Mavericks found a keeper and conundrum in Dennis Smith Jr. and Nerlens Noel

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Mavericks had one building block fall into their lap.

Now, they’re playing chicken with another.

No. 9 pick Dennis Smith Jr. could be the steal of the draft. He hasn’t even begun his rookie year, so plenty is unknown, but Smith’s summer-league excellence only confirms what I saw before the draft. He looks like a potential star, and Dallas gets credit for landing him in the back half of the lottery.

Nerlens Noel‘s restricted free agency didn’t go quite so smoothly. The center, acquired before the last trade deadline, reportedly rejected an offer paying $17.5 million annually and took the $4,187,599 qualifying offer.

That could have major upside for the Mavericks, who could hold him at a $7,956,438 cap hit next summer then exceed the cap to re-sign him after finishing their other business. They could have major cap space, especially if Wesley Matthews declines his $18,622,514 player option.

But this could also be the beginning of the end of Noel in Dallas. Of the 20 players who’d ever signed qualifying offers, only one – Spencer Hawes – re-signed with the same team the following summer. Mark Cuban can try to dress it up, but this situation usually ends with the team and player parting ways.

And it’s not as if the Mavericks can just preemptively trade Noel. As a player on a one-year contract who’d have Bird Rights when it expires, he can block any deal. It’s hard to see a place he;d better showcase himself than Dallas, which needs a starting center and has a scheme that maximizes his contributions.

For that reason, maybe Noel would be the exception who re-signs after taking the qualifying offer. Though being unrestricted should help, the market will still be tight, and I doubt centers suddenly become en vogue in this small-ball era.

Smith, Noel and Harrison Barnes could comprise a nice young core to follow Dirk Nowitzki.

Speaking of Nowitzki, he re-signed for two years, $10 million with a team option – another team-friendly deal granted by him. The Mavericks are trying to remain competitive around him, though that’s an uphill battle as he ages and other Western Conference teams build up.

At least the Mavericks aren’t overspending in some last-ditch effort to win for Nowitzki. That allowed them to extract a second-rounder and cash from the Heat for taking on Josh McRoberts. Dallas still has cap space to pursue similar deals before the trade deadline.

The Mavericks signed their annual gaggle of fliers – Jeff Withey, Maxi Kleber, Maalik Wayns, P.J. Dozier, Gian Clavell, Brandon Ashley, Johnathan Motley – to compete for back-end roster spots. Maybe one emerges as a contributor.

I’d bet Smith becomes much more than that. Even though he has yet to play, he has impressed enough to warrant optimism he’ll out-perform his draft slot. He could be a franchise-changer, and the possibility carries weight.

Offseason grade: B