Dennis Smith Jr. sits at his locker, checking his cellphone and listening to music earlier than most video games. He’s out there to the press within the locker room greater than most Knicks, however he’s seemed more and more forlorn. It wasn’t speculated to go like this.
“I’m pondering precisely what you’re pondering,” Smith Jr. informed Basketball Insiders. “I had a very good rookie yr. Sophomore yr was strong, too. I performed effectively after I obtained right here final yr. Now to have issues going the best way they’re…You simply can’t dwell on it – constructive or damaging. You possibly can’t change it. All I can do is deal with the fitting now.”
Smith Jr. is presently a reserve guard for the New York Knicks, but it surely wasn’t way back that he was the Dallas Mavericks’ level guard of the long run.
He was drafted by the Mavericks with the ninth total choose in 2017 after demonstrating elite athleticism and leaping capacity at NC State. There was numerous hypothesis that the Knicks would draft their level guard of the long run, and Smith Jr. seemed like the apparent choose. However the group finally selected Frank Ntilikina over Smith Jr. Contemplating the franchise’s draft mishaps, Smith Jr. was unsurprisingly taking part in effectively, whereas Ntilikina struggled. Including insult to damage, LeBron James and others piled on by publicly supporting Smith Jr.
“The Knicks handed on a very good one, and Dallas obtained the diamond within the tough,” LeBron James mentioned after a recreation in opposition to Dallas in November 2017. “He ought to be a Knick. That’s going to make some headlines, however he ought to be a Knick. Dallas is unquestionably, I do know they’re excited that he didn’t go there.”
Smith Jr. had a profitable rookie season, averaging 15.2 factors and 5.2 assists per recreation. As anticipated, he had some jaw-dropping highlights, however struggled capturing the ball – posting a area objective proportion of 39.5 p.c. Nonetheless, the long run seemed vivid.
However issues shortly turned difficult. The Mavericks executed a draft-day commerce in 2018, which enabled them to pick Luka Doncic. Doncic had been (and continues to be) otherworldly because the Mavericks’ lead guard since his very first recreation. So identical to that, Smith Jr. was expendable.
Quick ahead to Feb. 1, 2019 – Smith Jr. was dealt to New York together with Wesley Matthews, DeAndre Jordan and two future first-round draft picks in change for Kristaps Porzingis, Courtney Lee, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. And serendipitously, the Knicks obtained their man.
Smith Jr. continued his pretty robust play in New York for the rest of final season. In 21 video games with the Knicks, he averaged 14.7 factors and 5.four assists in 28.6 minutes per recreation after seeing dips in factors (12.9) and assists (four.three) with Dallas. The important thing takeaway for the Knicks pertaining to Smith Jr. was that he confirmed promise. Nonetheless, there was sufficient doubt that the Knicks signed free agent level guard Elfrid Payton.
Then-head coach David Fizdale spoke extremely of Smith Jr.’s performances in coaching camp, however the third-year guard’s again damage flared up, inflicting him to overlook seven consecutive video games after struggling within the first three video games of the season.
However Smith Jr.’s function remained unclear after he returned. On the entire, 2019-20 has been powerful on him. He’s posting solely 5.5 factors and three assists per recreation, and he’s capturing solely 34 p.c from the sphere and 29.6 p.c on three-pointers. However most alarmingly, he’s actually struggled to safe taking part in time.
February has been Smith Jr.’s most profitable month to this point this season; he’s averaging 6.6 factors in 17.9 minutes per recreation – a far cry what was anticipated of him only a few years in the past. And former months had been simply extra of the identical. Smith Jr. averaged solely 5 factors in 10.four minutes per recreation in January, 5.three factors in 17 minutes in December, 6.four factors in 17.eight minutes in November and just one level in eight.7 minutes in October.
Whereas it’s logical to imagine he’s affected by residual setbacks associated to his preseason again damage, Smith Jr. is fast to distance himself from that excuse.
“There’s no bodily limitations on me,” Smith Jr. informed Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been practising, haven’t missed any practices. My wind is nice, too. Final time we performed the Pacers, I performed large minutes. So I’m undoubtedly good.”
Whereas he could also be wholesome, it’s arduous for anybody to develop a rhythm when minutes are restricted.
“It’s been powerful on me for some time,” Smith Jr. defined. “I’m simply searching for a chance. Even when my minutes are restricted, I can’t fear about going on the market and fear about making an attempt to play good. It’s arduous to do, particularly when your time is lower. It’s one thing I gotta get higher at. It’s simply one other problem.
“However I’ve had numerous challenges in my life, whether or not it’s basketball or not. And I ain’t by no means stop at nothing. I’m gonna maintain pushing. Like I all the time say, my religion in myself is all the time excessive.”
It may appear as if Smith Jr. is surprisingly upbeat contemplating the uncertainty surrounding his function, however he’s been blessed with a brand new perspective and strategy.
“I’m nonetheless solely 22 – however I perceive how necessary the psychological a part of the sport is,” Smith Jr. informed Basketball Insiders. “And I’ve been working at that, at staying constructive and ready for my probability.”
Possibilities have been few and much between for Smith Jr. this season. However fortuitously, a chance not too long ago offered itself when Ntilikina aggravated a groin damage that’s resulted in him lacking the final 4 video games. Ideally, Smith Jr. and Ntilikina ought to play alongside each other; Smith Jr. will take any taking part in time nevertheless he will get it.
Previous to Thursday evening, when Smith Jr. suffered a concussion and didn’t return to the sport, he appeared extra comfy in the previous couple of video games. He led the Knicks in assists (6) final Friday in opposition to Indiana, scored 15 factors in a loss to Houston on Monday and posted an enormous spotlight dunk on Wednesday once more Charlotte.
“I do know I’m totally succesful,” Smith Jr. mentioned. “The NBA is so much about alternative. Everyone knows I’m greater than succesful.”
Whereas Smith Jr. stays constructive about capitalizing on alternatives, he was clearly much less obsessed with discussing the explanations behind why he will not be taking part in. It might be indicative of a rift between Smith Jr. and Miller. It might be that he understands that Miller won’t return as coach subsequent season. Or it might imply that he’s merely targeted on bettering and tuning out the entire background noise.
“The rotation is the rotation and that’s out of my management,” Smith Jr. mentioned.
“I simply must deal with the issues I can management,” Smith defined. “Preserve my work ethic, my bodily, my psychological – undoubtedly my psychological. Understanding the variations in my precise life, coping with ups and downs. Take my lumps like a champ and maintain transferring.”
So whereas Smith Jr. has struggled to carve out a task within the league this season, plenty of achieved individuals near the sport imagine in him. James’ quote from 2017 is the very best profile instance, however there’s quite a few others. Elfrid Payton was a 2014 lottery choose himself and performed alongside one other uber-athletic level guard for almost 4 seasons in Victor Oladipo. And Payton’s nonetheless impressed with what he’s seen from Smith Jr.
“He’s constructing momentum. A breakthrough is coming for him,” Payton informed Basketball Insiders. “He’s proven flashes in apply. He’s very gifted. It’s coming. Any day now.”
Doug McDermott, his former Dallas teammate and present Indiana swingman, additionally spoke extremely of Smith Jr. and his skills after the Knicks-Pacers recreation on Friday. He sympathizes with Smith Jr. sadly dropping his stepmother final October. He was inactive for the seven video games earlier than returning to motion.
“All of us liked Dennis. He’s a hell of a participant,” McDermott informed Basketball Insiders. “He’s gone by so much this yr on and off of the ground, and with some household stuff. I’m not tremendous shut with him, but it surely have to be weighing on him. He’s obtained numerous expertise. Individuals have to remain affected person with him. It’s a tricky market to play in (New York), particularly whenever you’re struggling. I went by it in Chicago. However I do know he’ll have an extended profession. I imagine in him. He’s too gifted to not be on this league.”
Smith Jr. approaches the sport in a different way nowadays, however as he indicated, he’ll by no means stop. Sure, the highway has been windier than anticipated, however the vacation spot stays.
It won’t be on everybody’s most popular timeline, however the flying 22-year-old level guard will make his mark on the NBA.