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Know The Prospect: Dennis Smith Jr.

One of the most divisive players in the draft might very well be available when the Knicks pick.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Clemson vs NC State Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Here are the per-game numbers put up last season by four college point guards:

Player A: 35 minutes/18 points/6 assists/3 TOs/5 rebounds/2 steals/51% 2P/36% 3P
Player B: 36 minutes/23 points/6 assists/3 TOs/6 rebounds/2 steals/50% 2P/41% 3P
Player C: 35 minutes/15 points/8 assists/3 TOs/6 rebounds/2 steals/73% 2P/41% 3P
Player D: 30 minutes/17 points/5 assists/2 TOs/4 rebounds/2 steals/52% 2P/25% 3P

Pretty similar stuff. The only outliers are Player C’s two-point percentage and player D’s three-point percentage. Player A is Dennis Smith Jr. B is Markelle Fultz. C is Lonzo Ball. D is De’Aaron Fox.

Why is Ball so extremely successful shooting twos? Look at his shot chart:

Only 6% of Ball’s 343 shots were midrange. He was pretty much designed in a lab by Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni, a new strain of organism about to be introduced to a pace-and-space, 3 > 2 ecosystem he seems - on paper - designed to flourish in. But Ball also possesses potentially seismic eccentricities, both invented and inherited, and eccentricities catch the eyes of predators. Compare his chart to Fox’s.

Fox is a coin flip; if his jumper never comes along, he may well be defined as much by a singular weakness as any or all of his strengths. His production per minute exceeds the others’, but he can’t shoot, at least not yet, and no player can out-quick an absentee J. John Wall shot more threes his one year at Kentucky (114 attempts vs. Fox’s 69) and shot them better (33% to 25%). Wall didn’t develop a decent jumper until his fourth season; he’s been an All-Star ever since. Fox’s ceiling is high, but there are a lot of highly touted “all he needs is a jumper” starlets who never did get what they need, and end up immortalized not for hitting the shot that wins a playoff game, or a playoff series, or a championship, but for laughing at a missed free throw.

More orthodox than Ball, more plug-and-play than Fox, Dennis Smith Jr. is the spork of lottery point guards. He’s got quicks and bursts.

He does it all on offense: a dart of light in transition; a smooth finisher with either hand around the basket; able to create for himself and teammates off the dribble; a capable, if not improving three-point shooter (better in college than in high school); an explosive, powerful athlete who should find the NBA’s guard-friendly rules much to his liking. Here he is with as fun a dunk that didn’t count as you’ll ever see.

Here’s one that did count.

And another.

It appears the young man is able to accept criticism and use it to fuel future success.

Game recognize game.

40% of his shots came at the rim; he converted two-thirds of them. 36% were three-pointers, and he hit more threes than Fultz, Wall, James Harden and Isaiah Thomas did as freshmen. He’s unafraid of contact, which was not something you could say about Derrick Rose last year (not saying Rose’s fear was unjustified; just saying it’s not how you’d draw up your ideal point guard).

Smith got to the free throw line six times a game; his free throw rate (# of free throws per 100 FG attempts) of 48.6% is tops among all guards in the draft. He’s a playmaker.

But he isn’t a “classic playmaker,” people say. Not an “impact passer.” What was his ceiling as a distributor, though, given the roster around him? Ball played with T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu, both likely first-round picks. Fox played with fellow lottery-lock Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo, who’s also expected to hear his name called draft night. The only Wolfpack besides Smith in DraftExpress’ top 100 NBA prospects is Omer Yurtseven, number 62. Smith actually played with a better roster than Fultz, but N.C. State also played a tougher schedule: 17 of their 19 conference games came against teams that made the NCAA Tournament (12 games) or NIT (5 games). His production in those games was similar to his season averages, showing he didn’t just fatten up on the schedule’s weaker sisters.

Not only was the schedule challenging, but Smith’s teammates lacked some of skills that would open things up for him and, by extension, create more passing avenues as well. Kevin O’Connor wrote, “None of the big men in the Wolfpack rotation (Yurtseven, Abdul-Malik Abu, Ted Kapita, BeeJay Anya) could shoot 3s, so opposing teams packed the paint to take away Smith’s drives to the basket.” Despite this, Smith still won ACC Freshman of the Year honors, only the second N.C. State player ever to win the award, the first being the immortal Hawkeye Whitney. He also led the ACC in assists, assists per game, and assist percentage.

There are other concerns; there always are. The Wolfpack were 16-17 the year before Smith arrived, and just 15-17 his one season there. He tore an ACL 15 months before his college career. He has a tendency to miss badly on step-back jumpers. Pull-ups set up his attacking moves, so this is a legitimate eyebrow-raise. There were numerous instances where Smith, facing perimeter pressure, picked up his dribble with no way out, or picked up his dribble when facing no pressure, for no apparent reason, which invited pressure and turnovers; Walt Frazier will go hoarse bemoaning this if DSJ ends up a Knick. 25% of Smith’s turnovers came out of pick-and-rolls, which would be more of a concern if he was joining a team committed to that action, but it’s still a concern.

Smith’s season ended disappointingly, a 14-8 start sabotaged by losses in 10 of their last 11, including seven in a row. In those last 11 games, Smith scored eight points or fewer three times. Three out of six months, he shot below 33% from the field. As for his defense, per Jonathan Tjarks:

“[Smith] has a below-average reach for a player his size (6-foot-3 wingspan), making it difficult for him to contest shots. According to Synergy Sports, Smith was in the 14th percentile of players in the country at defending spot-up shots...Switching screens will be difficult for Smith at the next level, as bigger players can shoot over the top of him pretty easily.

“According, N.C. State’s defensive rating was five points higher (allowing 111 points per 100 possessions) when he was on the floor than it was when he was off (allowing 106 points). Those numbers aren’t hard to believe when you see the effort level that Smith put in on defense. To be charitable, he wasn’t in Raleigh to lock anyone up. In [one] sequence, Smith strolls around the middle of the lane for a few seconds rather than go after the defensive board. This is the kind of play that will cause his NBA coaches to consider benching him, if not outright skewering him.”

I work with college students. It’s remarkable how much their effort can improve over the course of just a single semester, much less a year or years. Smith is 19. It’s possible him appearing lazy indicates he’ll never care enough about the defensive side of things to be a two-way player. It’s also possible he’s not as diligent or impactful at 19 as he will be as 25 because most people are better at something six years from now than they are now. Toney Douglas was ACC Defensive Player of the Year. You miss Toney Douglas?

Imagine how Smith’s game could explode paired with Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez, and possibly Carmelo Anthony. Compared to the bigs he played with in college, that’s a quantum leap. Imagine KP paired with a running mate who’s as explosive as Rose, if not more so, but who’s actually willing to pass Porzingis the ball sometimes.

Imagine the value in the Knicks having a second impact youngster. Again, per O’Connor:

“The league’s last 25 champions had starting point guards with an average salary accounting for only 11.3 percent of that year’s cap. That’s the equivalent of $10.6 million (or, nearly, Austin Rivers’s 2016–17 salary) under this season’s enormous $94.1 million salary cap. Only two of the championship point guards have accounted for slightly over 20 percent of a cap (Tony Parker in 2014 and Irving in 2016).”

If Derrick Rose re-signs with the Knicks, he’s going to make $20+ million per year. Smith’s contract would be similar to last year’s eighth pick, Marquese Chriss, who’ll earn just $13M total over his first four years.

Dennis Smith Jr. does not threaten our dearest-held notions of what’s humanly possible the way other players can. His floor may be higher than most prospects, but his ceiling doesn’t feel as cathedral-y as, say, Lonzo Ball. But I’m hesitant to quarrel with the thought of the Knicks drafting Smith in a league and an era where each of the two superpowers feature explosive 6’3” guards whose defense is, shall we say, unheralded.

The fact that Rose didn’t help the Knicks win in 2017 has nothing to do with whether Smith can help the Knicks win in 2021. I can’t help wondering if some of the anti-Smith sentiment is due to PRSD (post-Rose stress disorder). If the 2016 Knicks had had a draft pick and drafted DSJ that summer, I feel like there would have been more joy, more excitement. Now I feel like Smith’s rep is stuck doing Rose’s time.

This isn’t to say he’s a slam dunk. Nor am I claiming Smith over, say, Frank Ntilikina is a no-brainer; the Belgian has enough going for him to warrant consideration, too. They’re the two guards most likely to be available when New York’s due to pick. You can certainly argue the bedrock of most contenders is two-way talent, and thus pairing Porzingis and Ntilikina, so young and so long, and so European — a.k.a. fundamentally sound — makes sense going forward. So does drafting Smith, who’d be the team’s most explosive guard in 40 drafts.

Can Smith be the third-best player on a championship team? I think so. That’s Kevin Love/Klay Thompson/Chris Bosh territory. None of those players, except maybe Klay on a hot night, threaten our notions of what’s possible. Yet each was/is a critical piece of a championship team. One major reason the Cavaliers could clear cap space to bring LeBron James back was because Kyrie Irving was still on his team-friendly rookie contract. The Warriors could go after Kevin Durant thanks to three rotation players still being on their rookie contracts. The Knicks are a long way from chasing the LeBrons and KDs of the world, or titles. But adding another big-three talent to their stable alongside the Unicorn could give them some permaculture going forward, for once.

While Smith does have a major injury in his history already, his body is already NBA-ready. Porzingis has missed 26 games his first two seasons. Maybe that doesn’t matter - Patrick Ewing missed twice as many his first two years. But if it comes down Ntilikina versus DSJ, you’re choosing between a 19-year-old with a pro physique versus an 18-year-old who needs time to put on weight, and the player you’re pairing them with going forward has yet to show he can play 78-82 games a year.

Where is the organization’s focus? The present? Or the future? No man can serve two masters. Moses led his people to the promised land, but he himself never made it there. Would Phil Jackson pick the best player available, even if he isn’t Trianglerrific? Or would he prefer a more system-friendly project, an investment in a post-Phil future? What if Fultz, Ball, Fox, Monk, and Ntilikina are all gone by the eighth pick? There are worse consolation prizes than a guy who has some Russell Westbrook in him.