The youngest of the Dallas Mavericks could very well be the best of the Mavericks after 80 more games, though he will be pressed by their second-youngest player.
Together, though, Luka Doncic, 19, and Dennis Smith Jr., who turns 21 next month, are where hope for future seasons begins. The giveaway t-shirts for the home opener read, “The future is now.”
Doncic and Smith are supposed to help the Mavericks play an exciting brand of basketball. Sprinkle in some DeAndre Jordan dunks and Dirk Nowitzki’s likely last NBA hurrah, and the Mavs, it is said, will be fun to watch this season.
At times Saturday night, it was both exciting and fun.
But the Mavs could very well end up losing more often than they win, and, ultimately, that’s no fun at all.
Just ask the veteran players on the Mavs’ roster.
“We’re tired of what happened the last two years,” veteran guard J.J. Barea said.
The past two seasons have been mostly dreadful, especially defensively, with a combined record of 57-107. That season-opener Wednesday was more of the same.
Things weren’t much better defensively Saturday. Thankfully for the Mavs, the Minnesota Timberwolves were actually a tick worse.
Doncic? He thrilled. Jordan dunked — a lot. The injured Nowtizki cheered like mad from the bench. Smith battled the refs but still contributed in the biggest way late.
And the Mavs won, 140-136, as Smith drained a jumper with 6.1 seconds left, sunk the and-one free throw and hit three more from the stripe in the final three seconds to send a sell-out crowd out the door for a happy ride home.
Doncic scored a team-high 26 points, including 15 over the final 6:48 of the first half; Jordan added 22 and 10 rebounds; and Smith finished with 18 points.
Ask the Mavs’ veterans again, and they know that Luka and Smith can carry a bigger load. They are good players, really good, and anyone and everyone who is asked about them can’t say enough good things.
“This year, we have Luka and Junior in his second year,” Barea said. “I think the starting lineup is going to be better than the last couple years, and I’m excited about our bench. We know we can be better and that we can have a better season. I think that’s going to help.”
“He can pass a little bit, and shoot, and dribble, and play-make,” said Jordan, who also blocked five shots. “We’re lucky to have him. He’s going to be a great player for this franchise for a long time.”
“Luka’s a basketball player,” said guard Wesley Matthews, who added 19 points. “Luka’s champion. Luka’s a professional. He’s not your typical rookie.”
Doncic might have showed some nerves Wednesday in his NBA debut. He showed flashes of all that he can do, but at the end of a 121-100 loss he was the second-best rookie on the floor to Phoenix Suns big man Deandre Ayton.
Doncic scored 10 points on 5-of-16 shooting, grabbed eight rebounds and assisted on only four baskets. Despite all the credentials, primarily being the EuroLeague MVP last season, it wouldn’t have been right had he not felt nerves.
“He’s played so many games, but playing your first NBA game is a big deal,” coach Rick Carlisle said.. “If you’re not nervous for that, you’re not ready. That’s the way I see it.”
Doncic didn’t score in the first quarter Saturday and didn’t get a bucket until 5:12 into the second quarter. Then he scored 10 in three minutes, helping the Mavs forge a 58-all tie after trailing by 15 in the first.
They took their first lead 62-61 three minutes before halftime, and Doncic had 15 at the break.
Just as they did Wednesday, though, the Mavs struggled defensively. Minnesota scored 46 points in the first quarter, matching the most first-quarter points ever allowed by the Mavs.
Doncic and Smith can combine to average 50 points a game and it won’t matter if the Mavs play defense like they did against the Suns and in the first quarter Saturday.
And that brings everything back to style vs. substances. The Mavs might be exciting and fun to watch, but losing isn’t any fun. It’s certainly no way to make the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference.
“We’ve got to win more games than we lose,” Matthews said. “We’ve got to get better every single day. We have to focus on the defensive end, move the ball on the offensive end, take the shots when they are there and take them aggressively.”