North Carolina State and stood out as arguably the best athlete in the June NBA draft. But before the Dallas Mavericks locked in on Smith with the No. 9 overall selection, the questions about his character and his reputation kept coming. So Smith wondered: Where could they be emanating from? Could they be from somewhere familiar, from former coaches or staff members?

“It could’ve been people that were on my side, my staff, putting out bad, negative rumors,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. “It’s things I heard by ear. I hope nobody was doing that, man, but anything could have happened because I kept hearing it. To me, you really have to get to know somebody to make judgments about them. As the Mavs got to know me, they realized I’m a hard worker and everything I do is motivated by just winning.”

Months later, Smith is taking a calm approach. He doesn’t care for the perceptions that formed then. Smith is now aiming to become a pillar for the Mavericks, alongside forward Harrison Barnes and 20-year franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki, a responsibility that has come with a championship coach in Rick Carlisle and a blend of veterans and young players. Smith is working to improve his jump shot and passing vision, but has a refined poise. He also has the athletic ability, at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, that could lead him to accept an invitation to the Slam Dunk Contest this year.

Smith has started at point guard for the Mavs from Day 1, averaging 14.3 points, 4.5 assists and 3.9 rebounds in 36 games, including a triple-double (21 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) on Dec. 29 in a win at New Orleans and scoring 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter of a road win over Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City two days later. He has sat some critical fourth-quarter minutes, too, including a home loss to the Knicks on Jan. 7.

So far, Smith is still gaining confidence to play in crunch time under Carlisle. It’s critical for Smith to utilize experience from fourth quarters — and that comes from playing, which the Mavericks believe will come slowly but surely as the season continues.

Smith has played 31 minutes or more in the past three games, posting 20 points, six rebounds and three assists in a win against Orlando on Tuesday and 15 points, six assists and three rebounds in a victory in Charlotte on Wednesday. He also had 23 points in a home loss to the Lakers on Saturday.

Dennis Smith Jr. has had much to learn under Mavs coach Rick Carlisle. (AP)
Dennis Smith Jr. has had much to learn under Mavs coach Rick Carlisle. (AP)

When Smith faced the Knicks recently, it brought back memories of New York’s interest in him in the draft at No. 8, which became a talking point for LeBron James in November.

Smith had scheduled a workout and meeting with the Knicks in early June, had dinner with then-president Phil Jackson and other team officials, and arrived at the team’s facility the next morning. Smith was prepared for a full workout, and yet Jackson requested something that surprised him: a physical exam, league sources said. Smith elected to pass, and the sides called off the workout and further discussions.

“The Knicks were forcing me to do a couple things that were already established that I wasn’t going to do,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. “I was uncomfortable with them. I felt comfortable here in Dallas. They did a good job making me feel like I was already a player here. People think that I just dipped out of the Knicks workout because I didn’t want the Knicks to take me, but no.

“It wasn’t over that … but they kept insisting on the physical. I knew it would be a no go.”

Still, one day before the draft, the Knicks came calling, wondering if Smith — who was already in town to be in the draft green room — could undergo a last-second workout. For Smith and those around him, the preference had already been set: Dallas. So Smith declined again with New York, and the Knicks selected Frank Ntilikina, who has shown promise as a developing two-way point guard.

“The vibe was different in Dallas to me,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. “The Knicks have some good guys on their staff, but the situation with them was funky at the time.”

Ask Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and a simple perception of Smith became clear in their pre-draft meetings.

“Dennis is a hard worker, quiet,” Cuban told Yahoo Sports. “He’s still a kid, but quickly comes across as being much older than his age. We just had to wait it out come draft night.”

For all of the dialogue about Smith’s fluctuating motor in his freshman season at N.C. State or questions about his mindset, Mavericks coaches and officials noticed early in training camp Smith’s ability to absorb points from Devin Harris and J.J. Barea, Wes Matthews and Nowitzki. The Mavericks are 15-29 this season and could have attractive veterans available as the Feb. 8 trade deadline looms.

For his part, Smith credits his father for guidance and instilling the importance of listening and applying lessons. Smith has the talent to transform the Mavericks’ backcourt for the next decade-plus, and his teammates are committed to helping him understand the responsibilities and expectations that come with that.

“Between Devin and Wes, they’re in my ear all the time,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. “Dev talks to me before every game, we’ll sit down and he tells me what he needs me to do throughout the game. If he sees something, he tells me about it. And Wes does it constantly throughout the day. Dev, especially, he’s been an All-Star in this league [in 2009] and he’s remained productive. He’s done it and seen it all. Whatever he says on the court, I believe it.

“It’s all about finding my role right now. We have so many proven guys in this league — Wes Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk, J.J., Dev. Particularly in our starting five, we have proven high-level players, so I have to find my role and my voice with them. Dirk is a really cool guy and our relationship has been good. Everybody loves being around him, and not many people outside know that.

“My dad told me growing up: Take in the good, the bad, and try to make adjustments. I want to do that day in and day out. My first year is just about getting in where I fit in, and adjust to the system. I’m up for this challenge.”

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