When the Knicks selected Frank Ntilikina with the 8th pick of the 2017 draft, there was another guard available who many fans and pundits thought more highly of. Dennis Smith Jr. was taken one spot later, by a Dallas organization that made sure to pat itself on the back loudly enough for everyone to notice.
Rick Carlisle leaves no doubt Mavs wanted Dennis Smith over Frank Ntilikina, saying there was "uproarious" applause when Knicks made pick.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) June 23, 2017
Reaction to Frank in these parts was far from uproarious.
Since winning a title in 2011, the Mavs have missed the playoffs four years out of eight and failed to advance past the first round the other years despite Dirk being just 32 after they’d won it all and still having three All-Star seasons left in him. I can’t remember an NBA champion falling so fast from that high to that low (after Chicago’s second three-peat Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson didn’t return). Maybe Team Cuban, like our beloved Knickerbockers, is not “a model of intelligent management.”
My purpose is not to slander the Mavericks, but to illustrate how and why it’s impossible to speculate on Smith’s future in New York without contextualizing his past in Dallas. And to be fair to the Mavs, their roster when they selected DSJ looked very different one year later. Not because of some glitch. Because of a Dončić.
In New York, Smith’s primary partners will be Emmanuel Mudiay and Ntilikina. At first glance, the troika’s numbers can appear eerily similar.
At second glance, too.
By way of comparison, as of Saturday Luka had generated nearly twice as many Dallas points via assists (640) as Smith (340). Dončić has assisted on 11% of Dallas’ total points this season; add in points scored and that figure jumps to nearly 30% of the team’s total, versus 14% for Smith. But DSJ has played nearly 700 fewer minutes than Luka. If we calculate points per game generated, it’s 34-24 in favor of the Slovenian sensation. Luka is higher. Luka should be: his usage percentage is 28.6%, versus 23.1% for DSJ. Luka gets to do more because he’s better.
But here’s where context kicks in.
Mudiay has generated a little less than 18% of New York’s total points, Ntilikina a little under 10%. In 337 more minutes than Dončić, Mudiay and Ntilikina have created 180 fewer points combined. On a nightly basis that’s 24 per for Mudiay, 13 for Frank. DSJ is Robin going from teaming up with Batman to the Teen Titans. Smith and Doncic, for all their individual skills and flairs, were a net negative together.
In some ways, Smith’s entering a situation similar to what he experienced at N.C. State. From P&T’s award-winning Know The Prospect series (coming soon to a website near you!), our review of DSJ touched on something that separated him from the other top point guards in that draft class:
“[Lonzo] Ball played with T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu, both likely first-round picks [Anigbogu went in the second round]. [De’Aaron] Fox played with fellow lottery-lock Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo, who’s also expected to hear his name called draft night [Adebayo was selected late in the lottery]. The only Wolfpack besides Smith in DraftExpress’ top 100 NBA prospects is Omer Yurtseven, number 62.”
There’s more. There always is:
“Smith’s teammates lacked some of the 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.’”
The only Knicks big man left who’s shot a high number of threes at an above-average clip is Luke Kornet, who ranks 14th on the team in minutes. Figure he’ll play more these final two months, but the point is it’s not like Smith is pairing up with Kristaps Porz—sorry. Too soon?
The Knicks have 31 games left and will lose at least two-thirds of them. Smith will play alongside youngsters auditioning for the future and one or two vets who know they aren’t long for this team. This is what Smith’s shot chart looked like in college, when he played for a losing team with not-so-great talent around him:
Dennis Smith Jr is the #9 pick, goes to the Dallas Mavericks pic.twitter.com/cGFtDYSjCE— ChartSide (@chart_side) June 23, 2017
You see where his strengths lie: elbow threes and at the rim.
Now look at Smith’s shot chart this year in Dallas.
Smith’s pro shot chart interests me because it’s one of several pieces of evidence showing strong parallels between his game as a collegian and a pro. Most of his looks are still elbow threes and attempts at the rim. At N.C. State 36% of his shots were from downtown; this year that number is 35%. In college he made 36% of his threes. This year? 34%. With the Wolf Pack there were no big men who could space the floor. Smith’s rookie year in Dallas, the only Mav taller than 6’8” to attempt more than four threes per game was 39-year-old Dirk Nowitzki. The only Knick that tall shooting that much from deep this year is 19-year-old Kevin Knox.
Remember that fact when April rolls around and people are tossing dirt on Smith’s grave because he’s looked more like a promise than an All-Star.
Some concerns have persisted in his transition to the pro game. Smith turned it over way too much in college and still does; his turnover rate of 20.3% is way higher than Ntilikina (15.8%) and Mudiay (13.4%).
If the turnovers were reduced, Smith’s playmaking would stand out more.
Mitchell Robinson, these could be you.
Quick aside: the following clip counts as an assist for Smith.
This one, too.
One change in his game you hope changes back: his free throw rate (the number of free throws attempted per 100 field goal attempts) at N.C. State was .486, tops among guards in his draft class. In two years in the NBA, it’s been .188 and .230. Eight Knicks have a higher rate this year. Even Knox. Even (gulp) Lance Thomas.
Changes you hope stick: Smith’s taking more shots at the rim from last season (32%) to this (38%). His three-point attempts are up, if only a tick. Besides a minuscule drop in his accuracy at the iron (61% to 59%), his field goal percentage is otherwise up across the board. He’s getting blocked just once per game this year; last year that number was 40% higher.
As far as Smith’s defense, we usually hear it’s not there.
Or that he doesn’t care.
Context: Dallas’ defensive rating with him on the floor the past two seasons was 111.9. With him off, it was 110.1. So while he wasn’t solving the problem, he also wasn’t the problem (gracias to Ashwin Ramnath for those numbers).
He’ll be just 21 at the start of next season. At $4.4M next season and a team option for $5.6M the year after, Smith offers financial flexibility. Two years ago, 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).”
As I wrote in Smith’s KTP, “I’m hesitant to quarrel with...Smith in a league and an era where each of the two superpowers [at the time this was written, Cleveland was still a superpower] feature explosive 6’3” guards whose defense is, shall we say, unheralded.” Most contenders nowadays are not led by two-way guards. Most don’t feature a starting lineup of five two-way players. Sub-par individual defenders can be masked or supported by a strong team scheme. Ask not what your young combo guard can’t do; ask what your team can do to help him do what he does best.
If the Knicks land Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, Smith is a cheap and intriguing third option. If they sign Kyrie Irving, Smith is either an overqualified sixth man devouring bench lineups or a low-cost youngster with upside some team would be happy to trade for.
While Smith is the biggest name the Knicks received in the Porzingis trade, it’s important to contextualize what he is and isn’t. He is a 21-year-old combo guard with explosive athleticism and potential, on the offensive end. He’s three years removed from high school. He isn’t the end-game of the Porzingis trade, but one of several potentialities. He isn’t trying to break into Portland’s backcourt, nor Portland’s, nor Golden State’s. He’s already the best guard on this team. He’s not without flaws. He is untapped, unknown upside. The Knicks shouldn’t pat themselves on the back. But they, and maybe we, can allow a small smile.