Is former N.C. State point guard Dennis Smith Jr. ready, a month away from his 20th birthday, to run an NBA team on the court?
A little story from Smith’s visit to Charlotte Friday was telling: Smith is from Fayetteville and this was one of only two games the Mavs would play this season in Charlotte. Thursday, he told a Mavs official he would need exactly 21 tickets for family on Friday. He never deviated from that request.
There are 10-year NBA veterans who can never make up their minds until an hour before game time how many tickets they need. That Smith was so precise with his request, and provided it so far in advance, says how organized he approaches this first pro season.
Smith was the ninth overall pick in the June draft, following a season for the Wolfpack. He started for the Mavs in the Charlotte Hornets’ final preseason exhibition. The plan is to start him immediately in the regular season.
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle says Smith provides a “dynamic” sort of athleticism the Mavericks have long lacked at point guard. That’s no surprise and is highly valued in an NBA game where there is no hand-checking to divert elite ball handlers from getting to the rim.
What is slightly more surprising is how quickly Smith has taken to his responsibilities as an organizer. Point guards, by their very job description, must order teammates around - even if one of those is 39-year-old future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki.
“I like his demeanor, I like his disposition,” Carlisle said. “He’s a competitor, he’s a worker, and he gives us a dimension we haven’t had in the 10 years I’ve been here.
“He’s been terrific to work with - communicates well, and his teammates really like him and respect him.”
In his first five preseason exhibitions, Smith averaged 11 points, 7.2 assists and 6.2 rebounds. He is shooting 42 percent from the NBA 3-point line.
Asked what has surprised him about the NBA, Smith said getting to the rim has actually been easier than he anticipated. He noted that’s in part a function of the NBA’s defensive 3-second rule.
NBA.com annually surveys the league’s general managers for a broad range of predictions. Smith was voted the biggest steal of the 2017 draft, and was picked third for Rookie of the Year, behind the Los Angeles Lakers’ Lonzo Ball and the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons (who sat out the 2016-17 season with injury).
There is nothing about these expectations that surprise or concern Smith. When asked if he’s ready for the NBA at 19, he had an assertive answer Friday.
“I think I was ready (for the NBA) last year in college,” Smith said. “That’s my mentality. Like for everybody else, it should be. You’ve got to always think you’re ready for any type of competition.
“Whenever you attack it as hard as you can, you’ll have results.”
And what’s been hard?
“Nothing, really,” Smith said. “The games are a lot easier than practice.”
Sounds like a guy who knows who he is, knows how he fits, knows how to succeed.