Dennis Smith Jr. came into the NBA as a highly-touted prospect. His 48-inch vertical coupled with his speed and explosiveness made him an easy choice at No. 9 for Dallas Mavericks in the 2017 NBA Draft. After a promising rookie season, Smith’s play has steadily declined and has, at best, been erratic. Still, his talent was good enough to be the centerpiece in the Kristaps Porzingis trade in 2018.
The Detroit Pistons’ acquisition of the high-flying point guard gives them a chance at another reclamation project similar to Josh Jackson. Smith will get a shot to revive a career that has been trending in the wrong direction. But is this his final shot at solidifying himself as an NBA guard?
Simply put, the Dennis Smith Jr. experience failed in New York.
In his three seasons with the Knicks, he averaged just 8.7 points and 3.7 assists while shooting 41.6 percent on two-point attempts and a meager 28.4 percent on three-point attempts, per Basketball-Reference. Smith has appeared in three games (28 total minutes) this season, in part to injury, but even when he’s been healthy he hasn’t been able to crack Tom Thibodeau’s tight rotation.
The troubling part of Smith’s tenure with the Knicks is that he was part of a poor point guard rotation over the past few seasons, yet he was never able to take the reigns over guys like Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke and Elfrid Payton. In his 58 games with New York, he started in just 21 of them. His inconsistent play and sometimes lackluster effort lead to him taking backseats to players he was more talented than.
In fairness to Smith, there are valid reasons as to why he struggled. He played under four different head coaches during his tenure with the Knicks. The coaching carousel that he played under meant he was never able to truly get acclimated and comfortable in any setting. His coaches also seemed to prioritize playing older veterans rather than trying to develop him. It’s difficult to develop under that kind of setting, as evident by his now-former teammate Frank Ntilikina, who’s been in the same situation.
A huge part of Smith’s struggles were also largely injury-related. Dealing with various nagging leg injuries and a back injury that seemed to have hurt the form of his jump shot, it hasn’t been easy. Smith was never good a good three-point shooter, but he developed a hitch after the injury which he only recently fixed. If Smith wants to succeed in Detroit, his jumper will have to be much better than it’s been.
Smith has shown himself to be a high-character person and a hard worker despite the adversity he has faced throughout his young career. This should bode well for him with the Pistons. If Smith hadn’t been traded, he would have been playing for the Knicks’ G League team in the bubble. He actually had requested to be sent down in order to get playing time and recoup some of his value around the league, which is a reflection of his willingness to improve.
Smith heads to Detroit with an opportunity to man the point guard position for the foreseeable future. WIth Killian Hayes out with a torn right labrum and Derrick Rose now back with the Knicks, the only point guards on the roster are Delon Wright and Frank Jackson, the latter of which is on a two-way contract. Smith will get ample playing time to prove himself and the Pistons, who have the worst record in the NBA, should have every reason to play him.
As for the Pistons, this is a low-risk move that could potentially lead to a nice return. If Smith can prove himself to be an NBA-level guard once again, Detroit will have another young piece with tons of potential. Even if Smith doesn’t work out, the Pistons are better off taking the gamble on his play rather than having Derrick Rose soaking up minutes and usage on a young roster.
Ultimately, Dennis Smith Jr.’s career is currently at a crossroads. He is running out of chances to succeed, but this trade to Detroit may his best opportunity yet. In Dallas, he was put in the backburner in favor of Luka Doncic after being the first lottery pick they had selected in years. In New York, he was often hurt and frequently playing under a new coach. Never easy, the electric guard also dealt with the pressure of the Porzingis trade.
With the Pistons, he won’t have to deal with any expectations. He will be allowed to make mistakes and won’t have to develop in the spotlight that has been on him early in his career. For his sake, it is crucial that he takes advantage of this opportunity. In the end, there are only so many chances to prove yourself in the NBA.
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