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2019-20 Knicks Season Preview: Dennis Smith Jr.

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It’s time for Smith Jr. to take the leap, and not just when he’s dunking.

Washington Wizards v New York Knicks
Here’s hoping Smith Jr. will be all smiles throughout next season.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Dennis Smith Jr. has spent the summer seeking to fine-tune his jump shot while putting shirtless workout sessions on video — not to mention being honored with a giant key to his home city of Fayetteville, North Carolina — but what really matters is whether it will all add up to a breakout third season in the NBA.

The 2019-20 campaign presents some serious opportunity for 21-year-old Smith Jr., who will turn 22 right around Thanksgiving. He’ll compete for minutes at point guard with newcomer Elfrid Payton and fan favorite/most hated player on the team Frank Ntilikina, and he’ll have a new big man partner in Julius Randle to tango with.

Like many other players, if Smith Jr.’s summer work was guaranteed to translate come the regular season, he would be headed for a monster year.

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Unfortunately, nothing is set in stone just yet. Let’s take a look at some of the main goals Smith Jr. should have heading into the new season, and discuss whether it seems likely he’ll accomplish them.

Staying healthy

The first step to having a successful NBA career is playing in a lot of games, because being on the floor gives you a chance to put up big numbers and make huge plays that cement a legacy. Staying healthy is one area Smith Jr. has struggled with throughout his young career, dating back to a torn ACL that sidelined him for his entire senior year of high school.

Some Knicks fans have made a habit of joking about the laundry list of injuries suffered by Kristaps Porzingis early on in his career as they attempt to convince themselves he didn’t have the potential to be a generational talent, but look at this list of the various afflictions that have forced Smith Jr. to miss time since he was drafted 9th overall by the Dallas Mavericks in 2017.

The 6’3” guard played 69 games in his debut season, which is certainly funny and isn’t that bad, but also isn’t great when you think really think about it. Young guys are supposed to have way less trouble with ailments than their elders, so it’s definitely a concern that rookie Smith Jr. missed 13 games because of issues like knee soreness, a left hip strain and a sprained left ankle.

If we’re being frank, those 13 missed games would have been no big deal if it wasn’t for the fact that Smith Jr. missed basically double that amount in his sophomore season. He sat out 19 games prior to the February trade that brought him to New York, and then once he was a member of the Knicks he missed another 11 games, bringing the total amount of games not played during his second season to 30 (in an interesting wrinkle, because of the trade he could have technically played in 83 games last year).

The MIA’s from last season can be attributed to issues including a right wrist sprain and back pain. All in all, Smith Jr. has missed about 26 percent of the games he could have played in thus far in his young NBA career, which isn’t quite Cal Ripken Jr.-esque.

Smith Jr. should strive to play in 82 games this year. Heck, we’ll take 75. Let’s just try to get these injury issues under control.

Improving his shooting percentage

Smith Jr.’s proponents often say that, if he can just improve as a shooter, he’ll be a terrifying force to be reckoned with. Those people are right, but all that means is that he’s got a lot of work to do.

He’s apparently been doing that work all summer, spending countless hours in the gym with Knicks assistant coach Keith Smart and tweaking the mechanics of his jumper. That last thing is actually kind of scary to consider, although hopefully it leads to improved shooting percentages this year.

“It’s a big difference,’’ Smith said, according to the New York Post. “I can’t give it a percent. [But] I can feel it. Everybody can see it from my pops and my friends. So adding that into my game, getting consistent with it, is going to open up the floor not only for me, but everybody else and make my reads a lot easier. So it’s major for me.’’

It best be major, because a cursory glance at Smith Jr.’s shooting percentages to date is concerning. He was pretty darn good last year when less than five feet from the basket, shooting 55.6 percent, and he’s not too bad between 15 and 19 feet out, where he shot 48.1 percent, according to stats.NBA.com. Everywhere else, his shooting is problematic to say the least. Especially from deep, where he shot 32.2 percent overall last season and a dismal 29.8 percent during his time with the Knicks.

In total, Smith Jr. is currently a 40.7 percent overall field goal shooter for his career, including just 31.6 percent from three. Hike those percentages up a bit and defenders will have to focus far more on closing out when Smith Jr. has the ball. That’ll open up the lane for him to drive, and as noted above, he’s good at putting the ball through the rim when he’s shooting from less than five feet.

And hey, maybe this year he can make up for last year’s performance in the dunk contest. Smith Jr. seems jumpy and ready to dunk.

Getting to the free throw line more, and shooting better once he’s there

There’s a slight redundancy in this section, but Smith Jr. absolutely needs to improve as free throw shooter if he wants to become a true threat. Coupled with his 66.8 career free throw percentage needing to go up is the fact that he generally needs to get to the line more.

As a rookie, Smith Jr. got to the line 2.8 times a game, and last year he upped that figure to 2.9, good for 95th overall in free throw attempts per game, according to basketball-reference.com. Once he was on the Knicks, he averaged 3.5 free throws per game in 21 total contests, so hopefully he can keep up that pace for a full season, or improve upon it.

Just as important as how often he gets to the line, of course, is how he shoots when he gets there. As noted above, he has shot 66.8 percent overall from the stripe over his two seasons in the league, but it’s troubling to see that he dropped from 69.4 percent in year one to 63.5 percent in year two. Meanwhile, with the Knicks, he was a barf-worthy 56.8 percent from the line.

If Smith Jr. thinks he’s going to be a star in this league, he better start improving that free throw percentage quickly and significantly. Anything lower than 70 percent this year would be a disappointment.

Earning the starting job

Smith Jr.’s high-flying antics and general potential means the job of starting point guard is right there for the taking. So he should aim to take it.

Smith Jr. started in 18 of the 21 games he played with the Knicks last season, and this year he’ll be fighting against Payton and Ntilikina. Payton certainly plans to try and wrestle that starting job away from his teammates, as he reportedly chose the Knicks even though six teams inquired about him during free agency.

One thing Smith Jr. needs to decide is whether he wants to be a true point guard or more of a combo guard who is best suited to play alongside another point man. He’s a little tiny bit short for the latter, unless Ntilikina, who is now 6’7”, is the second guard starting alongside him.

In order to be the starting point guard, Smith Jr. is going to have to run the offense, which means getting into the paint and either scoring, drawing fouls or dishing dimes. For his career, Smith Jr. is averaging 14.5 points and 5 assists per game, and while both figures could stand to be increased, the latter is very important when it comes to earning the starting job.

He’ll also have to be a net positive on the defensive side of the floor, which means improving as both an individual and team defender. Defensive stats are notoriously tricky, but because of his general athleticism, Smith Jr. has the tools to be, at the very least, an adequate player on the defensive side of the ball.

If Smith Jr. can develop some chemistry with Randle and improve in all the areas we’ve discussed, it’ll be tough for David Fizdale to bench him, and teams will have more difficulty beating up on the Knicks.

Doing a 900 dunk

We’ve all seen Tony Hawk perform this incredible feat on a skateboard, but can Smith Jr. be the first basketballer to successfully complete two and a half spins before flushing the ball through the hoop during an NBA game?

The answer is almost definitely no, as the physics of such a feat seems infeasible, but it’s good to reach for the sky, particularly when you’re dunking.

Good luck this year, Dennis! We’re all rooting for you.