Which players have been most impressive so far at the NBA summer league in Las Vegas? Whose careers have gotten off to slow starts?
We’re midway through summer league action, with the tournament portion of the competition beginning Wednesday. With each team having played three games — and some of the big names already shut down for the remainder of the competition — now is a good time to take a preliminary look at the most impressive (and most disappointing) players in Las Vegas.
LAS VEGAS — Dennis Smith Jr. didn’t play cards with his teammates, put on a pair of Beats by Dre headphones or catch a nap during the first team flight of his NBA career. He wanted to work, not that he had much choice in the matter.
Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle sat side by side with Smith and spent the two and a half hours it took to fly to Las Vegas putting the No. 9 pick in the draft through a video tutorial. They watched a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, with Carlisle particularly emphasizing details of the Dallas point guards’ defense against MVP Russell Westbrook.
Smith upstages Jackson in matchup between Western Conference lottery picks
Josh Jackson was drafted five spots ahead of Dennis Smith Jr., but Smith got the better of the matchup at summer league. Kevin Pelton scouts their performances so far in Las Vegas.
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They studied some of the Mavs’ offensive sets and discussed Smith’s responsibilities, how he’d fit and situations he should expect to see, the rookie impressing Carlisle with his intellectual curiosity for the game.
“His eyes light up when you turn on NBA film,” Carlisle said proudly a couple of days later, fresh off watching Smith light up the Phoenix Suns’ summer league team for 25 efficient points in 27 minutes, driving and finishing in electrifying fashion for several buckets.
“I like your point guard,” a Western Conference coach told Carlisle as they greeted each other after the game.
The Mavs, whose draft room erupted with glee when the New York Knicks selected Frank Ntilikina with the previous pick and left Smith on the board for Dallas, really like their point guard. So much so that Carlisle, without prompting, declared on draft night that he projected Smith as an instant starter and impact player.
“I appreciated it,” Smith said. “That’s one of the great minds in basketball. He’s one of the best coaches in the league, if not the best. When he said that, it’s high praise, but that means I’ve got to come in and put in the work, if he’s got that much faith in me.”
There is a buzz around the Mavs, who haven’t had a draft pick develop into a long-term starter in Dallas for more than a decade, that the 19-year-old Smith might be the franchise player they so desperately need with Dirk Nowitzki (the No. 9 pick in 1998) entering his 20th season and in the midst of his twilight.
“I think that he has amazing ability that needs to be brought along the right way,” Carlisle said. “That’s on all of us. That’s on Mark [Cuban], on me, on our coaching staff, our training staff, our strength and conditioning staff. You don’t just declare a guy a franchise cornerstone player. You help put him in the position to get there. That’s going to be our plan.”
Smith says he sees the glass as half full when asked about slipping to No. 9 in the draft, stressing that he’s ecstatic with his situation, landing with a franchise that features one of the NBA’s premier coaches and respected, unselfish veterans to help groom him. However, he can’t deny that he felt it was a slap in the face to see eight players picked before him, including four point guards.
“You could say that, because I believe that I’m the best player, as should everybody else,” Smith said. “They do their work, but I definitely took it as an insult.”
It’s never wise to come to grand conclusions during the first week of summer league, but Smith certainly looked like a Rookie of the Year candidate while leading the Mavs to wins in the first two games, averaging 19.5 points on 50 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists. Everyone in the league knew that Smith, whose vertical leap measured at 48 inches, possessed elite athleticism. He has impressed in Vegas with a rare blend of aggressiveness, poise and discipline.
“He’s strong, plays with force, but he also plays with great vision and good discipline,” Carlisle said. “That’s a really unusual thing for a young guy like that.”
The Mavs, who have had 14 players start at point guard in the five seasons since Jason Kidd’s Dallas departure, identified the position as their primary need early in the draft preparation process. Carlisle, who started studying for the draft in March with the Mavs out of playoff contention, instantly fell in love with Smith’s game.
“The one thing that I remember thinking to myself right off the bat is, there’s no way this guy’s going to be there at No. 9,” Carlisle said, chuckling at the Mavs’ luck. “I thought he was a top-five talent for sure.”
Some questions about Smith’s character might have contributed to the Mavs’ good fortune. North Carolina State went 15-17 in Smith’s lone season, with coach Mark Gottfried getting fired in February, and frustration was frequently evident in Smith’s body language. He got a bad rap for being a lazy, unwilling defender and there were whispers about him being a bad teammate.
Smith never fell out of the top five on Dallas’ board, and the Mavs did extensive homework on his character when it appeared that he could be available when they picked. Their findings reinforced that he was a player they wanted, according to Mavs owner Mark Cuban.
Cuban had Don Kalkstein, the Mavs’ sports psychologist, interview Smith and expected to get a mixed review afterward. Kalkstein instead told Cuban that Smith was one of the best interviews he had ever done.
Smith never visited Dallas before the draft, but Carlisle, president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson and team executive Michael Finley asked him several pointed questions during a 30-minute FaceTime conversation days before the draft. Smith struck them as “a kid that was very confident but had an appropriate level of humility,” as Carlisle put it.
“It was perception over reality,” Cuban said. “We talked to people around him, talked to people he had played with, people who had worked with him. None of those [negative] things came out. It was the exact opposite — great teammate, tough situation with the coach getting [fired late in the season]. The perception wasn’t reality. We just had to find out for ourselves.”
A perception of Carlisle is that the coach is particularly tough on rookies and on point guards.
“I’m both,” Smith said with a big smile. “It’s cool, though.”
Carlisle scoffs at his reputation regarding point guards and rookies: “I think if you ask Yogi Ferrell, he’d say that it was a pretty good situation meeting up with me.” Ferrell, a midseason call-up from the D-League, was a second-team All-Rookie selection last season.
Smith says he’s fine with being coached hard, pointing to his background as a football player, a cornerback who had a scholarship offer from Wake Forest and interest from many other programs before deciding to focus on basketball after his sophomore year of high school. He’s eager to learn and is grateful that Carlisle’s commitment to him is strong enough that they’ve had individual sessions in the gym every day that Smith has been in Dallas.
Smith also readily admits that he needs to be taught how to play defense. He believes that. He also understands that orchestrating the offense to make sure that established players like Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews are getting the ball when and where they want it is the key on-court factor in determining how impactful he can be as a rookie.
“I don’t have to hunt for buckets,” Smith said, figuring he’ll score plenty within the flow of Carlisle’s pick-and-roll-intensive system. “They’re going to come naturally. I’m going to get to the rack. That’s a given.”
Carlisle has butted heads with point guards over playcalling in the past, most notably Rajon Rondo, and has perhaps the thickest playbook in the league. But, as he did for Ferrell, Carlisle plans to scale things back significantly this season. He wants Smith to operate within a simple structure that allows him to focus more on making plays than running plays.
If Smith coasts, Carlisle won’t hesitate to start Ferrell or veteran J.J. Barea at point guard and make the rookie earn the job. But the reality is that the Mavs are in the early stages of a rebuilding process, and the development of their prized lottery pick is as important as anything this season. Carlisle insists he can deal with Smith’s anticipated rookie growing pains because the potential short- and long-term gains are so promising.
“He’s got a unique skill set and unique ability level athletically that we haven’t had at that position in my nine years,” Carlisle said. “Fans are going to see a different element to our game because of him. There’s no question about that. It’s a different kind of force that he brings to the game at the point guard position. We’re excited.
“This is great for our franchise. I’m a loyal franchise guy, and this is something that we desperately need.”
LAS VEGAS — During the second half of Sunday’s NBA summer league game between the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns, fans at the Thomas Mack Center on the UNLV campus got the matchup they wanted, as No. 4 overall pick Josh Jackson of Phoenix began guarding Dallas point guard Dennis Smith Jr., drafted ninth.
Jackson did a much better job defending Smith than the first two players the Suns tried, second-year wing Derrick Jones Jr. and second-round pick Davon Reed. Ultimately, Smith got the best of him to complete an efficient 25-point performance.
Phoenix began the game switching most screens, allowing Smith to get more favorable matchups with bigger defenders, often 7-foot-1 Dragan Bender. Smith used his quickness to blow past them and get in the paint, then showcased impressive body control to finish when he encountered help defenders around the rim.
Twice, Smith audaciously attempted to dunk over defenders. His effort to dunk on Jackson didn’t count because he had stepped out of bounds catching the ball on the sideline, while a subsequent drive against Marquese Chriss resulted in a shooting foul.
When Jackson moved on Smith, the Suns stopped switching, counting on Jackson using his near-6-foot-10 wingspan to keep Smith contained while fighting over screens. Smith certainly had to work much harder to score after the switch, but he found a way, scoring eight points on 2-of-3 shooting in the fourth quarter.
Smith was able to draw a shooting foul on Jackson and bank in a runner over him. And, on one memorable play, Smith isolated Jackson on the wing and caught him leaning backward with the threat of the drive. That gave Smith enough room to step back and knock down a 3-pointer.
Through two games, Smith has been as impressive as any of this year’s rookies in Las Vegas. On Saturday, Smith’s performance (14 points, seven rebounds and six assists) was marred only by 1-of-6 3-point shooting. Those shots went down Sunday, with Smith making three of his five 3-point attempts.
Decision-making was an issue at times, with Smith forcing the issue on many of his five turnovers, but Smith was active defensively and showed no sign of the indifference that plagued his desultory single season at North Carolina State. Instead, he looked much more like the prospect ranked fourth overall in my consensus draft projections — two spots ahead of Jackson.
Sunday’s game started much worse for Jackson, who missed his first four shot attempts, including getting rim checked on an uncontested dunk.
So far, Jackson hasn’t answered questions about his outside shooting that persisted despite making 37.8 percent of his 3s in his lone year at Kansas. Jackson shot just 56.6 percent at the free throw line, which is historically a marginally better predictor of NBA 3-point shooting than college 3-point percentage, and his form is inconsistent. He missed six of his seven attempts from beyond the arc Sunday, bringing his two-game total to 1-of-9 on 3s.
Still, Jackson fought through the poor shooting to contribute at both ends during the second half with his energy. He relishes the challenge of defending opposing high scorers, a trait that will make Jackson valuable in Phoenix alongside Devin Booker, who would rather conserve his energy for the offensive end of the court.
In addition to one-on-one defense, Jackson is also active as a help defender. He may not be big enough to truly protect the rim, but that hasn’t stopped Jackson from aggressively trying to get between opponents and the basket.
With his shot not falling, Jackson has found other ways to make an impact on offense. He’ll sneak in on the offensive glass when his opponent doesn’t box him out, and has come up with seven offensive boards in two games.
Toronto Raptors last season in terms of percentage of field goals off assists.
There will surely be plenty more meetings ahead for Jackson and Smith as Western Conference rivals. And while Smith had the upper hand the first time they squared off, Jackson will have his opportunities to even the score in settings with more on the line.
LAS VEGAS — Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban cited the dominance of the Golden State Warriors and depth of the Western Conference as reasons for the direction of his franchise.
“We’re rebuilding. Right?” Cuban said during the ESPN broadcast of the Mavs’ 88-77 win Sunday over the Phoenix Suns in the Las Vegas Summer League. “There’s no question about it. If we were in the East, we would not be rebuilding. We’d be handling things completely different. I think I’m going to kidnap [commissioner] Adam Silver and not let him out until he moves us to the Eastern Conference.
“Given where we are, given where the Warriors are and what’s happening in the Western Conference, it kind of sealed what we have to do.”
Dallas is coming off a 33-49 season, the franchise’s first losing campaign since 1999-2000, when Cuban purchased the team midseason. The Mavs missed the playoffs for only the second time in the past 17 seasons and used its lottery pick to select point guard Dennis Smith Jr., whom coach Rick Carlisle immediately projected to be the starter next season.
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The Mavs’ had dual goals last summer: attempting to acquire players who can be part of the franchise’s foundation after Dirk Nowitzki‘s retirement but trying to build a team that gave Nowitzki a chance to compete in the playoffs during its golden years. A slow start, which occurred in part due to an Achilles tendon injury that sidelined Nowitzki for most of the first two months of the season, contributed to the Mavs’ midseason decision to emphasize the youth movement.
Dallas parted with two stopgap veterans at the trade deadline, waiving point guard Deron Williams and dumping center Andrew Bogut in the trade with the Philadelphia 76ers that sent center Nerlens Noel to Dallas.
The Mavs have been mostly spectators during this free-agency period, aside from re-signing the 39-year-old Nowitzki to a hometown-discount, two-year, $10 million deal and acquiring Josh McRoberts in a salary dump from the Miami Heat. They intend to re-sign Noel, a restricted free agent who hopes to drive up his price by receiving an offer sheet from another team.
The Mavs consider 25-year-old Harrison Barnes, 23-year-old Noel and 19-year-old Smith three potential cornerstones as they begin their rebuilding process.
The Dallas Mavericks have finalized a new deal with Dirk Nowitzki, the team announced Thursday.
Terms were not disclosed but league sources told ESPN that it is a two-year, $10 million deal.
The second season of the deal will be a team option, source said.
The Mavs, in consultation with Nowitzki, declined a team option last month that would have paid Nowitzki a $25 million salary this season, $5 million of which was guaranteed. This marks the third time Nowitzki, the face of the franchise, has given the Mavs a significant hometown discount.
The Mavs have failed to win a playoff series since their 2011 championship run, even though Nowitzki — the 2006-07 MVP and 2011 Finals MVP — signed a hometown-discount deal to provide Dallas management with flexibility to pursue premier free agents. The Mavs finished with a losing record last season (33-49) for the first time since 1999-2000.
Nowitzki surpassing the 30,000-point milestone in a March 7 home win over the Los Angeles Lakers was the highlight of Dallas’ disappointing season. He became the sixth member of that club, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Bryant, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
Nowitzki enters next season with 30,260 career points, putting him 1,159 behind Chamberlain for fifth on the all-time scoring list, a total potentially within Nowitzki’s reach in 2017-18 if he is able to avoid injury.
While Nowitzki has long stated 20 seasons as a significant milestone, he has given no indication that this will be his farewell season. He has repeatedly said he plans to play as long as the game remains fun for him, with his health and the Mavs’ competitiveness as factors that could weigh into his decision when to retire.