DALLAS — Dennis Smith Jr. didn’t even crack a smile.
Smith waved his arms, motioning for the crowd to cheer, while on his way to the bench during a timeout after drilling a cold-blooded 3-pointer to give the Dallas Mavericks a 13-point lead with 4:31 remaining. But he remained stone-faced, certainly not looking like a teenager who had the first win of his NBA career in reach, aside from the thin whiskers in his attempt at a mustache.
It’s not as if Smith was surprised by the moment or anything else about his efficient 19-point, five-assist, one-turnover performance in the Mavs’ 103-94 victory Wednesday night over the previously unbeaten Memphis Grizzlies.
“I do expect it,” Smith said, wearing his purple-and-pink “The Princess and the Frog” backpack. “I’m just playing basketball. I’ve been doing it since I was 6. It’s the highest level now, but I’ve worked to be on this level. I deserve this opportunity, and now I’ve got to own that and earn my keep.”
That mentality brings a smile to the face of a certain graybeard who still remembers what it was like to be a wide-eyed rookie.
“He’s a confident young man,” said Dirk Nowitzki, who admittedly was not during his first NBA season two decades ago. “He knows that he’s good. He knows the sky is the limit. As long as you’re confident and you’re humble about it — which he’s shown, he’s shown that he’s ready to work and listen — I think he’s going to be great.”
Smith, the No. 9 overall pick the Mavs hope develops into the next face of the franchise, has the kind of athleticism that causes crowds to gasp. There aren’t too many point guards who can blow by a defender in the halfcourt and finish with a two-handed dunk, as Smith did during the second quarter.
But the poise and patience Smith, who was 8-of-12 from the floor in the win, shows as a 19-year-old rookie are attributes that are almost as rare. He makes the extra pass when appropriate — such as when he passed up a decent look to hit Wesley Matthews for a wide-open corner 3 to push Dallas’ lead back to double digits midway through the fourth quarter. Smith doesn’t feel the need to hunt for shots or force the action. He attempted only four field goals in the first half and then pounced when he found seams in the third quarter, when Smith scored nine points on 4-of-4 shooting.
“He’s got a very mature game,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said.
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has a reputation for being tough on point guards, but he hasn’t hesitated to put responsibilities on Smith’s plate. He’s not worried about the rookie being overwhelmed. Smith earns trust by consistently making smart decisions.
“He’s a pretty calm person by nature,” Carlisle said. “He’s very confident. He processes things and has a good sense of just how long five or six seconds is at the end of the clock. He understands that the defense will break down in a split second and he’s got the quickness to get by people. Some of the things he’s doing to generate baskets, fouls or shots for guys is a dimension we’ve never had on this team.”
Smith’s explosiveness will get him SportsCenter time. His savvy is what earns the respect of the league’s premier point guards.
“Super-athletic guard that knows how to play the game,” said Golden State’s Stephen Curry, who has known the fellow North Carolina native since Smith was in high school. “I think that’s the most underrated aspect of his game, just the way he sees the floor, the way he tries to get his teammates involved. And he can shoot it. A lot of people fall in love with the way he can high-fly and play above the rim at times, just his explosiveness, but the thing that’s going to help him be a long-lasting pro and probably an All-Star one day in this league is his ability to play that five-man basketball and get other guys involved and use his strengths to open up looks for other teammates.”
Curry offered that scouting report before the Warriors blew out the Mavs on Monday night. Smith experienced some growing pains in that game, finishing with 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting and only one assist. His confidence clearly wasn’t shaken, however, as evidenced by his bounce-back performance against another of the West’s best point guards.
“I love his game,” Memphis’ Mike Conley said. “He plays with a great pace, very patient. He’s going to be something special in the league. They’ve got a good one.”