Dennis Smith Jr. sits at his locker, checking his phone and listening to music before most games. He’s available to the press in the locker room more than most Knicks, but he’s looked increasingly forlorn. It wasn’t supposed to go like this.
“I’m thinking exactly what you’re thinking,” Smith Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “I had a good rookie year. Sophomore year was solid, too. I played well when I got here last year. Now to have things going the way they are…You just can’t dwell on it – positive or negative. You can’t change it. All I can do is focus on the right now.”
Smith Jr. is presently a reserve guard for the New York Knicks, but it wasn’t long ago that he was the Dallas Mavericks’ point guard of the future.
He was drafted by the Mavericks with the ninth overall pick in 2017 after demonstrating elite athleticism and leaping ability at NC State. There was a lot of speculation that the Knicks would draft their point guard of the future, and Smith Jr. looked like the obvious pick. But the team ultimately decided on Frank Ntilikina over Smith Jr. Considering the franchise’s draft mishaps, Smith Jr. was unsurprisingly playing well, whereas Ntilikina struggled. Adding insult to injury, LeBron James and others piled on by publicly supporting Smith Jr.
“The Knicks passed on a really good one, and Dallas got the diamond in the rough,” LeBron James said after a game against Dallas in November 2017. “He should be a Knick. That’s going to make some headlines, but he should be a Knick. Dallas is definitely, I know they’re excited that he didn’t go there.”
Smith Jr. had a successful rookie season, averaging 15.2 points and 5.2 assists per game. As expected, he had some jaw-dropping highlights, but struggled shooting the ball – posting a field goal percentage of 39.5 percent. Still, the future looked bright.
But things quickly became complicated. The Mavericks executed a draft-day trade in 2018, which enabled them to select Luka Doncic. Doncic had been (and continues to be) otherworldly as the Mavericks’ lead guard since his very first game. So just like that, Smith Jr. was expendable.
Fast forward to Feb. 1, 2019 – Smith Jr. was dealt to New York along with Wesley Matthews, DeAndre Jordan and two future first-round draft picks in exchange for Kristaps Porzingis, Courtney Lee, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. And serendipitously, the Knicks got their guy.
Smith Jr. continued his fairly strong play in New York for the remainder of last season. In 21 games with the Knicks, he averaged 14.7 points and 5.4 assists in 28.6 minutes per game after seeing dips in points (12.9) and assists (4.3) with Dallas. The key takeaway for the Knicks pertaining to Smith Jr. was that he showed promise. Still, there was enough doubt that the Knicks signed free agent point guard Elfrid Payton.
Then-head coach David Fizdale spoke highly of Smith Jr.’s performances in training camp, but the third-year guard’s back injury flared up, causing him to miss seven consecutive games after struggling in the first three games of the season.
But Smith Jr.’s role remained unclear after he returned. On the whole, 2019-20 has been tough on him. He is posting only 5.5 points and 3 assists per game, and he’s shooting only 34 percent from the field and 29.6 percent on three-pointers. But most alarmingly, he’s really struggled to secure playing time.
February has been Smith Jr.’s most successful month so far this season; he’s averaging 6.6 points in 17.9 minutes per game – a far cry what was expected of him just a few years ago. And previous months were just more of the same. Smith Jr. averaged only 5 points in 10.4 minutes per game in January, 5.3 points in 17 minutes in December, 6.4 points in 17.8 minutes in November and only 1 point in 8.7 minutes in October.
While it’s logical to assume he’s suffering from residual setbacks related to his preseason back injury, Smith Jr. is quick to distance himself from that excuse.
“There’s no physical limitations on me,” Smith Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been practicing, haven’t missed any practices. My wind is good, too. Last time we played the Pacers, I played big minutes. So I’m definitely good.”
While he may be healthy, it’s hard for anyone to develop a rhythm when minutes are limited.
“It’s been tough on me for a while,” Smith Jr. explained. “I’m just looking for an opportunity. Even if my minutes are limited, I can’t worry about going out there and worry about trying to play perfect. It’s hard to do, especially when your time is cut. It’s something I gotta get better at. It’s just another challenge.
“But I’ve had a lot of challenges in my life, whether it’s basketball or not. And I ain’t never quit at nothing. I’m gonna keep pushing. Like I always say, my faith in myself is always high.”
It might seem as if Smith Jr. is surprisingly upbeat considering the uncertainty surrounding his role, but he’s been blessed with a new perspective and approach.
“I’m still only 22 – but I understand how important the mental part of the game is,” Smith Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “And I’ve been working at that, at staying positive and waiting for my chance.”
Chances have been few and far between for Smith Jr. this season. But fortuitously, an opportunity recently presented itself when Ntilikina aggravated a groin injury that’s resulted in him missing the last four games. Ideally, Smith Jr. and Ntilikina should play alongside one another; Smith Jr. will take any playing time however he gets it.
Prior to Thursday night, when Smith Jr. suffered a concussion and did not return to the game, he appeared more comfortable in the last few games. He led the Knicks in assists (6) last Friday against Indiana, scored 15 points in a loss to Houston on Monday and posted a huge highlight dunk on Wednesday again Charlotte.
“I know I’m fully capable,” Smith Jr. said. “The NBA is a lot about opportunity. We all know I’m more than capable.”
While Smith Jr. remains positive about capitalizing on opportunities, he was clearly less enthusiastic about discussing the reasons behind why he may not be playing. It could be indicative of a rift between Smith Jr. and Miller. It could be that he understands that Miller might not return as coach next season. Or it could mean that he’s simply focused on improving and tuning out all of the background noise.
“The rotation is the rotation and that’s out of my control,” Smith Jr. said.
“I just have to focus on the things I can control,” Smith explained. “Maintain my work ethic, my physical, my mental – definitely my mental. Understanding the differences in my actual life, dealing with ups and downs. Take my lumps like a champ and keep moving.”
So while Smith Jr. has struggled to carve out a role in the league this season, lots of accomplished people close to the game believe in him. James’ quote from 2017 is the highest profile example, but there’s numerous others. Elfrid Payton was a 2014 lottery pick himself and played alongside another uber-athletic point guard for nearly four seasons in Victor Oladipo. And Payton’s still impressed with what he’s seen from Smith Jr.
“He’s building momentum. A breakthrough is coming for him,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “He’s shown flashes in practice. He’s very talented. It’s coming. Any day now.”
Doug McDermott, his former Dallas teammate and current Indiana swingman, also spoke highly of Smith Jr. and his abilities after the Knicks-Pacers game on Friday. He sympathizes with Smith Jr. sadly losing his stepmother last October. He was inactive for the seven games before returning to action.
“We all loved Dennis. He’s a hell of a player,” McDermott told Basketball Insiders. “He’s gone through a lot this year on and off of the floor, and with some family stuff. I’m not super close with him, but it must be weighing on him. He’s got a lot of talent. People have to stay patient with him. It’s a tough market to play in (New York), especially when you’re struggling. I went through it in Chicago. But I know he’ll have a long career. I believe in him. He’s too talented not to be in this league.”
Smith Jr. approaches the game differently these days, but as he indicated, he’ll never quit. Yes, the road has been windier than expected, but the destination remains.
It might not be on everyone’s preferred timeline, but the flying 22-year-old point guard will make his mark on the NBA.
NBA PM: What Brooklyn Needs At The Deadline
The Brooklyn Nets are rightfully among the favorites to win the NBA championship. Garrett Brooks takes a look at what the Nets need at the deadline to give themselves the best chance to win it all.
As they’ve acclimated to one another, the Brooklyn Nets are finding their groove on both ends of the floor recently. While that’s bad news for the rest of the NBA, there are still things the Nets need to address before making their eventual playoff run.
Winning regular-season games is one thing, winning playoff series is a whole different animal. We know the Nets have offensive firepower like few teams in the history of the NBA. Their big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving can carry them to regular-season success.
If they want to maximize their chances to win a title, though, they have more moves to make to fill out the roster.
Another Frontcourt Option
The Nets have to be pleased with what they’re getting from Jeff Green in small ball lineups at the five, as well as the recent emergence of Bruce Brown too. That’s going to be a trend for this team moving forward, as it should be.
Still, there’s a lack of depth on the roster in terms of capable defensive big men that needs to be addressed before an eventual run at an NBA Championship. This is especially true because of the teams they could face on their way to a title, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Lakers. Simply put, beating those teams four out of seven games with a big man rotation consisting of DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green is just highly unlikely.
Green is a great weapon to use at the five but is far too undersized to be counted on in any given playoff series. He’ll get picked on by opposing bigs with offensive skillsets if he’s asked to play all the minutes that Jordan isn’t on the floor. While Brown has been great in his own right, asking him to defend Nikola Jokic, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol and beyond is just too big an ask.
Jordan is not the player he once was but is still a difference-maker in the right situation. Additionally, it would be ideal to add another big that has a different skill set than Jordan in order to increase the options head coach Steve Nash has with his lineups.
With a rim runner in Jordan and small ball fives in Green and Brown, the Nets need to target a versatile big man to add to the mix. Floor spacing would be ideal but isn’t necessary if they bring in someone that can make a big enough impact on the defensive end.
The ideal target will bring two key attributes to the team: The first is rim protection when called upon. The Nets don’t have a long list of strong perimeter defenders, so extra help at the rim would be much-needed. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a shot-blocker as it can also be a smart defender that mainly relies on successfully contesting shots under the rim.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, the center they target needs to be capable of switching on the defensive end. One way the Nets like to cover themselves defensively is by going switch-heavy for stretches. This allows them to play the passing lanes aggressively and often forces the opponent out of their offensive rhythm. The more capable their big men are when it comes to switching, the better this strategy will work.
Kevin Durant’s versatility on the defensive end allows the Nets to search for somebody that excels in defending multiple positions even if they may not be great as the last line of defense. Durant is a strong help defender and has the length to make things difficult at the rim. This ability is proven by the 1.8 blocks he averaged during the 2017-18 season with the Golden State Warriors.
Durant can be the help side defender when asked, but how often can he be asked to bang in the post defensively? The answer is not often.
It’s important that any addition to the frontcourt can hold their own in the post against players such as Joel Embiid or Bam Adebayo. But the harsh reality is that the Nets likely won’t have the luxury to be picky with the type of big man they add. It’ll be hard to find a player that can defend most bigs and switch on most positions throughout a game.
Given their lack of assets remaining, the Nets will need to target what they can afford on the market.
Names to keep an eye on: Thaddeus Young, Chicago Bulls; JaVale McGee, Cleveland Cavaliers; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets.
Depth At The Point Guard Position
With James Harden leading the way as the point guard and Kyrie Irving very capable of handling the offensive load as well, this is an easy need to overlook. Unfortunately, the Nets can’t afford to do that as the trade deadline approaches. If they can’t acquire a traditional point guard for depth, they’ll need to address it on the buyout market.
After Harden, Irving and Durant, the Nets’ core rotation does very little in terms of playmaking. In fact, DeAndre Jordan ranks next among players in the rotation for assists per game. The big three can certainly carry the load when it comes to getting players involved, but the Nets could use another veteran that’ll get their offense good looks.
Most notably, this type of move would aid them in finishing the regular season without riding their stars too hard – which they’ve already done. That versatility would be a great asset to Nash and his coaching staff in both the regular season and playoffs.
That’s without mentioning the always-existent possibility of injury or potentially-required quarantine. It’s always best to have depth and options, and that’s truer than ever in the current NBA landscape. The ideal addition would be a natural distributor capable of knocking down an open shot and holding his own on the defensive end of the floor.
That may seem like a tough sell, but it’s certainly a skill set that will be available for the right price. The Nets would do well in targeting a player that is underperforming due to circumstance. It’s fair to assume a lot of players would benefit from playing in the kind of environment the Nets are currently constructing.
Names to keep an eye on: Austin Rivers, New York Knicks; Quinn Cook, Free Agent; George Hill, Oklahoma City Thunder.
If the Nets can address these two needs they’ll be as well-rounded as any team. The added versatility and flexibility would make them that much stronger come the playoffs. While they’re finding some excellent, wonderful regular season successes, the postseason is a different beast – and the Nets, plus a rookie head coach, will need to learn how to adapt on-the-fly.
General manager Sean Marks is never truly done molding his rosters – and Spencer Dinwiddie may even be available, according to Ian Begley of SNY – so what the Nets run with today certainly isn’t final.
We know what the big three are capable of – now it’s time for the roster to be rounded out for their best chance to succeed.
Bruce Brown Thriving As Nets’ Small Ball Center
Brooklyn has thrived with Bruce Brown playing minutes as a small ball center – and what started out as an experiment may just change the Nets’ championship aspirations for the better.
The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden has proven to be worth it so far. However, their depth and size were seriously hurt as a result of the deal – so the Nets have been forced to get creative with the limited options they have.
Enter: Bruce Brown.
Standing at a meager 6-foot-4, Brown may be the Nets’ best option at center against certain matchups. DeAndre Jordan, the starting center now that Jarrett Allen is in Cleveland, has seen his defensive capabilities decline rather drastically since his time in Lob City. He is still an elite alley-oop threat but has some lapses with effort levels. Reggie Perry is a rookie who was the 57th overall pick isn’t ready for a heavy load of minutes just yet. Nic Claxton has shown promise but has played in just two games due to injury.
In a win against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 13, Brown started at center with Jordan out to injury. He finished the game with 18 points and 7 rebounds. It wasn’t the first time this season Brown spent time at the center position, but it was reflective of his ever-changing role on this Nets team.
Brown arrived this past offseason and came thought as more of a point guard. Now that the Nets have three of the best playmakers in the NBA, his role has shifted. He is practically never counted on to initiate the offense – instead, he has become the guy who does the dirty work. Think of him as the Nets’ version of Draymond Green.
Now the small ball option at center, Brown’s strengths have been accentuated. Offensively, he has become a screen-setter and roll man, thus forming chemistry with James Harden, and has played his way into a crucial part of the rotation. Brown’s minutes at the beginning of the season were sporadic and included four DNP’s. Now he’s an invaluable piece to the Nets’ puzzle.
When teams trap or double James Harden or Kyrie Irving, Brown is often the outlet. He catches the ball in the middle of the floor, turns and has options available to him. Able to attack the basket or make the right pass to an open guy, Brown’s decision-making has been a positive for Brooklyn.
Defensively, Brown is one of the few Nets players who is a consistent positive on that end. He can guard multiple positions due to his strength and often defends the opposing team’s best players. While his height will never allow for him to be a full-time center, being an option for coach Steve Nash to plug in for small ball lineups is a game-changer.
“Bruce is remarkable, I mean, I believe he mostly played point guard last year and he’s playing – what do you want to call him our center?” Said Steve Nash, per Newsday. “He’s picking and rolling and finishing with two bigs in the lane. His willingness and ability to do that is remarkable.”
Really, that’s what has been most impressive. Brown is playing a role he has never been asked to do in the NBA and thriving. He scored a career-high 29 points against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 23. That night, he straight-up shared minutes with Jordan, which speaks to his versatility. Wherever the Nets have needed him this season, Brown has been willing and able.
Brown’s counting stats won’t jump off a stat sheet. He’s averaging just 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting just 22.2 percent from the three-point line but he’s made a living around the basket. A look at his shot chart shows how little he operates from outside the restricted area – and due to the attention his superstar teammates garner, he usually gets open looks right near the rim.
He’s also often being guarded by opposing team’s big men. In a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol guarded Brown to start the game. The role of the small ball center is not as rare as it used to be, but Bruce Brown may be the smallest guy in terms of height to fill the role. To wit, Draymond Green is 6-foot-6 and PJ Tucker is 6-foot-5.
The Nets traded for Brown this past offseason in what looks to have been an absolute steal of a deal, giving up just Dzanan Musa and a second-round pick. Given that the inconsistent Musa is now playing overseas, it was a trade that is already providing dividends.
But, at the end of the day, there are championship expectations in Brooklyn. While the Nets certainly have the star power to beat just about anybody, role-players who thrive in their role can often swing a game or a series come playoff time. So far, more so than nearly any other player outside of the big three, Brown’s ability to fit in wherever needed has changed the contender’s long-term outlook in a positive way.
NBA Daily: What Should the Raptors Do at the Trade Deadline?
The Toronto Raptors are surging. Bobby Krivitsky examines whether they’ve been good enough to keep their current core intact or if they should take a different approach at the trade deadline.
After losing eight of their first 10 games to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have won 14 of their last 23 matchups, surging to fifth in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors had to quickly recharge during a truncated offseason, get acclimated to a new setting and adjust to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher stepping into the void left by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Despite all of that, they’re scoring the 10th-most points per 100 possessions, are 13th in defensive rating and have the ninth-best net rating in the NBA.
Through Toronto’s ups and downs this season, they’ve been able to count on Fred VanVleet. After signing a four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors, the fifth-year guard from Wichita State has once again taken his game to a higher level. He’s averaging 20 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career-bests — and eighth in the NBA with 1.7 steals per contest. It’s discomforting to imagine where this team would be if he had left.
Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who’s finally shaken off a rough second-round series against the Boston Celtics last postseason and thawed from an icy start to his 2020-21 campaign. Siakam is averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. One of the main reasons for his turnaround has been Siakam’s growth as a facilitator: those 4.8 assists represent a career-best. And, with the Raptors shifting more towards small-ball, Siakam is thriving working off a screen from guards, spotting where the defense is vulnerable and taking advantage of it.
Another crucial component of Siakam’s improvement is him playing with more energy on the defensive end. Effort can only take a defender so far, but when that individual is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength, quickness and intelligence to guard positions one-through-five for varying amounts of time, doing so can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.
While Siakam’s production has more of an impact on the Raptors’ ceiling than any other player on the team, Kyle Lowry, alongside VanVleet, establishes Toronto’s floor. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, is averaging 18 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game this season. He remains the heart and soul of the team. That makes it even more impressive that, despite losing him to a thumb injury during a Feb. 16 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto went on to win that night and again two days later, stretching their winning streak to four games (including a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers).
One major change stemming from the Raptors playing small more often is Norman Powell entering the starting lineup. He’s started his last 17 games and is averaging a team-high 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. During that stretch, the sharpshooting Powell is also knocking down 44.4 percent of his 6.4 threes per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor. Toronto has won 10 of those 17 games.
Powell gives the Raptors more offensive firepower, allows them to play faster and, when they don’t have a traditional center on the floor, has made it easier for them to switch on defense. It’s an adjustment that’s worked so well for Toronto, even in Lowry’s absence, Baynes came off the bench while DeAndre’ Bembry joined the starting lineup.
So, with the Raptors finding their footing and the March 25 trade deadline inching closer, what’s Toronto’s best course of action? That decision revolves around their plan with Lowry.
Lowry, whose $30 million deal is set to expire after the season, is interested in playing at least two more seasons at a similar value, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Are the Raptors willing to meet those demands, paving the way for the franchise icon to spend the remainder of his career with them? Secondly, the Raptors aren’t a title contender right now, which could lead to the two sides working together to send Lowry to a team meeting that criteria by the trade deadline, which also happens to be his 35th birthday.
If it comes to that, Pompey listed the 76ers, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Clippers as Lowry’s preferred destinations, noting the North Philadelphia native would like to return to his roots. For the Raptors to go through with trading the six-time All-Star, it would likely take multiple first-round picks and promising young players along with any contracts included for salary-matching purposes to be expiring after this season.
Considering Toronto’s current place in the NBA’s hierarchy, if Lowry intends to leave for a title contender or the Raptors aren’t willing to meet his contractual demands, it’s clear what they should do at the deadline. Trading Lowry isn’t going to net Toronto the return necessary to vault them into the league’s top tier, but it would still figure to serve them better in the long term, even though the Raptors’ resurgence suggests if he’s still on the team after Mar. 25th, they’re once again going to be a difficult out in the playoffs, and they could go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals.
If they want to play the long game, it would also make sense for them to trade Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option he’s likely to decline in the offseason. Granted, he’ll be 28 next season, so it’s not as if re-signing him would be short-sighted.
There’s nothing wrong with preserving the possibility Lowry never dons another team’s jersey — and parting with a franchise icon is never easy. But trading Lowry may be the best bet for the franchise’s future, while it would neither change the fact that the team will someday retire his jersey, nor would it take away from his legacy. In fact, doing right by him and giving Lowry another opportunity to compete for a title may just be the best parting gift the Raptors could give him while also strengthening their own long-term outlook.