In the aftermath of the shocking trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas, Dennis Smith Jr. has produced a pair of thrilling, high-scoring games: back-to-back 25 and 31 point outings against Detroit, a top 10 defense. As the only long-term prospect New York acquired in the deal, Smith’s continued development is fundamental to the Knicks’ success. So how’s he doing?
Unlike his time in Dallas, Smith has a chance to run a team, with all the complexities that come along with it. How he handles that responsibility will be key, because in this league, if you’re not an elite scoring guard and you can’t run your team, you slot yourself right into a bench role.
Offensively, Smith is a scoring guard, a “volume shooter.” He’ll get his shots up, don’t you worry, but they won’t always be great looks. For his career, Smith has exactly one game with 20 points on fewer than 15 FGA. Poor shot selection generally leads to inconsistent play, which is how you go from 31 points one night to 13 points on 4-for-17 shooting the next.
Smith does have a really good ability to beat defenders off the dribble, and is not afraid to get to the rim and finish over defenders. He believes he’s going to make something happen if the ball is in his hands. But he needs to develop a plan.
The best guards in this league set defenses up for what they are going to do. They slow the game down, know how to use screens and both read and manipulate defenses. Smith isn’t there yet. He tends to make up his mind before a play even begins, coming off the pick-and-roll and pulling up or overpenetrating no matter what the defense is doing. He will have to learn how to change speeds to avoid over penetrating and forcing himself into a pass or finish that isn’t there.
That development would be aided greatly with a more consistent jumper. If you watched Smith’s two big scoring games against Detroit, you saw that the key to those nights was simple: He had his jumpshot going. Combined with his ability to get to the rim, it makes him a nightmare. When the jumper isn’t falling, there’s nothing to stop a team from deciding to slide under his P&R or keep a big back to encourage him to take that kind of shot.
The next step is finding ways to make sure he’s taking shots in rhythm rather than forcing them up. One priority there will be to make his jumper a consistent motion in all situations. Right now there are some inconsistencies: Pure spot up it’s a little slower, and off the dribble he has a more natural motion. Consistency breeds rhythm, and with rhythm comes made buckets. It’s reasonable to think the Kemba Walker of today vs. the one of his early years.
While Smith’s scoring has been feast or famine, he’s also shown flashes of outstanding passing ability. In transition he definitely looks for his teammates, likes to find Jordan or find a shooter on the wing. He’s more inconsistent in the half court but he has shown an ability to draw the defense in using pick-and-roll and kick to an open shooter. He likes to throw the pocket pass to Jordan in side pick-and-roll situations, but has to work on the timing – he sometimes forces it or throws it when he should skip to the weak side. Those are the kind of plays that should excite people about his development long term. He’s definitely trying to do the right things night in and night out. Those are good, healthy tendencies that he wants to grow on because it will help his game and help him develop.
Defensively is where Smith has the most room to grow. He’s a very inconsistent and non-active weak side defender. I’m not sure if it’s awareness or effort but he’s a step slow in reacting and navigating screens, often losing shooters and being behind the play. The Raptors were able to spring Lowry free off the ball by having him set screens and fly off others for a dribble handoff or a catch and shoot 3. If his man was spotted up he was either standing and ball watching or over-helping and taking himself out of position.
In this day and age, with the kind of movement the best offenses are utilizing, you can’t ball watch as much as Smith Jr does in the halfcourt. Staying aware, communicating, being a little bit more physical and in-tune off the ball will do him wonders.
The one thing Smith provides the Knicks and their fans is hope. New York is a basketball town, and more than that, it’s a point guard town. To have a player who can score, who can handle, with that kind of athleticism is a positive. But for that hope to pay off he will have to make the most of this opportunity by not just producing big numbers, but playing the right way.
Editor’s note: Steve Jones is a former assistant coach for the Nets, and a former video analyst for the Grizzlies. Follow him on Twitter here.