Dennis Smith Jr. is an elite athlete. His explosiveness and potential is what enticed the Dallas Mavericks to draft him with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, and compel the Knicks to make him a signature part of the package they received from the Mavericks in trading Kristaps Porzingis in January of 2019.
Since entering the league after playing only one season at North Carolina State, the 6-3 Smith has yet to realize his projected promise. He showed flashes during a bright rookie campaign, averaging 15.2 points and 5.2 assists in 69 games as the Mavs’ starting point guard. In Year 2, Smith was limited to 53 games, playing only 21 for the Knicks after the trade due to injuries.
He was beset by injuries again last season, particularly a strained oblique, and missed 12 of the Knicks’ 46 games in a schedule disrupted and shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Fayetteville, North Carolina, native also left the team for a brief period to be with his family after the passing of his stepmother.
This past off-season, Smith worked intensely with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was one of the NBA’s best shooters during his time in the league, which spanned from 1990-2001. Rauf’s playing career continued overseas until 2011 and the 51-year-old has continued hooping in Ice Cube’s BIG3 three-on-three league.
The Knicks hope the 23-year-old Smith’s work will result in him being an impact player and increasing his value to them either as a mainstay building block or beneficial trade asset. “It’s been a very productive off-season for me,” said Smith in a video call with the media last week.
“I got a lot of work in, me and Mahmoud. Mentally, I got to take the time to step away and enjoy my family and things of that nature. I actually feel like I got better as a player but also as a man this off-season.”
The Knicks have an abundance of guards, including Frank Ntilikina, who was drafted one pick ahead of Smith by them at No. 8 in 2017. It’s unlikely all of the backcourt players will remain on the roster and minutes will be tight under new head coach Tom Thibodeau.
But it could be Smith’s time to establish himself as a key figure in the rotation.