Future Focus, Part III: Dennis Smith, Jr.

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It’s been a long season. Over these last 18 games, let’s just try to enjoy ourselves by focusing on what was supposed to be our top priority all year anyway: YOUTH.

The two months between now and May 14th will feel like years. Losses will be ugly and abundant. Guys we’re counting on to be cornerstones for the future will look horrible at times. But that’s to be expected.  With only two guys left over the age of 25, this stretch is about seeing what we have and projecting what they may become.

Part I of this series focused on Frank Ntilikina.
Part II focused on Mitchell Robinson.
Part III focuses on the centerpiece of our Kristaps Porzingis haul, DENNIS SMITH JR.


In case you haven’t heard, the Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis last month.

You know, the guy that those who dubbed him “PorzinGod” thought would save the franchise. In return for their oft-broken unicorn, Steve Mills and Scott Perry received two main assets:

  1. Cap relief that allows them to pursue two max-salaried free agents this summer, and
  2. Dennis Smith, Jr.

The cap space is what fans rallied around after the initial shock wore off. Pundits mused publicly that, If the Knicks made a deal like this, they MUST know who’s taking that money come July.

The rumors – nothing tangible or real, just speculation – focus primarily on two guys, one a recent Finals MVP and the other a cantankerous point guard currently donning green.

Meanwhile, the tangible centerpiece of that Knicks’ haul also plays point guard, and has played it pretty well since coming over from Dallas. Through 13 games, Smith Jr. is averaging 15.1 points, 6.5 assists, and 1.7 steals on 42.4% shooting (up from 39.5% as a rookie). His athleticism is as reputed, his ability to attack the paint and finish at the rim is something we haven’t seen since Marbury, and his willingness to pass has been a pleasant surprise.

Despite the flaws – and there are many – when I watch him play and think about how young he is, how cheap he is, how the offense has looked with him on the floor, and how strong the Knicks’ player development seems to be, I can’t help but wonder:

With DSJ in the fold, are the Knicks set at PG?  

Should the $30+ million (allegedly) earmarked for that guy in New England be used elsewhere?

Some of you just cringed, scoffed, quickly pulled up Twitter with plans to passionately roast me…believe me, I get it. But if you’re still there, humor me for a second. 

Here are the per-36 stats for various All-Star point guards during their first two seasons:

Dennis Smith Jr.’s career per-36 averages are:

17.9 points, 6.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 40.8% FG, 31.8% 3PT, 67.2% FT

The numbers are comparable. He’s better in one or two key categories than everyone above – scoring more than all but Irving and Rose, assists better than half of the group, and he’s rebounding his position and creating turnovers with steals. If I added his numbers to the chart and made everything anonymous, you’d have no idea who went on to become the youngest MVP in NBA history, who won four rings, and who was the current 2nd-year pro looking for a fresh start.  

The glaring weakness pertains to efficiency – Smith Jr. is worse from the field than everyone listed and MUCH worse from the free throw line. The latter is particularly bothersome, since those points are supposed to be, you know, free. He can succeed if he never becomes a knockdown three-point shooter (see Rose and Westbrook), but with all due respect to Rajon Rondo’s career, nobody wants a point guard who shoots under 70% from the line.  DSJ is at 56% in a Knicks’ uniform. 

(Writing that last sentence made me physically ill.)

His issues are mechanical. That weird hitch / twist he does just prior to release needs to be fixed. His form needs to be stripped down and rebuilt over the summer, but if he puts in the work, I see no reason why he can’t improve from both lines. And while improvement is not a given, it is a likelihood. Guys improve. This is their job.

Look at some of these leaps from Year 2 to Year 3:  

Player PPG FG% 3PT% FT%
D. Rose + 4.2 + 6.5% + 9.2%
R. Westbrook + 5.8 + 2.4% + 10.9% + 6.2%
C. Paul + 5.2 + 5.1% + 1.9% + 3.3%
J. Wall + 2.2 + 1.8% + 19.6% + 1.5%
Jeff Teague + 7.4 + 3.8%
Eric Bledsoe + 5.2 + 5.6% + 19.7% + 15.5%


Now let’s revisit the initial cringe-worthy question: is Dennis Smith Jr. good enough that the Knicks should target other positions in free agency?

Understand that I’m not saying he’s as good, or will ever be as good, as the former Cav in Boston (who oddly enough regressed in Year 3 and didn’t really take any major leap until Year 6). I’m just saying that DSJ’s current talent and future promise might be enough to get Mills and Perry to reconsider how they want to spend their money.

If I told you DSJ would sustain averages of 15 & 6 for the remainder of his rookie deal, is that enough from your starting point guard (considering who he may be playing with)?

What if he makes a leap like any of the ones above?  Say 18+ PPG, 45% from the field, 73% from the line? Is that enough?

Yes, those numbers still pale in comparison to LeBron’s former sidekick, but that guy will command 30+ MILLION DOLLARS per year. Is it in the best interests of the organization to pay that much money for a guy who criticizes teammates in the media, adds drama to the locker room when things aren’t going well, and has played 60 or fewer games in 4 out of his 7 seasons?

When we already have a promising young player at the same position who’s under team control for two more years at $4.46M and 5.69M respectively?

This is the lense through which I’m watching DSJ over this final stretch. I want to know if he’s good enough to cross the most important position in basketball off our to-do list. I want to see evidence that he’s a consistently willing facilitator and that he’s going to improve defensively (because right now he’s a sieve, despite the steals). I want to see how he and Ntilikina complement each other, and I want to try to project whether that platoon will be enough to get this team back to the playoffs and beyond.   

Part of what allowed the Warriors to become great is that young guys on manageable contracts overproduced. Steph, Klay, Dray were all making less than their market values, which allowed them to add Kevin Durant and become the unstoppable force they’ve become. This is what Knicks’ fans should be hoping for – youth showing enough to attract big FAs, then blowing up and becoming severely underpaid alongside those max teammates. Mitch is on his way, and DSJ – if he can follow in those footsteps above – could be right behind him.  

Sure, this could all be a waste of words. The two guys in the rumors could be a package deal, in which case DSJ is already gone and doesn’t know it. If that’s the case, then the optimistic outlook I’ve been trying to sell you is exactly what Steve Mills and Scott Perry must sell to an opposing GM. Remind him that great attacking point guards began their careers with similar issues. Remind him that those same point guards all improved as early as Year 3 and became All-Stars, All-NBA selections, MVPs, leaders of playoff teams. Remind him that the kid is still only 21.  

And if that’s somehow not enough, just send him this:

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