Dennis Smith Jr. Is All the Way Up

The Mavs rookie has been down and he's been mad, and he's got the scars to prove it. Now he's ready to take on the NBA's best. Good thing our guy can jump out the gym like Westbrook. Chapter 4 of B/R Mag's NBA Preview.
photo of Yaron WeitzmanYaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistPhotographs by Jonathan ZizzoOctober 13, 2017

Dennis Smith Jr. sits in the second-floor lounge of a luxury apartment building in his new city of Dallas, minutes from his new home away from home, the Dallas Mavericks' training facility. The bright midday Texas sun is filling the sky.

"It's hot as fish grease out here," he says. He's told that a writer from New York would not be familiar with this term. "Really?" Smith asks, lips curling into a smile. "Well, fish grease is hot, ain't it?"

Like all kids—which at 19 he technically is, even if his bank account and professional standing say otherwise—Smith at times longs for the comfort of his previous life. Especially during days like these, when he's furniture hunting, setting up cable and helping his father find an apartment in town. It's the schedule of a middle-aged suburban dad.

Smith was the No. 9 overall pick of this year's NBA draft.
Smith was the No. 9 overall pick of this year's NBA draft.(Jonathan Zizzo for B/R Mag)

MORE FROM B/R MAG'S NBA PREVIEW:
Chapter 1: Here Comes Ben Simmons
Chapter 2: Ya'll Ready for Dion Waiters?
Chapter 3: Gordon Hayward is Done Layin' Low


Which is to say: Smith's transition to Dallas and the professional world has been exhausting, stressful, but also kind of exhilarating. Smith, after all, is a kid who had spent his entire life in one place. He was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and remained there through high school. When it came time to pick a college, he chose N.C. State, a one-hour ride from home.

"Now I'm all the way in Texas," he says. But there's more to it than the geographical change. "Shoot, it's a lot of different stuff you have to do. One day I'm looking at places to stay at, the next I'm looking at furniture, then another day I'm moving furniture in. I'm setting up my electricity in the house, all while working out. Only thing consistent is I'll get a nap."

The short version: Even for a player taken ninth overall in the NBA draft, adulthood comes at you fast. Or, as he says, "It all makes you grow up quick, I'll tell you that much."


The skin covering Dennis Smith Jr.'s left knee resembles a scuffed baseball. There are all sorts of bumps and markings in different shapes and sizes, permanent reminders of the path he's traveled. According to his peers, this country kid is now the favorite to be the NBA Rookie of the Year.

"His athleticism, how fast and quick he is, it's elite, even for the NBA," says Washington Wizards point guard John Wall, who's known Smith since Smith was in high school. "But there are a lot of people that are athletic and fast and don't really know how to play the point guard position. I think he's proven he can."

There are stories behind all the scars.

The two thin lines, each maybe a centimeter long and an inch apart, carved into the inside of the knee are from the time a 12-year-old Smith was playfully wrestling with a friend outside when glass shards from a shattered beer bottle sliced his leg.

The gash alongside them is from kindergarten, when Smith tripped while running past a tree. "That cut was open to the white meat," he says. "But I ain't get no stitches."

But the largest of Smith's scars stretches from the bottom of his kneecap up toward the flesh of his hamstring. It looks like a river cutting across a map. The scar is from the surgery he underwent after tearing his ACL during an Adidas showcase the summer before his senior year of high school.

Smith has several scars on his knee, the most prominent being a scar from knee surgery after tearing his ACL before his senior year in high school.
Smith has several scars on his knee, the most prominent being a scar from knee surgery after tearing his ACL before his senior year in high school.(Jonathan Zizzo for B/R Mag)

A knee injury could have been the end of the basketball career of a boy who made his name off his leaping ability. Smith, after all, was dunking at 13, despite being just 5'10". His first in-game dunk was an alley-oop to himself off the backboard. He followed that the next game with a one-handed putback. He now boasts a Monstars-like 48-inch vertical.

Much like Russell Westbrook, whom Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle compares him to, Smith plays with an explosive athleticism. He is a product of both sweat and genetics.

"I get a lot of it from him," he says, pointing to his dad a few feet away, head buried in his cellphone. The relationship between Dennis Smith Sr.— or "Senior," as he's known—and his namesake is part father-son, part best friends, part coach and player.

"I'm just like him," Junior says. Both father and son proudly point out how Junior's birthday is the day after Senior's, and only because Junior came a few hours late.

Senior, like his son, was a star high school athlete. And like his son, he played basketball, baseball and football. He could dunk despite being just 5'10", and says that in his prime, he ran a 4.2-second 40-yard dash. But an ankle injury, coupled with "me being a bit of a knucklehead, running girls, bad grades, stuff like that," kept Senior from going pro.

It also provided him with a blueprint for how to raise one.

"When he was about six or seven, I could see the talent he had, what he was going to do," Senior says of his son, words strung together fast with a Southern drawl.

And so he went to the library and tore through books on basketball. He studied instructional videos on YouTube. He showed the right-handed Junior how to execute left-handed layups and taught him to keep his elbow in near his body when shooting, always on shorter hoops, or "goals," as everyone from Fayetteville calls them, to prevent bad habits from taking form.

"Now I'm all the way in Texas," he says. But there's more to it than the geographical change. "Shoot, it's a lot of different stuff you have to do. One day I'm looking at places to stay at, the next I'm looking at furniture, then another day I'm moving furniture in. I'm setting up my electricity in the house, all while working out. Only thing consistent is I'll get a nap."
"Now I'm all the way in Texas," he says. But there's more to it than the geographical change. "Shoot, it's a lot of different stuff you have to do. One day I'm looking at places to stay at, the next I'm looking at furniture, then another day I'm moving furniture in. I'm setting up my electricity in the house, all while working out. Only thing consistent is I'll get a nap."(Jonathan Zizzo for B/R Mag)

Then there were the stadium stairs at Fayetteville State, which Senior would have Junior run before basketball practice.

Later in the day over lunch at his favorite Dallas restaurant, a local seafood joint, Junior is asked if he ever felt his dad was pushing him too hard.

"Hell yeah," he says. "I used to get mad."

"I ain't never forced him, but he always thought his way was better," Senior says. "Then we'd try it my way and it would work and he'd be like"—Senior lowers his voice to imitate a dejected Junior—"'OK, Dad, you're right.'"

Junior, smiling while biting down on a piece of fried gator, nods his head at the memory, but also at how much simpler life was back then. Keep your elbow in while shooting. Return home at night as soon as the street lights come on.

Pick up a few scars and patch them up yourself. Don't worry about them, or much of anything else.


Four days earlier, a group of Dallas construction workers hooked a crane to a statue of Robert E. Lee and removed it from a pedestal in Oak Lawn's Lee Park. The city's decision to take down the monument of the Confederate general was met with protests, counter-protests, discussions and debates on America and race, all of which are on Smith's mind now as he's driven by his publicist through the heart of a gay pride parade and spots men holding signs quoting Leviticus 20:13.

"They had them out there with the statue too," he says.

Smith is still trying to find his social voice. Some nights he'll stay up until 3 a.m. with friends discussing topics like God, politics and free will.

Like most teenagers, he's come a long way over the years—especially since 2012, when he tweeted that "slangin this wood in my pants" was one of his God-given talents. The tweet resurfaced after Smith was drafted (because why wouldn't social media sleuths look through five-year-old tweets sent by a then-14-year-old?). Smith later deleted it at the request of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

"Yeah, man, I got hacked," Smith says with a laugh, poking fun at the go-to excuse.

These days, his tweets are mostly basketball-related, with the occasional shoutout to a friend or retweets in support of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. During training camp he took that latter impulse a step further by reminding reporters that the reason Colin Kaepernick took a knee was to protest police brutality and racism, not the anthem itself.

“His athleticism, how fast and quick he is, it’s elite, even for the NBA,” Washington Wizards point guard John Wall says.
“His athleticism, how fast and quick he is, it’s elite, even for the NBA,” Washington Wizards point guard John Wall says.(Jonathan Zizzo for B/R Mag)

"I'm a human being before I'm a basketball player. I mean, I gotta acknowledge any injustice, just like anybody else should do the same thing," he tells B/R Mag. "It's really crazy, the whole Kaepernick situation. He's got to have somebody backing him."

Smith says just the other day, he went to a local Gucci store, and only after the employees learned he played in the NBA was he offered any help.

"You deal with it all the time," Smith says. "Like, let's say I go into a Rolex store. The gold Rollies, they start at $6,000. I can go in there. I could sit down and they're not gonna say anything to me. They're gonna look at me and in their heart you can tell they're thinking, Oh, I'm not going over there. He can't afford any of this. Stuff like that happens a lot.

"But I ain't no fool, either. If you think I can't afford it, I ain't gonna buy it just to prove you wrong."

As he speaks, Smith tugs at the right sleeve of the black T-shirt clinging to his 6'3" frame. There's a picture of a boxing ring on it, and the words "RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE" stitched to the top. The shirt is an homage to Muhammad Ali's historic 1974 victory over George Foreman in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Ali is one of Smith's heroes—more for the things he said than the punches he threw, which Smith, given his young age, never even saw live.

The shirt is courtesy of Under Armour, which, after seeing his electric Las Vegas Summer League performance, inked Smith to a three-year sneaker deal. The contract was a victory for Smith, a vindication of sorts. He says he turned down smaller offers from Adidas and Nike before summer league.

"Me and my pops decided that we were gonna bet on me," he says.


Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle flew to Fayetteville in July to see where the player he hopes will lead his team into the next decade grew up. Smith introduced him to everything and everyone from his hometown, from the monkey bars he and his friends would occasionally use as a hoop to the second-floor apartment where Senior raised Dennis and his sister by himself (Dennis' mother left when he was a kid. They have a relationship now, but he says the story is "one for a different time").

"That someone could come from those humble beginnings and develop into this level of NBA prospect is incredible," Carlisle says.

But that's all in the past now, and Smith knows it. It's why he's waking up every morning and hitting the gym early. As Cuban puts it: "He loves to prove to our vets that he will work as hard or harder than them. You don't see many rookies in the gym at 7:30 a.m. to work out with the married guys."

It's also why he's seemingly collecting mentors the way kids used to collect cards. Fellow North Carolinians Wall and Chris Paul, retired players like Chauncey Billups and all-time greats like LeBron James are in his corner. Smith says he met them all when he was in high school, and he regularly asks for advice. Sometimes, these questions will be about standard basketball topics, like navigating a pick-and-roll. Other times, he'll be curious about the more perilous off-court side of the NBA.

That, says Wall, is where Smith's life is about to become most challenging. And he would know, having grown up in Raleigh, where the entire city claimed him as its own.

“He loves to prove to our vets that he will work as hard or harder than them," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban says. "You don't see many rookies in the gym at 7:30 a.m. to work out with the married guys.”
“He loves to prove to our vets that he will work as hard or harder than them," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban says. "You don't see many rookies in the gym at 7:30 a.m. to work out with the married guys.”(Jonathan Zizzo for B/R Mag)

"People are going to text you who never texted you before. You have to understand how to say no, even to your family sometimes," Wall says he's told Smith. "Because you're going to have all sorts of new life opportunities now. You've got to have a great group around you, a great circle of guys, and not too many people."

Smith's been a pro for under four months and he's already caught a glimpse of that world. There have been dinners and galas, meet and greets and parties, all full of people dying to meet the Mavericks' new star. Of course, there are perks to this lifestyle, too. Smith's already met actor and comedian Owen Wilson and also a famous singer whose name he can't remember but who told Smith he was a big fan. He was introduced to a car dealer at a Dirk Nowitzki function who hooked him up with a set of wheels the next day.

"It's been fun so far. I've been enjoying it. You get to meet a lot of new people. I get to make some money," Smith says. "But there's a lot going on and I've just been taking it all in."

He takes a break from his fried gator and lemonade and starts scrolling through Twitter on his phone. LeBron recently retweeted a post of his and Smith's publicist is excited.

"Get those followers up," she says.

A waiter asks Smith if he's Dennis Smith Jr., and upon being told yes, exclaims, "Rookie of the Year, man. That's what's up" and walks away.

Smith smiles and rubs his left hand over his scars.

He knows more are on the way.

He can't wait.


Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.

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