Morning Tip Q&A: Dennis Smith Jr.

NBA.com Global on Nov 14, 2017 08:26 AM
Morning Tip Q&A: Dennis Smith Jr.
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 7: Dennis Smith Jr. #1 of the Dallas Mavericks dunks against the Washington Wizards on November 7, 2017 at Capital One Arena in Washington, DC. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

By David Aldridge, TNT analyst

LeBron James, that imp, knew exactly the conflagration he would start, and lit the match anyway. After the Cleveland Cavaliers’ win in Dallas Saturday night (Sunday, PHL time), James tweaked Phil Jackson’s selection of point guard Frank Ntilikina with the eighth pick in last June’s Draft rather than Dennis Smith, Jr., the electric point from N.C. State who went to the Mavericks with the next selection.

“The Knicks passed on a really good one,” James said Saturday (Sunday, PHL time). “Dallas got the diamond in the rough. He should be a Knick. That’s going to make some headlines, but he should be a Knick. But Dallas is definitely, I know they’re excited that he didn’t go there. He’s an unbelievable talent.”

James wasn’t just blowing uninformed smoke; Smith was at James’ summer skills camp years ago and the two have a relationship dating back to Smith’s AAU days. And in a season where the woebegone Mavs are 2-11 -- tied with Atlanta for the worst record in the league -- the 19-year-old Smith is indeed the only diamond in the 2017-18 sack of coal in Big D. He hasn’t been able to keep Dallas from losing, but he’s holding his own in a Draft class full of promising points, including the Los Angeles Lakers’ Lonzo Ball, the Sacramento Kings’ De’Aaron Fox and, yes, Ntilikina in New York.

Coach Rick Carlisle and crew took Smith to play him; he’s started every game he’s played so far, getting thrown into the deep end. “I don’t want him to have failure, but it’s inevitable,” Carlisle said last week. “It’s inevitable for every great player. You’re going to have some challenges out there. It’s really important to be, I think, authentic in understanding the challenge on the one hand, and on the other, we’ve got to have solutions to how he handles situations.”

There have been the predictable ups and downs: 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists against John Wall in an unlikely road win; 3-of-11 shooting in 29 minutes in a 30-point loss to the Warriors. But after years of searching for a long-term solution at the point, the Mavericks are certain they have their man -- and Smith is ready to go through the morass of losing to get Dallas back where it had been for most of the last 15 seasons -- a 50-win contender. Whatever Smith becomes in the NBA, though, he will not do it in New York.

David Aldridge: What poster was above your bed when you were a kid?

Dennis Smith, Jr.: I had a Chris Paul poster hanging up in my room. I just like how he played. He did everything. He did a little bit of everything. This is when he was on the Hornets. I think I was in fifth or sixth grade. He did everything when he was on the Hornets. They had a battle with the Spurs in the playoffs, and watching that, I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be at that level when I got older. I was a superfan.

DA: I know that you knew already that Summer League was not the same as the regular season. But did anything drive that home for you?

DSJ: You could say that. Even preseason was different. Summer League, it just seemed like it was way faster. Summer League seemed a lot faster than regular season games. It’s more grind it out. You’ve got to be locked in for longer periods. It’s a difference.

DA: How have you tried to separate the mental toll of the 82-game season from the physical?

DSJ: Physically, I’m doing a really good job right now. Our training staff, they make sure I stay on top of everything, whether I feel like it or not -- make sure that I do it. It’s greatly appreciated. Mentally, I think that just comes from having humbleness. I appreciate being able to play right now. I sat out a whole year already with my ACL. I’m thankful for this opportunity.

DA: It’s funny that you mentioned that, because a lot of the scouts I spoke with before the Draft said one of the things they were most impressed with about you was you came back and played Adidas Nations -- where you got injured -- the next year. And I wonder how important it was for you to get back in time to play Nations?

DSJ: I think that was one of the biggest things to help me conquer the injury mentally. For me, I was up early, moving, way before I was supposed to. I got in trouble for it a couple of times. I was moving around so much before I was supposed to my grandma hit me with a broom a couple of times when she caught me. For me to go back to Nations where I tore it at, that was a big mountain I had to climb mentally, and I think I conquered that.

DA: What did that do for you?

DSJ: It just let me know I’m healthy, for certain. A lot of times I was doing things ahead of time. In my head I’m saying I’m healthy. Regardless of what they’re saying, I can do whatever I feel is right. When I went out and did that, that just confirmed this for me.

DA: I asked Coach this -- and coaches want to win every night. But I asked him if it would be good for you to experience failure, so he can learn from it. Because that’s what this league is. Everybody gets their butt kicked; the great ones come back from it.

DSJ: Exactly. That’s mental toughness. And I think part of being a rookie, especially being a point guard, I think it’s important for me to take some of these lumps. I want to win every game, but tribulations come with being the best. That’s with everybody. So you take your lumps early, but you’ve got to look at everything as a lesson, and you’ve got to grow from it.

DA: What do you hope to have mastered by the end of this first season?

DSJ: I would really say, even as a rookie, controlling the game, being able to control the tempo. That’s learning my teammates, getting more in tune with my coach -- which is going to happen, as much time as we’ve been together, it’s going to happen. That’s my main thing -- wanting to be a really good leader and control the game.

DA: What will that look like?

DSJ: I think we’ll win more games, for certain. We wouldn’t be in this position we’re in now. It’s something that was relatively easy for me in college, high school and in college, but at the same time I had guys (my age). Now I’m coming in with guys with families. It’s different. I’m 19; I’m not even 20 yet. So it’s an adjustment. But I’m making it, though. I’m earning their respect. I’m coming in and doing what I’m supposed to do, and I show them respect. It’s going to take time, but I think I’m going to get it.

DA: How do you feel about your jumper right now?

DSJ: I feel like it’s good. I feel like I’m shooting the ball well. There’s always room for improvement, but I think I’ve been pretty solid with it. It’s respectable.

DA: What have the vets like Dirk said to you about this season and making those adjustments to the NBA?

DSJ: Just a learning process, basically. Stay positive through this whole thing. A lot of guys on our team, they’re used to winning. The Mavericks are used to winning. Winning is all they’ve done before. So they’re saying stay positive and good things will happen...(Nowitzki) is a guy that comes in and he’s ready to do his work. Afterward he does his work. So he moreso leads by example. Wes (Matthews) is more vocal in his leadership, as well as HB. Everybody, they contribute in different ways.

DA: You like the flow offense?

DSJ: I like it. It’s different for me, too. I’m so used to penetrating, just like, I’ve got the ball, go. Now it’s like throw the ball, come get it back, things like that. It’s an adjustment…it’s not easy right now, and it’s not supposed to be, either. It wouldn’t be worth having if it was. It’s some adjustments to be made.

DA: So when CP3 gets back, what do you anticipate it will be playing against him?

DSJ: It’s go time. It’s go time. That’s the only way to earn his respect, is to go out and compete. That’s what I plan on doing.

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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