We knew it would take a little time for the Mavs young talented duo to learn to play together. We expected as much when Dallas traded up to select Luka Doncic with the third pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. As a dynamic point-forward, Doncic is capable of playing anything from the point to the power forward position. Such a skill set was always going to clash -at least initially- with the Mavs previous lottery pick, Dennis Smith Jr.
At every level, Smith, an explosive point guard with a solid mid-range game and phenomenal leaping ability, had played with the ball in his hands. From high school to NC State, to his rookie campaign last season, he was always the most explosive, arguably best player on his team. This time last year, he was the exciting new toy for the Mavs offense -the prospect all MFFLs couldn’t wait to see. But once Doncic has arrived, quickly establishing himself as a rookie phenom, the second year point guard found suddenly struggling to adapt to his new role.
Aside from a few games late last season, Smith had never really been asked to play off the ball, and the early returns clearly indicated that transition could likely be a bit of a learning process. Sure, he and the Mavs undoubtedly worked on improving this aspect of his game throughout camp, but it’s still a small sample size compared to how long he’s played as the primary ball-handler. This tumultuous period resulted in a rough stretch to start the season as DSJ would average just 13.8 points on 37.5% from the field, including 22.2% from three. Never mind the fact that he’d also recorded 20 assists against 11 turnovers, with 9 of those giveaways occurring during a two game stretch against Atlanta and Chicago.
Doncic, meanwhile, has hardly struggled in his transition to the NBA game, with only 1 “subpar” performance in Phoenix, his debut, wherein he scored 10 points on 5/16 shooting and went 0-5 from 3. He also recorded 8 boards and 4 assists and 4 turnovers in that season-opening loss. Since that time, Doncic has averaged 22.2 points a night, 6.2 boards, and 3.8 assists. This has led to understandable fawning over the Slovenian “Wonderboy” and subsequent frustration over Smith’s early struggles.
But something’s changed since then. Sure, Harrison Barnes returned from injury, making his season debut at Toronto last Saturday, but Dennis Smith Jr has suddenly found his stroke. Going for 27 points on 12 of 19 from the field against a stingy Jazz defense, only to follow that up with another 22 points on 50% shooting in San Antonio, and it’s clear to see something has changed. Doncic, in those same two games scored 14 and 31 points respectively, assuring fans Smith’s sudden surge isn’t coming at the expense of the franchise’s future superstar.
While the Mavericks (2-5) clearly have plenty to work on after 4 straight losses, a team helmed by two stars aged 19 and 20 shouldn’t expect instant success -especially in a stacked Western Conference. Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr have the potential to become a lethal tandem for the Mavericks for years to come, providing the central core for a franchise eager to return to the glory days of the Nowitzki Era and a chance to win its second NBA championship.