DALLAS -- Dennis Smith Jr. played his first game in the NBA five weeks before his 20th birthday. To Smith, being handed the keys to the Dallas Mavericks, a rebuilding franchise in the presumed final year of Dirk Nowitzki's career, felt like something he was born to do. He was an immediate hit, looking like a steal as the ninth pick of the 2017 draft. In his first game, he dropped 10 assists and scored 16 points. He scored a career-high 27 points less than a month into his pro career, hitting five 3s against the San Antonio Spurs. In December, Smith shot an elite 44.4 percent from three, the type of three-point percentage that if sustained over the course of a season could someday make him an All-Star.
But the biggest challenge of becoming a starting NBA point guard at age 19 has nothing to do with hitting 3s or improving on defense or throwing down the vicious dunks that Smith seems to throw down on a nightly basis. Instead, it's learning to be a leader for teammates who are sometimes almost twice his age.
"Coming into my own and just being who I am, which is a point guard who wants to win, and really being a leader," Smith told me recently when asked about the biggest challenge of being a rookie. "You got people who are 30, 35, they got families, married with kids, and make way more money than I do. Sometimes it'll be harder for you to say something and they'll listen to it. I gotta pay my dues as a rookie and earn their respect."
Which brings us to how the Mavericks have made Smith pay his dues even as Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr told me, "The sky appears to be the limit for in terms of (Smith) being an All-Star-caliber point guard." You can come in and be a sensation, the apparent future of a proud franchise, and that's all well and good. But veterans still have to remind you you're still a rookie.
So he's been the daily victim of the traditional Rookie Backpack Treatment. Everywhere -- practices, home games, road trips, shootarounds -- he's toting what he calls "little sissy backpacks." "They let me pick my first one, which was Princess and the Frog, which I'll admit was a pretty dope movie," Smith said recently. "Me and my girl watch that. I like Princess and the Frog."
When that backpack broke -- children's backpacks aren't known for their durability -- his teammates switched his backpack to Moana. He hasn't seen Moana, but after I told him it was my five-year-old son's favorite movie, and actually pretty dope itself, Smith pledged to watch it. Then his teammates decided Moana wasn't embarrassing enough. After all, that's a movie that stars The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) with songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame).
"So they gave me Hello Kitty," Smith said. "That's the one I'm rocking now."
While the backpacks may mark Smith as the young kid now, it's become clear in the first half of this season that he has the potential to become a high-level, franchise-cornerstone type of player. Among rookies, Smith is fifth in points per game (14.0), fourth in assists (4.5) seventh in minutes (27.8) and third in field-goal attempts (13.8). I don't have the numbers on it, but I'm pretty sure he's first in hair-raising dunks. Consistency hasn't arrived yet; he's still prone to the odd seven-turnover night, or the occasional 3-of-14 shooting night. But what rookie isn't?
"He's watching a lot of film," veteran Mavericks guard Devin Harris told me. "He's understanding where the shots are coming from, how to attack defenses, just making the correct reads and being aggressive. Not trying to overthink things and not trying to force things but just taking what's there. It's just a matter of time. He's going to figure it out. He's got so much going on. When he figures it out and things slow down for him, watch out."
Part of NBA success is about raw, God-given talent. Part of it is about hard work. But another part of it that's spoken about less is for a player to have the right opportunity and the right fit. Think of someone like Victor Oladipo, who was a terrible fit for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season but has blossomed into a potential All-Star this season for the Indiana Pacers. Or Kris Dunn, who struggled mightily for the Minnesota Timberwolves last season before becoming for the Chicago Bulls this season.
What Smith had from the moment Adam Silver called his name was the perfect fit.
And that's not just me or even Smith himself saying that. How about a former league MVP?
"I just see a young player that's really excited about where he is," Kevin Durant told me. "Dallas is the perfect place for him. They're rebuilding. You got a leader in Dirk who can teach him the ropes a little bit. And then you got just a great championship organization with Coach [Rick] Carlisle, the coaching staff, Mark Cuban. It's good for any young player to come in here and understand what real basketball is like. Coming to the Mavericks, you get that feel.
"Coach Carlisle is going to make you be smart with the basketball as a point guard," Durant continued. "He makes you make the right decisions and call the right plays. And every young point guard needs to be put in an environment where he can grow. You'll see Dennis start to get more comfortable, and you'll see all his tools start to come out."
Adjusting to NBA basketball has been one thing for Smith. Adjusting to NBA life has been quite another. Compared to college, when he was balancing class and study hall and practices and games, there's a lot of free time in the NBA. His brother moved to Dallas with him, and they're tight -- chilling, playing video games, having meals at his favorite restaurant, Pappadeaux, a Texas seafood and soul food restaurant.
"I don't even keep track of the days no more -- for real," Smith said. "I just know it's like today, tomorrow and yesterday -- that's how I see it. Whatever I got to do tomorrow, it might be Saturday, I'll be thinking it's Wednesday. It's a lot of free time, but it's a lot of things you gotta do on the fly. I stopped counting the days two months ago in the NBA."
Yes, he sometimes plays like a rookie. But Carlisle has noted the hard work and attention to detail that he believes will turn Smith's potential into reality: "We must look at this on a big-picture basis, because things don't happen overnight," Carlisle said. "I'm pleased with his overall progress, but we're always going to be pushing him harder and to keep approaching the level of his potential."
In a conversation with Smith, one thing that jumps out is his comfort in his own skin and his maturity. He says he's always been like that; he attributes that to his parents. When he speaks about his past, like the high school ACL injury he came back from, he speaks about the low points as learning experiences. When he speaks about his future, he certainly talks about basketball, but he also talks about how important it will be to have kids and to be a good father to them. You get the sense that this is the type of rookie who can blend in just fine with veterans.
Like when he talks about his viewing habits. It's not all Princess and the Frog for Smith. His girlfriend recently got him into The Originals, a thoughtful and critically acclaimed Netflix series about vampires. She's working on him to start watching Game of Thrones. His most recent obsession is Black Mirror, a British science fiction show. It is one of the most thought-provoking shows I've ever seen, about the unintended consequences of our technology-soaked society. When I told him I was a huge fan, his eyes lit up, and for a few minutes we geeked out replaying our favorite episodes.
One of the episodes he spoke of as a favorite was "Nosedive," from the third series of the show. In the episode, people use their phones to rate every interaction they have with people by marking them between one to five stars. A person's star rating can determine their status in life. People become obsessed with the rating system, and it creates an inauthentic society.
I listened to Smith's take on that episode, and it struck me that these were deep thoughts for someone who recently turned 20. It made me think that this is an NBA rookie who is especially prepared for the temptations and consequences of his coming fame.
"The more technology progresses, the more humans digress," Smith said. "I don't got Snapchat right now. Just because I check myself on it -- I'm scrolling too much. I'm spending too much time on it. I got Twitter and Instagram, more so for business purposes now, but in college I deleted both of them. I was on it too much, spent too much time on it. It shouldn't be that prominent in my life where I'm scrolling on it or I'm checking on it first thing in the morning. It ain't real.
"You remember the Black Mirror episode where the girl, she went to the wedding -- that's like Twitter and Instagram! On [Instagram], you want to post something that everybody's gonna like," Smith continued. "Before you even put it out there, you're thinking, 'What is this person going to think of me?' So all the genuineness is gone. It's not genuine anymore. That's kind of like Instagram. In that [episode], they're being as nice as they can to somebody, regardless of what happened, so they can get a good grade and it seemed like that person liked them. On Instagram I could post the phoniest caption ever, something I don't even believe in, but if everyone likes it then I'll be cool with it. It ain't genuine."
That's heady and mature stuff, especially for a 20-year-old millionaire in this tech-obsessed society. The fact that Dennis Smith Jr. loves to consume smart pop culture and refuses to be a slave to social media doesn't mean that he'll become an NBA All-Star someday. But it sure makes me feel that his mental gifts have at least as much potential as his prodigious physical gifts. And if I'm a Mavericks fan, all that makes me mighty happy that he fell to ninth in last year's draft.