Keep an Eye on these Young NBA Players

Dennis Smith

After falling a few draft spots, Dennis Smith was birthed into the league with a mighty chip on his shoulder. And after an unheralded rookie season, producing 15.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists for a young Mavericks team, I would love to see what steps Dennis Smith is taking in his ascent to being one of the top point guards in the league.

It’s hard to stand out in arguably the most well-rounded rookie class of all time. Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Kyle Kuzma, and Ben Simmons each possess extremely refined games. But I’d argue Smith has more potential to improve his raw game than any of these select players. Smith was 4th in points and 3rd in assists for rookies, so his work should not go unnoticed.

Although, he did not have the supporting cast around him like his peers did. The Mavericks team was laden with expired all-stars; Wesley Matthews and Dirk Nowitzki. The team is also built on a foundation of one-dimensional players; Harrison Barnes, Seth Curry, and Yogi Ferrell. Surmising, the Mavericks are clearly a tanking team.

With the 5th pick in the draft, I would like to see the Mavericks choose an impactful player to pair with Smith. Big men like Mo Bamba and Jaren Jackson Jr. would be intriguing choices, both would be alley-oop and pick and roll partners right off the bat with Smith.

Many scouts compared Dennis Smith to Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose, as he boasts unbelievable handles coupled with mythical explosiveness. After all, he is blessed with an extra ligament in his knee which enabled him to perform a windmill at the ripe age of 11. His unreal jumping ability also hampers him substantially.

His 48-inch vertical leads to injuries, he tore his ACL in high school and sat out 13 games as a result of unfaltering knee injuries. With his jump out of the gym ability, knee injuries are only to be expected. Still, I would like to see Smith pick and choose his reckless plays so he can stay on the court next season. He’s an exhilarating force, and Rick Carlisle cherishes his time dominating in a Mavs uniform.

In addition, the Mavericks are one of the slower teams in the NBA. Carlisle is widely acknowledged as a grit and grind coach whose team thrives when slowing down the ball. In today’s NBA with a ball-dominant point guard, Carlisle needs to employ Warriors or Rockets type basketball. The Warriors and Rockets are 5th and 12th in number of possessions per 48 minutes (PACE), while the Mavericks fall at 27th. Smith, on the other hand, is a change of pace guard that dominates in transition. Thus the Mavericks should capitalize on the ability to hesitate and explode to the rim and run in transition.

Dennis Smith is cultivated in the pick and roll. He had 6.1 possessions in the pick and roll, more than Stephen Curry. Yet Donovan Mitchell was featured more with 8.4 and scored at an effective field goal percentage of 43.1% while Dennis Smith had a 39.1%. He’ll have to improve to be considered a pick and roll aficionado but with an augmented efficacious presence as his rolling partner, I think he will.

His turnover frequency (16.3) in the pick and roll was actually comparable to Chris Paul’s 15.4 and light years ahead of De’aaron Fox’s 20.0. His decision making in the pick and roll is quite impressive for a 20-year-old.

Exploiting Smith’s aptitudes and concealing his deficiencies will bring to light Smith’s potential. Smith should display his improvements as a pass-first guard next season while retaining the vigor that makes him a fan favorite.

OG Anunoby

While he wasn’t quite the Lebron stopper we thought he would be in round 2, OG exhibited major defensive chops throughout a 59 win Raptors season. After tearing his ACL at Indiana, Anunoby entered the NBA draft anyway and was picked 23rd by the Raptors. Dwane Casey imminently utilized his defensive repertoire, stacking him up against some of the top forwards in the game.

After all, his regular season defensive rating of 108 jumped to 119. He guarded Lebron James for 48 possessions in Game 1 and allowing 17 points on 8-19 (42.1%) shooting with LeBron also dishing out 6 of his 13 assists while being defended by Anunoby. He has definitely shown flashes of being a legitimate defensive stopper. A valiant defensive effort against the best player in the NBA reveals his never-back-down attitude.

Against the Magic in April, he exhibited his potential in the open floor as a forward that could put the ball on the deck, reminding many of Kawhi Leonard. He scored 20 points and outplayed Jonathan Isaac, a forward who was drafted 18 spots above Anunoby.

Lonzo Ball

Wacky form, his dad trash-talking Luke Walton, Liangelo’s arrest in China, his brothers moving to nowhere, Lithuania, a pretty solid rap album, and even his first kid, discerned an up and down debut for Lonzo Ball.

After a disastrous start that saw Lonzo shooting an embarrassing 29.2 percent through his first 12 games, Lonzo picked it up as the season progressed.

Lonzo Ball was expected to be the best player in this draft class and I believe he still can. Everyone seems to want to pick out the flaws Lonzo put on a full array, but I think his rookie year was full of plenty of positives.

He did everything on the court for the talent-laden Lakers. The oldest of the Big Baller Brand ranked 1st in assists and steals, 2nd in rebounds, 3rd in blocks, and 2nd in defensive rating. With a more talented wing (like Paul George) next to him (not KCP), Lonzo will garner more assists and have less defensive pressure focused on him.

Lonzo Ball was 11th in defensive rating for point guards, per NBA.com. With a 6’8” wingspan and 6’6” build, he has the ability interrupt passing lanes. He realized his defensive potential in his rookie season, if he keeps it up he can make an all-defensive player for years to come. 

Although, he has many things to improve upon. While he does possess transition magic tricks, he has to work on his half-court creativity in the pick and roll and against tight ball pressure. Facing up against defensive stalwarts like Patrick Beverley, he shot 2-13 in two games and John Wall, whereas he shot just 5-23 in two games. He was 10th in turnover frequency per players who notched a 20% pick and roll frequency rate. Meaning, his critical offseason amelioration is taking care of the ball when a screen is set for him. Staying in his zone while being creative is a tough thing to do, but if he can do it he can fulfill his draft comparison as the next Jason Kidd.

If he doesn’t he just may be a 6’6’’ Ricky Rubio.

De’aaron Fox

With the draft approaching, it seems more and more probable Luka Doncic could fall to them with the 2nd pick. With this most likely being the case, Fox needs to improve his forte as a shooter and hone the ability to play off-ball.

There is a reason is Twitter handle is “swipathefox,” and that’s because he swipes the ball from unsuspecting teammates often. He was 5th in steals for rookies per 36 minutes, garnering 1.2. He went for steals a little too much and it often left him on an island, with him on the court Sacramento allowed 113 points per 100 possessions.

Like Smith Jr., his cardinal feature is his explosiveness and transition scoring. He twists and turns defenders with the fastest end-to-end speed in the NBA.

Frank Ntilikina

The Knicks have formulated a logjam of point guards that can’t shoot at point guard. Frank Nkilitina shot roughly 32% from downtown while Jame Dolan favorite, Emmanuel Mudiay, shot a miserable 19.6%. Mudiay stole 22.4 minutes and 14 starts in 22 games under Hornacek while Ntilikina averaged 7.3 points and shot just 37.3% and next to Mudiay.

With the Fizdale regime upon us, backcourt minutes remains up in the air. If Trae Young or Collin Sexton are chosen at number 9, traffic becomes even more clogged. Although, Trae Young grades as a smoother fit next to Ntilikina since he has a reputable jump shot.

Ntilikina should tighten his handles and spend hours in the gym working on his jumper. His fluid jump shot is definitely not broken, last year in all competitions, he shot 47 for 102 on three-pointers. But it has to get more consistent, he ranked 107th in pull up jump shots for guards who appeared in 50 or more games, shooting a ghastly 33.3%. When he puts the ball on the deck he’s hesitant to go all the way to the rim and timidly pulls up for a contested jumper too much. As he releases the ball he reveals his slow and long-winding shot, as if he’s trying hit the defender in the face with the ball.

Nearly 32% of his shots come off zero dribbles, validating his willingness to act as a spot-up shooter. The problem is he’s hitting just 36.4% of such shots. On the other hand, he hits 44.6% and 44.4% off 1 and 2 dribbles, respectively. This portrays the intrinsic misconception of his own position. Ntilikina should be running the point next season.

His awkward in-between game has originated a novel position, the ‘point wing’. The point wing, unlike the stretch 4, is not a revolutionary position. It means your handles aren’t tight enough to play the 1, but your size restricts you to that position. While your playing style, hard-nosed defense, average handles, average jumper allows you to play off-ball. Ntilikina is, fundamentally, a 3 stuck inside a combo guard’s body.

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