Future Focus, Part III: Dennis Smith, Jr.

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:

How Dennis Smith Jr. fits with Frank Ntilikina

Coming off the Knicks’ 2016-17 season, one thing was abundantly clear: the team needed a point guard.

The Derrick Rose experiment had profoundly failed, finding new ways to disappoint a fanbase that thought it had seen it all. Brandon Jennings had been waived in February and was slowly making his way to China. Significant back-up minutes were going to rookie Ron Baker. Again, the team needed a point guard.

With their pick in the 2017 draft, the Knicks weren’t just selecting a player; they were seemingly choosing a philosophical direction for the franchise.

By the time they were on the clock, the Knicks essentially had two options – Dennis Smith Jr. or Frank Ntilikina.

The two players didn’t just possess contrasting styles, they were diametrically opposed in every way. They weren’t two sides of the same coin. They were altogether separate currencies.

Ntilikina was steady, deliberate, defensive-minded, team-oriented. His impact was going to be mostly hidden from the box score – lost in translation between your eyes which struggled to see his value and your gut which told you good things happened when he was on the court. His playing style was like coastal erosion, slowly and silently shaping each game’s landscape through persistent energy and effort.

Smith was more like a tidal wave. He was dynamic, aggressive, explosive, prickly and  headstrong. His on-court impact would be more transparent – both his strengths and weaknesses on display for everyone to see. Each gravity-taunting dunk and misguided turnover apt for House of Highlights. When Smith was on the court, there would be no subtlety. You would notice him, for better or worse.

When the team chose Ntilikina over Smith, it signaled to fans that they were now a Serious Franchise. One that ostensibly valued fundamentals and defense over viral highlights and empty-calorie box score stats. It was a serious gamble. Both players had significant upside, but their peaks were on different sides of the world.

The pick was met with polarizing responses from fans and analysts alike. Some were optimistic. Jordan Schultz of Yahoo! Sports gave the pick an A+. Adi Joseph of USA Today Sports gave it an A. The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks graded Frank’s value at a B and his fit in New York an A.

Other journalists felt the Knicks made the wrong choice. Sam Vecenie of the Sporting News wrote, “If the Knicks were set on point guard, I would have gone with Dennis Smith.”

Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Sharp said that it was “inexplicable” for the Knicks to pass on Smith, giving their draft a D+ grade. Wrote Sharp:

“Ntilikina is an interesting prospect but he’s probably a few years away from contributing in a meaningful way. In any case, he’s not Dennis Smith. Knicks fans are understandably bummed and wondering what might have been with one of the most explosive guards in the draft.”

Over the ensuing season and a half, Frank has been one of the most divisive players among Knicks fans in recent memory. His supporters will point to his strong perimeter defense, unselfish playmaking and high motor. His critics will direct you to his historically bad shooting numbers and diffident offensive style.

Meanwhile, Smith didn’t exactly set the world on fire in Dallas, either. His box score stats were more impressive, as expected. But, questions about his attitude, decision-making and defense still lingered. Regardless, there was always going to be a prevailing pang of wistfulness every time Smith did something spectacular. A collective “What if?” feeling among Knicks fans.

Then, something crazy happened.

The Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis for a package that would pair 20-year-old Frank Ntilikina with the 21-year-old Dennis Smith Jr. The trade was so earth-shattering for Knicks fans that it may as well have caused time to loop back and fold over itself, allowing the fanbase to live both realities simultaneously. It’s like if Robert Frost’s traveler went back to that divergence in the woods and was able to walk both roads at the same time. No more What Ifs.

Now, the question is whether either guard will be a part of the Knicks’ core moving forward. Obviously, so much hinges on how free agency shakes out. But, it’s worth examining Smith’s strengths and weaknesses to see how he may fit with Frank if both lottery-pick point guards end up on the roster next season.

Strengths

Attacking the Rim

The most obvious and tantalizing part of Smith’s game is one that Ntilikina mostly lacks, and that’s his ability to get to the rim. Smith relentlessly puts pressure on the defense, attacking the basket at will. Since becoming a Knick, he has averaged 15.4 drives per game, per NBA.com, the 10th-most in the league during that eight-game span. In those games he’s taken 46% of his shots at the rim, a number that would rank in the 97th percentile for the season among his position per Cleaning The Glass.

The most impressive aspect of Smith’s forays into the paint is how consistently he beats his man off the dribble, particularly in half-court situations. Watch him create an advantage out of thin air against Bruce Brown, one of the Pistons’ better perimeter defenders:

That first step! He turns the corner so fast, often times the big (Andre Drummond in this case) never has a chance to help. However, if Smith does encounter a body in the restricted area, he has been able to finish through contact:

Per The BBall Index’s proprietary talent grading system, DSJ ranks in the 74th percentile in their Finishing category when compared to the 73 guards with at least 800 minutes. Frank, when compared to that same group, ranks in just the 5th percentile. Ntilikina will certainly improve finishing at the rim as his career progresses, but as it stands today, Smith puts a whole different level of pressure on the rim (and therefore the defense). The attention he draws will help Smith’s teammates get more open looks as well.

Playmaking Vision

It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking DSJ is a shoot-first gunner who doesn’t make his teammates better. Smith is not the archetype of a “pure” point guard, but it would be a mistake to underestimate his passing vision and playmaking ability. The guy is far from a black hole when he takes it to the rim. Per NBA.com, Smith passes the ball on 47.2% of his drives. That’s the 9th-highest percentage among the 64 players to record at least 400 drives this season. Even more impressive, The BBall Index ranks DSJ in the 97th percentile league-wide in their Playmaking category. Check out this montage of five skip/ cross-court passes:

The thing you’ll notice is how he probes the defense and attracts so much attention with the ball in his hands. He forces opponents to commit and understands how the defense will bend accordingly. Several of those plays were out of the pick-and-roll where he’s been ahead of the learning curve. Before the trade to New York, Smith was posting a league average efficiency on pick-and-rolls including passes, per Synergy. Considering Smith’s age and high-volume usage on pick-and-rolls, the fact that he is already average is extremely promising. In addition to kick-outs, Smith also keeps the bigs fed on lobs and dump-offs. DSJ has recorded 49 assists for the Knicks so far; 10 of those have been on alley-oop dunks (8 to DeAndre and 2 to Mitchell Robinson). But, instead of those highlight-worthy passes, I want to show this pass:

Even though it seems unexceptional, that’s one of my favorite passes Smith has made since the trade because he exploits the space he gets from the defender sagging so far off him. Collin Sexton goes way under the screen then camps in the paint, daring Smith to shoot. Instead, Smith uses that space to probe a little more. He’s patient as he lets Deandre Jordan establish a strong position. Sexton is unable to contest the entry pass because he’s sagging too far off. This is what Smith needs to do more often – make the simple play. Many opponents will not treat him as a threat to shoot, particularly off the dribble. They’ll sag off and try to gum up the spacing. He needs to use that space to his advantage — to see more passing lanes, or to gain steam on drives.

Smith’s playmaking ability is one reason I’m confident that he can play alongside Ntilikina in the backcourt. The last thing we’d want is for Frank’s development to stagnate due to a high-usage, ball-dominant point guard. But, I’m confident that Frank will improve as an off-ball guy, in terms of both his cutting and his catch-and-shoot numbers. Smith has the instincts and ability to find and reward him.

Off-ball Ability

That said, there’s no question that Frank’s peak value would come from playing at least some of his minutes at the point guard position. Having your point guard be able to defend positions 1-3 opens up more opportunities for your team’s defense. Also, to reach his potential at any position, Frank would need to learn to penetrate off the dribble, draw help, and make plays for his teammates. Running the offense would likely force him to develop those skills. So, does pairing Smith with Frank mean that the Knicks’ decision-makers have given up on Frank as a point guard? Not necessarily. Even though Smith hasn’t proven he can stretch defenses with his jump shot, he has shown he can be a legitimate off-ball threat. He’s done so by (what else?) attacking scrambled defenses off the dribble. Here, Kadeem Allen initiates the offense, leading to a Mitchell Robinson dribble hand-off and DSJ runway:

DSJ’s instant chemistry with Kadeem Allen bodes well for his on-court relationship with Ntilikina. In the 41 minutes Allen and Smith have logged together so far, they are a robust +12. This pairing works because Allen takes some of the defensive burden off Smith, while performing some of the perfunctory duties of an offense initiator…two things Frank will be able to handle when he returns from his injury.

Weaknesses

Shot Selection/ Decision-making

The numbers will tell you that Smith takes too many long twos, and that’s true. But, even worse has been the timing of those long twos. He’ll take some utter head-scratchers – shots he can get at any time – right at the beginning of the shot clock. I audibly gasped at this one:

There must be an emotional toll those types of shots take on your teammates. I’d imagine they linger in your teammates’ heads and lead them to believe that you take more selfish shots than you actually do.

This next shot isn’t quite gasp-worthy, but it’s another early-clock 20-footer that Smith needs to excise from his game:

Another major area for improvement for Smith is turnovers. In his eight games for New York, statistically he’s been OK in that department, but he really struggled as a rookie (as most rookie point guards do). And, in his first 32 games in Dallas this season, he turned the ball over on 18.7% of his used possessions, worse than 98% of other point guards, per Cleaning The Glass. Knicks fans started to see that side of him when he coughed up the ball five times in 22 minutes against the Timberwolves.

But, if DSJ and Frank take turns running the point, these are areas where the French guard can help Smith improve (or at least save him from himself). If Ntilikina is initiating the offense, Smith won’t be able to forfeit possessions with 20 seconds left on the shot clock or throw the ball away with such reckless abandon. Frank projects to be a more dependable, less turnover-prone lead guard. When he takes the reigns you can expect DSJ to play more of a Monta Ellis or Donovan Mitchell type of role.

Off-ball Defense

On defense is where Frank and DSJ can exist in harmony most clearly. Frank has as much defensive upside as any young guard in the league. He has the perfect combination of instincts, mentality and physical tools. Smith, on the other hand, has frequent lapses of judgement and effort on that end of the floor. Too often he’ll torpedo good defensive possessions just by spacing out and losing track of his man. Watch him for all 16 seconds of this clip and please tweet me if you can figure out what he’s doing:

Who is he guarding? Does he think they’re in a zone? Did it turn into an impromptu zone? I need answers as badly as DSJ needs a backcourt partner who can help cover up his mistakes. He routinely gets caught ball-watching:

He doesn’t just lose sight of his man. He seems to lose consciousness of their very existence. Check out this defensive blunder during a crucial possession in crunch time versus the Toronto Raptors:

Here’s the Knicks’ new reality: they have both Ntilikina and Smith. All the hand-ringing and second-guessing over that 2017 draft pick is moot.

Now, it will be David Fizdale’s responsibility to deploy both players in ways that give them opportunities to be successful. That should not be difficult. In today’s league where playmaking at all five positions is so highly coveted, having two point guards who can also play off the ball should be a boon, not a burden.