Kristaps Porzingis is not the only relocated player with zero love lost for his former team.
Dennis Smith Jr., the latest point guard of the future for the Knicks, arrived in New York following a tumultuous relationship with the Mavericks – one that included a bizarre six-game leave of absence last month.
So he’s happy about a new opportunity in New York. He just wanted the Mavericks to do it sooner.
“I just wish they would’ve did it before we got to play them the last time of the season,” Smith said. “I just want to play them. If they wanted to package me, (DeAndre Jordan) and (Wesley Matthews) and send us over here — I just wish they would have did it before we didn’t play them anymore. That’s it.”
Coincidentally, Smith’s final game with the Mavericks last week was in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks. He went off for a triple-double to cap the season series between teams, and the next day Smith was traded to the Knicks. Of the three players brought back for Porzingis, only Smith has real lasting potential.
But he’s not ready to detail what went wrong in Dallas. The rumor is he clashed with coach Rick Carlisle, and then decided to leave the team and push for a trade. He missed six games before returning. Asked if he’s more comfortable playing in coach David Fizdale’s free-flowing system as opposed to a reputed micromanager like Carlisle, Smith answered, “You said that, I ain’t say that. You go by what you hear. I definitely feel free playing here. I love it. I just love going out there and playing. He gives that freedom to everybody on the team. I feel like whenever you do that, you get guys to really play hard for you on both ends.”
The Knicks are certainly giving him every opportunity from the outset, with Smith starting the first day he arrived in New York and then playing a career-high 40 minutes in his second game Tuesday. In many ways, his arrival with the Knicks is an ironic twist to his NBA story – a story that includes Phil Jackson, LeBron James and Frank Ntilikina. In other ways, though, it’s not surprising since it represents another move from the Steve Mills regime to reverse Phil Jackson’s course.
“Everything comes full circle,” Smith said. “It was written, it must have been meant for me to be here, huh.”
Smith was skipped over by Jackson in the 2017 draft, but only after a strange dining experience during their predraft interview. According to Smith, Jackson forced him to eat an octopus tentacle. Smith reluctantly obliged and, a few days later, watched as the Knicks picked Ntilikina eighth overall pick.
Smith, seated next to rapper J. Cole at the draft (they’re from the same town in North Carolina), went ninth to the Mavericks. Within a month of his rookie season, LeBron James complimented Smith by taking a shot at Jackson, declaring, “The Knicks passed on a good one, and Dallas got the diamond in the rough.”
“When he said that I was just like, ‘Man, that’s one of the greatest to ever play this game showing love,’” Smith said. “That’s big bro. I appreciate it. I appreciate it. I took that as a compliment because that was a higher draft pick, obviously.”
The inference, of course, was that the Knicks made a mistake by drafting Ntilikina. And the Frenchman took it personally.
When the Knicks acquired Smith in the trade for Kristaps Porzingis, it felt symbolic of the direction under president Steve Mills. It was the second time Mills had brought aboard a player Jackson had either traded (Tim Hardaway Jr.) or passed over in the draft (Smith). It was also another move toward athleticism over defense and fundamentals.
Smith, after all, is an explosive point guard who is more adept at driving and scoring than dishing and defending. Ntilikina is the opposite.
Now they’re on the same team and Fizdale said he’ll play them together once Ntilikina recovers from his groin strain (assuming he isn’t traded by the deadline Thursday). We’ll see. In the meantime, Smith is going to represent the Knicks in the Slam Dunk contest.
And maybe eat a few octopus.