Dennis Smith Jr. and second chances
The Knicks got a lot in their trade of Kristaps Porzingis. Double-max cap space next summer that could be used to sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. An unprotected future first-round pick. Another likely first-rounder.
And Dennis Smith Jr.
Smith has been treated as an afterthought in New York’s return for Porzingis. That’s somewhat understandable when the trade puts established stars like Durant and Irving in play, but don’t just forget about the 21-year-old Smith.
“I’ve been overlooked before,” Smith said. “It’s nothing new. This is familiar territory for me.
“That’s why I’ve been in grind mode. I’ve been in grind mode since I stepped foot in New York. That’s what I’m all about.”
Smith was most infamously overlooked in the 2017 draft, when he fell to No. 9. The Knicks drafted Frank Ntilikina one spot higher. LeBron James even said New York should have taken Smith.
To be fair, LeBron was feuding with then-Knicks president Phil Jackson. Jackson, in an incident that drew a lot of attention, pressured Smith into eating octopus at a pre-draft dinner meeting. Did Smith’s reluctance to try the octopus actually contribute to New York not drafting him?
“I hope not,” Smith said. “I ain’t for sure. But I hope that wasn’t the reason.”
It’s remarkable we can’t be certain of it not factoring. But that was the absurdity of Jackson’s tenure.
At least the Knicks get Smith now.
He even sometimes orders octopus for himself.
“I’ve got a little bit of money now,” Smith said.
Dallas drafted Smith, and his future there appeared promising. He scored 15.2 points per game as a rookie. Obviously, scoring isn’t everything, but it indicates a player’s stature, how much his team has entrusted him. When teams get someone young with Smith’s scoring average, they almost always build around him.
But the Mavericks acquired Luka Doncic in last year’s draft and are justly prioritizing him. Doncic is better and younger. Smith, who also fills a primary-ballhandler role, no longer fit.
Smith left Dallas averaging 14.5 points per game with the Mavericks. That’s one of the highest-scoring averages ever for someone with his original team who got traded or sold before the end of his second season:
In Smith’s lifetime, only Michael Carter-Williams had a higher-scoring average with his original team then got traded before the end of his second season.
Smith is no longer the player I ranked No. 4 on my draft board or even the one who actually got picked in the top 10. His stock has rightfully dropped while in the league. He’s inefficient as a scorer, and he lacks complementary skills. His accuracy on 3-pointers is disappointingly low. His distributing lags well behind with his score-first approach.
But the reasons Smith looked so intriguing fewer than two years ago haven’t completely dissipated, either. He’s got nice handles and quickness, and he has the athleticism to finish above the rim. His inefficiency seems due more to shot selection than mechanics and is therefore likely an easier fix. Point guards tend to develop later.
In the meantime, Smith is losing prominence. He played in the Rising Stars Challenge last year but wasn’t invited back this year. Of the several dozen players who participated in that game as a rookie but weren’t selected as a sophomore, only three – Joe Johnson, Caron Butler and Chris Kaman – developed into All-Stars.
Smith wanted to return to All-Star Weekend this year, anyway. It’s in his native North Carolina, and his grandma is getting older. She wanted to see him there. So, after competing in last year’s dunk contest then declaring it wasn’t for him, he’ll re-enter.
“I kind of learned what it was about last year with all the extra gimmicks and things,” Smith said. “So, I have a couple myself.”
That’s where Smith wants the gimmicks to end.
Knicks fans can dream about Irving or even look to Kemba Walker as a fallback. Smith wants to earn the starting-point guard job for himself.
Right now, it has been handed to him on a barren roster. New York is tanking, biding time until its next era.
Maybe, just maybe, Smith will be an integral part of it.
“He really knows how to run a team,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “And we’re just getting started together, and I’m really excited for the future with him.”