, Bleacher Report
A polarizing talent entering the draft, Dennis Smith Jr. has the NBA community buzzing during summer league. And it’s raising questions as to how he fell to the Dallas Mavericks at No. 9.
Bleacher Report reached out to NBA evaluators for answers on why teams passed on the North Carolina State product, and whether they should have.
Much like Ben Simmons in 2015-16 at LSU and Markelle Fultz with Washington last season, Smith put up big numbers for a team that couldn’t reach the NCAA tournament. His 18.1 points and 6.2 assists per game were fueled by full-package scoring and playmaking, as well as the type of athleticism that’s synonymous with upside.
But all the losses, plus frustrating inconsistency, cast a cloud over his production, especially after Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox took names in the NCAA tournament.
Given Smith’s obvious talent, the critical question is whether the concerns on his scouting report were legitimate or blown out of proportion, given his unfavorable college situation. Through four games in Las Vegas, he’s looked highly convincing and poised to make a few general managers regret their draft-night decision.
Scouts’ Love, NBA Comparisons for Smith
With flashy athleticism, power and sharp skills, Smith has been on scouts’ radars since early high school. And they all recognize his talent in spite of the questions, which not everyone deemed fair.
Scout No. 1: “I think overall, scouts had a very high opinion of Smith. I know I did. He was maybe the most explosive player in the draft.”
Scout No. 2: “I had Smith No. 2 on my board. Definitely think the questions over his leadership and record were overstated. That team was a complete mess last year. I think he’s going to be pretty damn good.”
Smith’s identity revolves around his explosiveness, strength and scoring ability. He puts pressure on defenses with a blow-by first step, jets in the lane and the confidence to pull up from anywhere.
Scout No. 3: “I’ve loved him since he was in high school. He’s athletic, skilled and always in attack mode. Reminds me of Steve Francis and Baron Davis. If he stays healthy, he will be special.”
Scout No. 4: “No doubt a great athlete and can score, and when he wants to, he can defend.”
But he also brings playmaking and facilitating to create a well-rounded offensive punch from the point.
Scout No. 5: “Has a solid feel as a young point guard. He’s got great patience.”
Scout No. 6: “He has some great tools, is an underrated passer and more than anything, he looks very comfortable out there.”
Why Scouts Feel Smith Slipped in the Draft
Smith started the season as a potential No. 1 overall pick. But eight teams wound up passing on him in the draft, including the Orlando Magic at No. 6, Chicago Bulls at No. 7 (after trading up) and New York Knicks at No. 8—rosters that each could have used upgrades at point guard.
And that was with Smith producing in volume while shooting respectable percentages: 45.5 percent from the floor and 35.9 percent on 153 three-point attempts.
At 6’3″ with short arms (6’3″ wingspan), Smith had some scouts questioning his size and defense among a strong 2017 field.
Scout No. 1: “The knocks were that he was small, played no defense and didn’t win. But it’s not like the guys ahead of him were chopped liver. For the most part everyone ahead of him was longer and also explosive.”
But scouts took notice of Smith’s negative energy, which often showed during North Carolina State’s 14 conference losses.
Scout No. 6: “This year was a really talented draft, and he still went top 10, so it’s not like he fell out of the lottery or anything, but I’m sure his leadership and drive were conversation pieces in every draft room in the league.”
Scout No. 4: “His motor toward the end of the season was shaky. He didn’t sustain the grit that he came into college with. His team wasn’t good, and it looked like he checked out at a certain point.”
Back in November, one scout referred to Smith as more “quiet and moody” relative to other point guards. Nobody seems to have any concerns about his ability; rather, the intangibles have raised the most red flags.
What Scouts Question About Smith
Averaging 20.0 points and 4.3 assists during summer league, Smith has aced the eye test in Las Vegas, standing out like an overpowering pro among NBA hopefuls. He’s torched defenses with ball-handling moves, shot creativity and jumpers that mirror many of today’s star point guards’.
But some scouts still have questions about his mentality, approach and potential to lead through adversity.
Scout No. 6: “I think his reputation is as a gamer, that he plays hard when it’s a big game and when all the lights are on him, and I think summer league would fit under that category. He still hasn’t been put through the part of the season and through the hurdles that we all had concerns about, which would be the doldrums of the regular season—losing streaks, back-to-backs on the road.
“Is he going to be revved up for those games like the elite players? Can he lead his team through the spells like elite players do? Or is he going to continue to be known as an inconsistent, bright-lights player? Those are questions that need to be answered.”
Scout No. 7: “Smith has looked great in summer league, but he’s a Hall of Fame pickup player. Summer league is pickup.”
There is a fear that Smith may be a stats-over-wins type of player. And given his ball-dominant style, it’s easy to see why teams were hesitant to hand him the keys to their offense.
Projecting Smith’s Upside
The questions with Smith are potential roadblocks, but they don’t change the height of his ceiling.
While every scout expects Smith to stick, start and produce, a few mentioned All-Star potential, including Scout No. 6: “I think Smith could be one of the top point guards in the league, maybe even an All-Star. Talent-wise, I would think everyone would have him top five-seven in this draft.”
When you combine all the athleticism, ball skills, shooting range and confidence, you get upside. Smith will be more explosive and sharper off the dribble than many of the NBA point guards he faces.
He’s looked advanced working out of isolation and ball screens, and he’s proved to be tough around the rim thanks to an effective mix of bounce and coordination.
He’s taken over games, having hit the 27-point mark six times as a freshman. His two triple-doubles in college highlight his ability to back up his scoring with rebounds and assists.
And despite some scouts questioning his defense, he still averaged 1.9 steals by tapping into his quick feet, strength and aggression.
Smith’s ceiling is high, and scouts won’t deny it. Will he reach it, though?
Scout No. 5 believes “shooting a consistent three-ball” will be the key to unlocking Smith’s potential. Others are more focused on his decision-making and drive.
Smith clearly has holes in his game, but none appear permanent. Sharpening his jumper and improving his approach could be the difference between a good player and one of the best at the position.
Scout No. 6: His reputation isn’t great, but neither was Kyle Lowry’s, so we’ll see how it plays out.”
Smith’s Fit in Dallas
Smith should benefit from falling to Dallas, where there isn’t backcourt crowding or concerns over the franchise’s stability.
Scout No. 8: “Smith is in a really, really good situation in Dallas where he has good pieces around him and can be coached by an offensive-minded coach who will help him flourish. He should be a very successful starter for the Mavericks.”
Smith appears on track to be the lead guard for the Mavericks and head coach Rick Carlisle from opening night. He’ll have plenty of freedom to make mistakes for a rebuilding team in the Western Conference.
But he also won’t be handed an overwhelming workload like he was in college, when opponents’ game plans focused on stopping Smith, who didn’t have much space or supporting weapons to begin with. In Dallas, he’ll have respected veterans such as Dirk Nowitzki and Wesley Matthews, as well as scorers and shooters in Harrison Barnes and Seth Curry.
As one of Dallas’ projected top options, he’ll compete with Fultz for the rookie scoring crown. But the Mavericks’ vision with Smith is about the long term, and they’ve given him a favorable setting to comfortably develop and eventually hit his stride.