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2018 NBA All-Star Game

Mavericks’ Dennis Smith Jr. talks about his rookie season, his friendship with J. Cole and his paintball prowess

The point guard will compete in the Rising Stars Challenge and Slam Dunk Contest during NBA All-Star Weekend

After a recent practice, Dennis Smith Jr. put his belongings in a pink backpack that he must tote around during his first season with the Dallas Mavericks. While Smith is getting the rookie treatment, a lighthearted hazing traditionally given to the Mavericks’ first-year players, the former North Carolina State star isn’t playing like a rookie on the floor.

Smith has been one of the NBA’s top newcomers and one of the few bright spots in a tough season for the Mavericks. The high-flying 6-foot-3, 195-pound point guard is averaging 14.8 points and 4.9 assists per game. The proud native of Fayetteville, North Carolina, will be playing for Team USA in the Rising Stars Challenge during NBA All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles on Friday and participating in the Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday.

The NBA world will learn more about Smith’s game this weekend. Smith talked to The Undefeated about the challenges of his rookie year with Dallas, his friendship with rapper J. Cole, his love for his new dog, his elite paintball talents, preparing for the dunk contest, Dirk Nowitzki and more.

What are you most excited about in regards to NBA All-Star Weekend?

Just being in the moment. Embracing everything. It’s something that I watched growing up, so to be there now will be a great experience for me.

How do you prepare for the dunk contest?

I really can’t say. It will be different for some guys. You just go out there and strut your stuff. Everybody has a rehearsal Thursday. I am going to go out there and see how that goes, see what kind of dunks I will use, and then I will be ready for it.

When was the last time you were in a dunk contest?

Sophomore year in high school. I had an ACL tear, so it’s been a little minute for me.

You are good friends with famed rapper and fellow Fayetteville native J. Cole. What is it like when he comes to your games?

It is a cool experience. But I am kind of used to it now, even as exciting as it is for someone like that to come to a game. He came to a couple of my games in college. Sat courtside. He saw me play in summer league. I have been to some of his adult league games. I am kind of used to it now.

Is J. Cole a good basketball player?

He’s pretty good. His game is unorthodox. It works though. He’s efficient.

How would you describe your friendship with J. Cole?

He’s like a big brother to me. He gives out guidance whenever he can about different things. We talk about life. It doesn’t have to be basketball or music. He’s just a good big bro for me.

Are you ready for your first NBA All-Star break to get a breather?

Honestly, I am looking forward to it. A break would be nice. I will get a chance to relax for a little while, get my body back ready to go for the second half of the season. I am going to definitely use it to my advantage.

What is your outlook on the Rising Stars Challenge? Is that a game you take seriously?

We will see how it goes, man. Sometimes it can be treated as a real All-Star Game, not really playing hard. But if they up the money like they did for the actual All-Star Game, then I am going to go out there and try to win it.

What is the good and the bad about the attention that you’re getting?

The good and the bad? For me, I haven’t really dwelled on that. It comes with it. It’s not one of those things you ask for, but it is bound to happen. I just take it all in stride.

Word on the street is you recently bought a dog. What kind of dog did you get?

A Cavalier King Charles [Spaniel]. My little man Apollo. I ain’t seen him in a minute.

Why that dog?

We just connected at the pet shop. I went in there to get a bulldog and I saw him. We shared a little moment, so I had to walk out with him.

Is it like having your first child?

Yeah. It’s been tough raising him. But he’s learning and getting better with the bathroom thing. My brother and two of my other boys stay at the house when I’m on the road. They take care of him when I’m gone.

I hear you are a big paintball fan. Where do you like to play?

I do all my paintballing down in the east area [of Fayetteville]. It’s real country. There are a lot of trailers. … There is a lot of space out there. We got our own field. I even have spray [paint] cans and spray-painted my name on certain areas of it. It’s a small field. It’s about an acre in the woods too. Me and my sister chopped a tree down out there in the woods. It was a lot of fun.

How did you get into paintball?

I went with my cousin when I was in the fourth grade. At that time, I didn’t want to get hit by the paintball. But we used to shoot BB guns at each other. I heard getting hit by a paintball was worse, so I didn’t want to get hit by them. So I played again, went about two to three years ago and got back into it. Ever since then I’ve been an avid paintballer.

How many times have you gone paintballing the last couple of years?

I’m not sure. I’ve been a good amount. I’m good enough to be nice out there.

If there was a professional paintball league could you play in it?

Yes. I might not even need practice for that. I go out there and do my thing.

What is it about paintball that you love?

Probably hitting people. It’s kind of like real-life Call of Duty where you’ve got to watch yourself, take out as many people as you can and all that. It feels almost like a war to me.

Does playing paintball give you the same adrenaline high that you get when you play basketball?

Nah. Not as much.

Have you found a paintball spot in Dallas yet?

I haven’t found a place yet. I want the team to go. I might go one-against-13. I might play against everybody by myself to show them how nice I am. But I haven’t found one yet. They keep telling me about some zombie area where they have people who are dressed like zombies and you can shoot them around a school bus. I don’t know how far that will go.

Who would be good on your team and who would be terrible?

My man ‘Do,’ Dorian Finney-Smith. Do is my guy. That is like my cousin right there. I am going to take him on my team. Do would be my first pick. My last pick would be Dirk [Nowitzki]). Too big a target. He is not going to be in position where I want him to be. Ain’t no snipers in paintball, so he can’t shoot from distance. He is going to have to move. I don’t want him moving on my team.

What has your rookie year been like?

What I expected my rookie year to be. Some ups. Some downs. The only thing I didn’t expect is the record. We let of lot of them go that we could win. That’s the only thing that has been a surprise to me.

How have you dealt with losing?

Kept my head up, stayed positive and tried to bounce back the next game. There are 82 games in a regular season. It’s only my rookie year. I don’t want to get too down or too high.

How did you gain the mentality where you don’t appear to be intimidated by anybody?

I’ve got older cousins. An older sister. They used to try to punk me when I was little. That was never supposed to be allowed then. I don’t see why that would change now.

Is there a player you have been excited to play against?

Yeah. You name any player in the league and you’ll be like … we played Kawhi [Leonard in December] and I was like, “We just played against Kawhi Leonard!” We played against Kyrie [Irving], LeBron [James]. I dapped up Carmelo [Anthony]. It’s crazy. I’m just taking it all in. I just turned 20 [on Nov. 25]. I’ve been looking up to these guys since I was in elementary school.

What is it like being on the other end playing against point guards like Stephen Curry and Irving?

It’s exciting. I probably started watching them in the eighth grade and the start of high school. Being on the other end of them is a surreal feeling. It’s what you work for.

What have you picked up from Mavericks legend Nowitzki?

Just his work ethic. He more so leads by example. First one in. Last one to leave. He’s consistent with that.

You were selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft by the Mavericks. Was being selected there a blessing in disguise, or were you bitter about that?

No, I am not bitter about it. The only thing is you don’t get as much money the lower you go. That is something I took note of. Everybody has their own path. I am blessed to be in this position. We’ve got a great staff. The city, they’re rocking with me right now, so that’s always good.

How important is winning Rookie of the Year to you?

I am not really stressing it as much as everyone else. My thing is we could be winning games right now. That is what we have to get better with. …. We can still turn the season. I believe if that happens, if my play elevates and everyone else’s play elevates, I’m worthy of Rookie of the Year by that time and I will get it.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.