Dallas Mavericks: How Luka Dončić and Dennis Smith Jr. fit

Dallas Mavericks Dennis Smith Jr. Luka Docic Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)
Dallas Mavericks Dennis Smith Jr. Luka Docic Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The strengths and weaknesses of a Dallas Mavericks backcourt featuring Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Dončić.

The Dallas Mavericks have been the talk of the NBA this month after trading up with the Atlanta Hawks to select Slovenian sensation Luka Dončić. Dončić comes in at 19 years old as the most accomplished European prospect ever.

This year’s EuroLeague MVP, Dončić is the most NBA-ready rookie and should have an immediate impact on the offense.

One important development to watch this season will be the on-court chemistry between Dončić and point guard Dennis Smith Jr. Both are ball-dominant players who will have to learn to adjust to one another’s games. A successful season could hinge on their ability to play effectively together.

The Strengths of Dončić and Smith Jr. Lineups

It is my belief that Dončić and Smith Jr. will both benefit a lot by playing with each other. Rick Carlisle will undoubtedly get creative with the other 3 players he plays next to his budding stars to maximize their on-court potential.

One of Dončić’s biggest weaknesses is his lack of elite athleticism. This caused him to struggle at times in Europe as the unquestioned number one scoring option on his team. Dončić is at his best playing next to another primary creator who can take some of that attention and pressure off of him to carry the load.

Dennis Smith Jr. fits the description. Junior will share that responsibility of running Carlisle’s offense, an offense that coincidentally Carlisle prefers to have multiple playmakers run anyway. At Dončić’s team introductory press conference, Carlisle said, “I think Dennis’ speed and rim-attacking ability is gonna complement Dončić’s spacing ability and playmaking ability.”

Dončić is no stranger to playing off-ball. This summer, while representing his home country of Slovenia at EuroBasket, Dončić played next to Miami Heat star Goran Dragic. They would go onto win EuroBasket as clear underdogs and both were named to the All-Tournament team.

Dončić had always played with European sensation Sergio Llull before Llull was injured this year before the start of the season. Llull, who is a point guard, won the EuroLeague MVP last season playing for Real Madrid and was the primary initiator on the floor even when Dončić was out there with him.

A willingness to always make the extra pass, an off-the-charts basketball IQ, well-timed and purposeful off-ball cuts, and a nice shooting stroke allow Dončić to compliment essentially whatever player he is sharing the court with.

Compared to last year, Dennis Smith Jr. will be so open at times he won’t know what to do with himself. Smith now will get the luxury to not have such a heavy burden on him as the only starter who could consistently create opportunities for others. So much attention will have to be devoted to Dončić at all times that Smith can play a little bit looser and more relaxed.

Smith Jr. will be able to better conserve his energy and utilize his athleticism to its fullest potential. While he still needs a lot of work on his off-ball game, Smith did show some promise at times as a cutter. His coaches and teammates have constantly praised his work ethic leaving me little doubt that he will grow into a good pairing with Luka Dončić.

Finally, it should be noted that the combination of Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Dončić will be a terror for opposing teams in transition. The Mavericks ranked 27th in transition scoring last year and I see this as the area the team will take the biggest step forward in next season.

Dončić loves to get out and run and is at his best in the open floor in a transition situation. Dennis Smith Jr. also loves to run the floor and has the athleticism to get out in front of just about anybody. The Smith Jr. and Dončić combo will be deadly on the fast break.

The Weaknesses of Dončić and Smith Jr. Lineups

It has to start with defense. Dennis Smith Jr. was nothing but a bad defender last year and expect Luka Dončić to struggle on that end of the floor too. Dončić might be further along in understanding defensive fundamentals but his lack of elite athleticism will limit him against some of the more explosive wings and guards in the league.

The pairing’s entire upside is likely attached to how good of defenders they can become. There is reason for optimism, however. Dončić is about to enter an NBA nutritional and strength and conditioning program. The difference between these programs in the U.S. and in Europe is night and day. Dončić will undoubtedly become a better athlete during his early transition to the NBA. This should help his defensive woes some.

Dončić is also touted as a very good team defender. Some guys lack the ability as a 1-on-1 stopper but can make up for it by understanding rotations, where to be and when to be there, when to foul, when to gamble on a steal, so on and so forth.

Kyle Korver is an excellent example of a guy who developed into a great team defender over the years. No coach would dare put him on the other team’s best player but he has still found a way to have mostly a positive impact on defense over the past decade.

Dennis Smith Jr. struggled on defense as a rookie but almost all rookie point guards do. Once again, his work ethic has been praised by the organization and supposedly the main focus of his training has been his defense and shooting. That brings us to our next point, shooting.

Dončić and Smith Jr. will both need to become more consistent catch-and-shoot threats to provide the other with the space they need to operate. Smith Jr. shot 31.3% from deep on 4.9 attempts a game last year, a rather pedestrian number. However, in his last 15 games he was able to shoot 33.9% on 4.7 attempts a game. Those numbers still aren’t ideal but they could show a sign of progression in his shooting ability.

Dončić shot 31.0% on 4.8 long balls a game himself last season. You may be wondering why you keep hearing about Dončić as a good shooter when he posted numbers like that. It all has to do with context. Dončić took an extremely high number of difficult threes last season. End of shot-clock situations, half-court heaves, and desperation attempts were all taken by Dončić last season as he was the leader of his team. Dončić rarely got the opportunity to play off-ball with Llull’s injury and it was difficult for him to get open looks from deep.

Dončić has a really great form, however. He shot 34.7% from deep just two seasons ago and has shown the potential to be a good to great shooter in the NBA. Now it is just a matter of translating that potential into results.


Luka Dončić and Dennis Smith Jr. are not a perfect fit, but perfect fits are hard to find. They will create a ton of opportunities for one another and have a chance to elevate their games to the next level together.

One more thing to watch will be their leadership. This is their team now. The future can be bright but they can’t let their egos get in the way of winning or doing what’s best for the group. This is where veterans like Dirk, Barea, Wes, and even Barnes need to help put things into perspective for the young guys.

Next: Four more players the Dallas Mavericks should consider

If Dončić and Smith Jr. can each develop their outside shooting and their on-ball defense, the sky is the limit for the young tandem.