The Dallas Mavericks found their point guard of the future on Thursday night.
Coach Rick Carlisle described the scene in the Mavericks’ war room as an “uproarious” applause. General manager Donnie Nelson grinned about the “highest chest bump” of his life with star Dirk Nowitzki.
“This was the guy that we were after,” Nelson said. “If we would have drafted a lot higher, he was the guy that we had circled.
“An electric young player with tons of potential.”
Point guards flew off the board early on in the draft, including the top two picks — Washington’s Markelle Fultz to Philadelphia and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox went fifth overall to Sacramento. That left Smith and France’s Frank Ntilikina as possible options for the Mavs.
The Mavs showed interest in Ntilikina, going as far as having owner Mark Cuban meet with him overseas, but the New York Knicks took him at eighth overall.
That left the Mavs with Smith (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) and they were more than happy to land him. The Ntilikina interest might have been more of a smokescreen, as Carlisle mentioned multiple times that the Mavs graded four point guards in the class as “big time.”
That would seem to suggest Fultz, Ball, Fox and Smith.
“This is a huge night for us,” Carlisle said. “There were four really big-time point guards in the draft and I loved Dennis Smith Jr. I thought he was as good as any of them. I just never dreamed at nine we’d have an opportunity to take one of those four guys.
“This is a historic night for us. … We’re thrilled. When you see this guy get on the court, you’ll understand our enthusiasm even more.”
For Smith, falling to No. 9 and being the fifth point guard taken will only serve as motivation.
“I’m definitely motivated by it,” Smith said. “I use it as fuel to the fire. I’ve been underrated my whole life, and that’s perfectly fine with me. I’m accustomed to it.
“I’m going to go out and be Dennis Smith. Nothing can stop that.”
Smith, 19, is a one-and-done player who had a standout season for an underwhelming NC State squad. He averaged 18.1 points, 6.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds, but the Wolfpack fell well short of their NCAA tournament dreams.
NC State finished 15-17, including a dreadful 4-14 in ACC play, with coach Mark Gottfried losing his job in the process. But Smith was still named the ACC freshman of the year and All-ACC second team after leading the conference in assists.
There were questions about Smith’s effort level throughout the season, particularly on the defensive end. But the Mavs brushed those knocks off.
They liked Smith all along, and grew more comfortable with him during a FaceTime chat on Tuesday to make him the first top-10 pick of the Cuban era.
“A great kid, not a good kid,” Nelson said. “If he wouldn’t have had the season, the kind of challenges he had last year … he would’ve gone a lot higher than nine. I can guarantee you that.”
Nelson praised Smith for the way he handled the mid-season news that Gottfried would be fired, and for how he responded after missing his senior season in high school with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Nelson said Smith’s knee checked out OK, joking if it hadn’t happened: “He probably would have a 50-inch vertical instead of a 48-inch vertical.”
All jokes aside, the Mavs believe Smith will become a critical part in returning them to contender status. This is an organization that has made its deepest runs with proven point guards such as Steve Nash and Jason Kidd.
Smith compared himself to former MVP Derrick Rose, and the Mavs feel that’s a fair comparison.
“He compared himself to Derrick Rose with a jump shot, and I said that’s a really good comparison,” Mavericks executive Michael Finley said. “The way that Derrick — before he got hurt, his MVP years — he was a downhill point guard who liked to attack the basket, who can get up above the basket. At the same time, he’s capable of making plays for others.
“For the kid to pick Derrick, I think that was a good comparison.”
The Mavs can only hope Smith becomes that caliber of player for them. Carlisle projected Smith to start as a rookie, but nothing will be given to him.
Smith will have to earn his minutes in a point guard group that includes Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris and J.J. Barea. But Smith certainly isn’t lacking confidence heading into the league and expects to be an integral part of a winning team.
“The Mavs can expect to get a point guard who is trying to win every game,” Smith said. “Not selfish at all, not caring about stats, but I do want to make my teammates better. I think that’s very important in winning games is having a great team effort. I can bring that to the team.”