Dennis Smith Jr.’s Rookie of the Year Stock Keeps Trending Up

The development of Dennis Smith Jr. will function as a major storyline for the Dallas Mavericks throughout the 2017-18 season. He possesses the highest upside of any player on the roster, though his raw skill set means head coach Rick Carlisle will have to perform one of his better coaching jobs in recent memory if he’s going to get the most out of the uber-talented point guard.

Smith is among the favorites to win Rookie of the Year, with only Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball widely seen as more likely to take home the hardware. Some betting sites, like Odds Shark, have just Ball ahead. Historically, usage and role are major indicators in determining a Rookie of the Year winner.  Before Malcolm Brogdon earned the honors last season, no winner saw fewer than 30 minutes per game since Tom Heinsohn brought the Celtics the franchise’s first ROY award back in 1958.

While the loss of Seth Curry, who’s indefinitely sidelined with an injury to his left tibia, hurts the franchise in the short term, it’s a net positive for the N.C. State product’s ROY campaign.

Curry’s offense came alive in the second half of last season. After the All-Star break, he was second on the team in points per game (16.2), and Allen Crabbe, C.J. McCollum, and Kyle Korver were the only players in the league with at least four attempts per game who bested Curry’s 45.3 percent mark from downtown. Dallas was counting on similar production from the 27-year-old, but his absence will now allow Smith to assume more responsibilities on the offensive side of the court.

During his lone season in the ACC, Smith flashed potential as a franchise point guard. He averaged 18.2 points per game and was routinely counted on to make plays for his team in tough situations. Just take a look at this pass he makes late in the game against Duke (3:40 mark):

The defense double-teams Smith off the pick-and-roll, forcing him to his right and preparing to use the sideline as an additional defender. But Smith uses his agility and strength to skirt his upper body around the defenders just long enough to see the passing lane and fire the ball into the paint, which led to an easy bucket. From that moment on, the game was N.C. State’s to lose, and the team never looked back.

That’s the kind of game-changer Smith is. He has the ability to demoralize opponents by turning what appears to be well-played possessions into fruitless efforts.

Dallas’ roster, which is flush with outside shooting, complements his drive-and-kick ability and knack for running the floor. The Mavericks played at the second-slowest pace last season, though Smith may be better off operating in a system with a faster tempo. Luckily, Carlisle plans to alter the team’s offense this season.

“We’re going to play faster,” Carlisle said on media day, per Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News. “Which is going to create some challenges for us on both sides of the ball. But that’s what training camp is for.”

Through four preseason games, the Mavericks are seeing roughly eight more possessions per contest than they did last season. It’s a small sample size, and preseason games are admittedly a different animal than the regular-season marathon. However, the team’s pace of play is at least trending in the right direction.

Curry’s absence should also indirectly help Smith on both the defensive end, as well as with playing time. The Duke product was set to start alongside the rookie in the backcourt with Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes and Dirk Nowitzki sliding in at the 3-5 positions. In those lineups, Smith is likely to routinely draw one of the tougher defensive assignment in the backcourt.

It’s not that Curry is a bad defender and couldn’t handle the tougher assignments regularly (he actually came in as a slight positive on defense, per’s real plus/minus); it’s that his 6’2″, 185-pound frame is just undersized for the shooting guard position. Though Smith is roughly the same height, he’s bulkier than Curry, which could mean he’ll be asked to handle the more threatening matchups more often. Transferring some of Curry’s backcourt minutes to a stronger defender will allow Smith to consistently focus on the opponent who poses less of a threat.

Insert the lankier Devin Harris, who ranked 14th among point guards last season on defense per’s RPM and save the 19-year-old from taking on the Russell Westbrooks and Chris Pauls of the world—or even the Mike Conley-level players. Slide Matthews back over to the 2 next to Smith and ensure the rookie doesn’t have to worry about those assignments.

Smith appeared disengaged at times during his freshman campaign at N.C. State, and his defense suffered. But part of that was circumstance, as his team struggled and his coach was ultimately fired. Though the situation in Dallas is almost certainly going to be more stable, the organization will not sit by and continue to hand minutes to a player who’s not putting forth maximum effort and progressing on the defensive end. Taking on tough assignments on a nightly basis would further highlight any defensive deficiencies Smith currently possesses, and with that comes the risk of Carlisle benching him for a veteran option.

The race for 2017-18 Rookie of the Year is expected to be one of the tightest and most competitive in recent memory. Ball will Ball. Simmons will shine as a point-power forward after redshirting last season, and Markelle Fultz will perform once he’s healthy enough to find his groove. Frank Ntilikina and Lauri Markkanen loom as potential darkhorses, as both their respective teams are expected to sink down in the standings, which could result in heavy usage for the pair of top-10 picks.

When the competition is this fierce, even the slightest change in circumstances impacts the odds. Curry’s injury gives Smith an opportunity to pull ahead, and if he thrives early on, the other contenders will be looking up at him all season long.

In addition to contributing for NBA Math, Chris is also a Staff Writer for Follow him on Twitter @CW_Crouse.

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