Among the reasons the Mavericks deserve credit for jumping up and grabbing Luka Dončić in the 2018 NBA Draft—beyond the most obvious one, which is that he kicks mondo ass—is the display of confidence and guts to draft a guy who at least superficially overlaps with a guy they drafted with the ninth pick just one year earlier. Dončić is taller and stronger and much, much slower than Dennis Smith Jr., but the two both do their best work with the ball in their hands and the freedom to make plays, and optimizing their fit together and their individual developmental arcs would require a little creativity, all the way around.
The Mavericks probably didn’t dare hope that Dončić would be this good this early in his NBA career, but anyway he is, and that happy circumstance has made Smith’s development a little less vital for Dallas’s long-term plans. His minutes and his share of the offense are all down this season, and now it looks like the Mavericks are exploring the possibility of shipping him someplace else:
Moving Smith via trade in exchange for anything worth a damn might be harder than expected, given his age and abundant potential, and for reasons having nothing to do with an ailing back. At this point in his NBA career, Smith is still pretty butt. He rates as a poor defender by Real Plus-Minus and Defensive Box Plus/Minus, but not catastrophically so. It’s hard to imagine how this wound up being true, but the greater concern is his offense—he was the only player in the NBA last season to produce a true shooting percentage below 48 while also posting a usage rate higher than 28 percent. His efficiency has moved in the right direction this season, as his usage has gone down, but he’s still a low efficiency scorer and a turnover machine, and his true shooting gains aren’t so impressive that a team could feel remotely confident that he’s for sure slated for stardom.
This is an appropriate time to reflect on what a cursed pile of crap the touted 2017 class of elite point guard prospects has been so far. Markelle Fultz’s shoulder is crabmeat and he forgot how to shoot a basketball, and he’s now indefinitely on the shelf ; Lonzo Ball’s jumper is unbelievably busted and he’s one of the worst free-throw shooting guards in NBA history; Frank Ntilikina is pathologically passive and probably the least efficient scorer in all of basketball; and Dennis Smith Jr. is already out of Dallas’s long-term plans. Five point guards were selected in the first nine picks in that draft, and only the terrific De’Aaron Fox isn’t already a huge, aching disappointment. Lonzo and Smith still show flashes of potential, but both appear a long way off from justifying their draft position, and both of them stand a fair chance of finishing their rookie contracts on new teams, by which point Fultz and Ntilikina might already be out of the league altogether.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that there’s no rule that says any or all of those guys can’t find the right situation or take the right steps and become a star. Ball-dominant guards typically have a tougher transition from college to the pros and invariably start their careers as inefficient offensive players. In Smith’s case it’s evident that he’s got some game, but the fact that the Mavericks are already preparing to move on, less than 30 games into his sophomore season, is a discouraging sign, and another dark and shitty turn of events for such a hyped and celebrated rookie group.