You can’t really understand Stephen Curry until you’ve seen him take a jumper. It is the organizing principle for every other outward expression of his basketball id — the languid cuts and curls, the slight frame, the oppressive confidence, the slithery dribbles, the skittish defensive energy he evokes from opponents. He pulls up behind the 3-point line and, like some metaphysical rosetta stone, the understanding of everything else is unlocked.
A basketball player’s identity is always with them but it’s not always visible. Some players, of course, exude it in every moment. LeBron carries majestic dominance with him in every step. Marcus Smart is a basketball mood ring, always on, pulsing with the same interplay of deep purple and dark red. It is impossible to confuse him for anything other than what he is.
But for so many other players, their fundamental basketball truth is only revealed with a specific action — Curry’s jumper, Carmelo’s jab-step, Vince Carter’s feet leaving the floor.
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All too easily, Dennis Smith Jr. can fade into the background of a Mavericks game. I don’t mean this pejoratively, there are ten players on the court and they can’t all command attention at every moment. But as Luka Doncic advances the ball over halfcourt, Smith Jr. will drift to the wing to watch his preternaturally talented teammate work his on-ball magic.
Off-the-ball, Smith Jr. is utterly unremarkable. He’s made just 36.6 percent of his jump shots this season and doesn’t have the gravity to send defenders scurrying about with every movement. He’s not a frenetic cutter or screen seeker, he just kind of floats, looking for empty space and waiting for the ball to arrive.
When it does, he is wholly transformed.
With the ball in his hands, Smith Jr. becomes a creature of pure kinetic energy. It’s not just that everything comes quicker, there is more power behind it. The strides are longer, the cuts are sharper, ground disappears beneath him. It’s like the moment he touches the ball a switch is flipped and he moves to 2x speed.
You won’t find Smith Jr. on the list of fastest-moving players because we’re not talking about content, sustained movement. He is not enduringly frantic. He is not J.J. Redick or De’Aaron Fox. He is a coiled spring, a slingshot, a bottle rocket waiting to be sparked by a long rebound or a ball reversal to the weak side, with an off-balance defender waiting to be dusted. Smith Jr.’s speed is that much more striking because his relatively leisurely pace without the ball means you can always pinpoint the moment of explosion, you can literally see when the ball arrives and the turbo boosters are engaged.
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
By almost any measure, Smith Jr. has been much more effective this year. He’s been getting to the line more, playing better defense, hitting 3s at a much more respectable rate than his rookie season. His explosive speed has been a huge asset in transition, where he’s averaging 4.5 points per 100 possessions, and he’s becoming increasingly effective using it in the halfcourt as well (although finishing, drawing fouls and protecting the ball are all reasonable developmental goals). His overall points and assists are both down but this is a product of sharing the backcourt with Doncic, a pairing that will ultimately shape the importance of how Smith Jr. moves and what he’s able to accomplish with it.
Essentially nothing about Smith Jr.’s movement can be applied to Doncic. There is an almost imperceptible difference between his top speed and third gear. He is neither fast nor explosive. That’s not to say he’s not athletic, he is, but where Smith Jr. is a gross motor creature, Doncic is all fine motor. He excels in tight spaces, using hesitation, timing, angles, footwork and body control to do his damage. One of the advantages for this pairing is that Doncic is already experienced in utilizing those physical tools on and off the ball. The problem is that Smith Jr. trails him in both areas.
Moving forward, Doncic is clearly the Mavericks primary offensive creator, and he should be. That minimizes the value of Smith Jr.’s explosion with the ball in his hands and means he will have to figure out how to summon and apply the same vitality in those situations where he is merely orbiting slowly along the outer reaches of Doncic’s gravity.
Smith Jr. is a special player every moment he’s on the court and regardless of whatever stylistic or synergistic friction exists between him and Doncic, it would be somewhat absurd to argue that anything we’ve seen this season undermines the idea of them being a viable combination. As a reminder, Doncic is 19, Smith Jr. turned 21 less than a month ago and has already shown growth in several key areas in this, his second season.
Still, if Smith Jr. is a player who will be defined by movement it is incumbent upon him to expand his physical repertoire, to refine that explosion, to temper it with misdirection and rapid, smooth down-shifting, to make sure that the engine that drives it all is inside him and not just possession of an orange leather ball.