“This is a fact: There’s no player that comes into this that can be totally prepared to play defense in the NBA with the pace, the strength difference, the speed difference and all those kinds of things. But I think Dennis understands that staying on the court to do that means you’ve got to be strong in both areas,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said of Smith’s defensive abilities earlier this summer. “It’s important to attack the guy that’s going to be attacking you at the other end, but you’ve got to be able to guard him, too. And you’ve got to have a system in place where your teammates can help you do that, so that’s going to be one of the biggest parts of his learning curve. You know, I expect the offensive stuff to happen pretty naturally just based on what I’ve seen on film, but NBA defense is a different metabolic situation. There’s a lot to learn, and he understands that.
Last season, the Mavs pulled down just 38.6 rebounds a game as a team, ranking 30th out of 30 squads while allowing opponents to grab 44.5 boards an outing. The Mavericks grabbed just 7.9 offensive boards per game as well, which also ranked 30th in the league. And after seeing his team collect only 30.7 defensive boards a game to finish the ’16-17 season, Carlisle admits that rebounding will be more of a focus of the squad when training camp gets underway in late September. “Rebounding is a big challenge. It’s been a big challenge for us all year, so we’re going to have to do a better job than we’ve done from top to bottom,” Carlisle confessed last season. “Rebounding is a big key. There’s no doubt. Pursuing the ball is one of the big keys to this game.
Helping to guide Smith throughout his opening days was Ferrell, who months earlier had been lauded as the exciting new point guard in Dallas. “You’re talking about a guy that is 100 percent professional,” Jamahl Mosley, the Mavericks’ coach at Summer League, said of Ferrell. “A lot of guys would take certain things personally when you’ve got a guy coming in and he’s a guard who gets the ball. But Yogi is helping Dennis get better. He is teaching him, and telling him, ‘If you see this, do this.’ I can’t tip my hat enough to his growth and leadership abilities.”
The pressure of staying at home to play for Indiana had never appeared to be too much for Ferrell. As a McDonald’s All-American in 2012, he had led Park Tudor High School in Indianapolis to back-to-back state championships while approaching a triple-double in his final game. “I’ve always worked hard and tried to take it up to the next level by watching film of some of the great point guards,” Ferrell said. “The other night I was watching Steve Nash’s passes — his pace, how he plays, how he finds different guys. How is it so easy for him? You’re trying to get inside his head, because success always repeats itself.”
Another of those new torch bearers is former Maverick wing Vince Carter. Now on the Grizzlies, Carter is back in Dallas to play the Mavs on Friday night. Before the contest, Carter shared what he thinks makes his former teammate Nowitzki as special as he is 19 years into his NBA career. “He’s old like me and can score,” Carter said dryly before getting serious. “He’s a great guy. Puts the team first regardless of what he’s accomplished. I think that’s pretty darn special for a guy of his caliber in this league’s history. But it’s all about winning. He’ll get his in the confines of what they do. It’s been fun knowing him all these years and playing with him.”
Before Phil Jackson passed on perhaps the most exciting prospect of the 2017 rookie class, the Knicks president encouraged Dennis Smith Jr. to eat an exotic delicacy. “We went out to some restaurant and they had me eat some octopus, like an actual octopus tentacle,” Smith Jr. told the Daily News. “First time ever. I wasn’t going to try it, honestly. They kind of put the pressure on me to do it.”