The 2019-2020 NBA Season was beyond disappointing for the New York Knicks and Dennis Smith Jr. A lingering back injury and the unfortunate passing of his stepmother put a huge damper on what many believed would be a breakout season for Smith. Per Basketball Reference, Smith was limited to only 34 games this season posting career lows in minutes per game (15.8), points per game (5.5), assists per game (2.9), field goal percentage (34.1%), etc. the list goes on. Smith also lost his starting job from the previous season to Elfrid Payton and mentally never seemed to be comfortable with the role he was given after that. He produced historically bad by numbers this season and there were times where he was completely unplayable and deserved all of the benching that received for his poor play.
However, I believe the Knicks did an extremely poor job developing Smith and instilling confidence in him to be the best version of himself on the court, and putting him in situations in which he could be successful. Because of Smith’s poor play, he went from being one of the core pieces of the Knicks future from the Kristaps Porzingis trade, to an expendable trade candidate who Knicks brass has seemingly lost all faith in. Smith could have really used some developmental minutes in the GLeague this past season in an environment where he could make mistakes and get his confidence back on the court. Now that the season is basically over, what matters most is helping Smith realize the potential we all felt he had prior to the disastrous season that was 2019-2020.
With that said, Smith did have some impactful moments this season when he was playing well. His play, in conjunction with many others and a clutch Marcus Morris, was integral in the Dallas win at home this season, and he shined in a road game against the Houston Rockets that led to him nabbing a career high 7 steals. Smith’s long-term value with the team hinges on his ability to improve his shooting, play solid defense, and create shots for his teammates at a high level. Although Smith isn’t a great defender, I’m not worried about his defense. When fully engaged he can keep his man in front of him and be pesky in the passing lanes (1.9 steals per 36 minutes). Smith was starting to come around on defense and I’m optimistic that he will continue to improve on that end as he gets older, smarter, and the defensive schemes for the Knicks continue to improve.
Smith’s ability to get into the paint is an underused tool of his that could take his shot creating for others to a higher level. His hesitation and first step are lethal and make it difficult for defenders to stay in front of Smith. He is more than capable of hitting open shooters on drive and kickouts or catching divers for lobs & dump passes and could benefit from a heavy dosage of pick roll with Mitchell Robinson surrounded by shooters (Dotson, Bullock, Knox, Portis).
Check out this video from TheKnicksWall to see Smith running the offense at his best and showing the type of dynamic that he can bring to the team when he is playing well.
I’m sure Knicks fans remember this game vividly, but here we see Smith get into the paint at will and either connect with Mitchell Robinson for an easy bucket or slither through the paint to create an easy look for himself. We also see him get his teammates involved well with assists in transition or early in the shot clock to Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, and Dameyean Dotson. We even see Smith hit a couple of threes which really opens up the offense for himself and the Knicks and ended up being a major factor in the win. Whether starting or coming off the bench, this version of Dennis Smith Jr is the version the Knicks desperately need, and I believe there is evidence in numbers that provide some credibility to his ability contribute to winning basketball.
Making the Case
Fact: The Knicks were 5-5 in games played in which Dennis Smith Jr accumulated at least 5 assists.
Fact: The Knicks were 4-6 in games played in which Dennis Smith Jr played at least 19 minutes. In a season that the Knicks only won 21 games, there is a true silver lining in all the bad there was this past season for Smith, being that when he played well the team tended to play well.
However, Smith did not play well often and he has much to improve on before he can become a regular fixture in the rotation again. Aside from the obvious shooting, Smith needs to improve his decision making. He turned the ball over way too much and at times looked as if he wasn’t sure what to do with the ball particularly in transition. He didn’t have confidence in his jump-shot, and this extremely limited his options on offense and his ability to create shots for others. Smith has all of the tools necessary and is plenty capable of being a high-level distributor. His athleticism and quickness are tantalizing, and I hope the Knicks get a real shooting coach to help him right the ship on the aspect of his game holding him back from reaching his potential.
One suggestion would be for him to drastically decrease the number of long and mid-range twos he is taking. Smith made 18-82 (21.9%) mid-range shots last season, which to put it nicely, is simply not good. Decreasing the number of mid-range and long two-point shots and increasing the number of shots at the rim for Smith will certainly help to alleviate the strain on his FG% and eFG%. Despite shooting 29.6% from three for the season, Smith did manage to shoot 36.8% from three during the month of November on 2.1 attempts per game. If you count the December 1st game in which he went 2-3 from three, we’re looking at a 10-game stretch that Smith shot 9/22 from three good for 40.9% and just what the Knicks need out of one of its point guards. A small sample size obviously, but one that provides a glimmer of hope for the struggling young guard.
Going forward I would argue that Dennis Smith Jr is worth prioritizing as the backup point guard for the 2020-2021 season. The Knicks should decline Elfrid Payton’s option, draft a point guard, and let that point guard, Smith, and Frank Ntilikina split minutes so that we can provide Smith and our soon to be prized point guard draft pick the amount of time on the court they will need to develop at a steady rate. I am particularly in favor of getting Smith more minutes next to Frank Ntilikina as we have yet to see them really share the floor together like we originally thought we were going to.
ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight has some very interesting predictions about Dennis Smith Jr’s value over the next few years. I took a look at Elfrid Payton’s RAPTOR rating vs. Dennis Smith Jr’s and was intrigued at what I saw. For the upcoming 2020-2021 season Smith is projected to produce a combined RAPTOR rating of -0.6 and a projected Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 1.9. Elfrid Payton for example, is projected to produce a RAPTOR rating of -0.9 and a WAR of 1.5. The results bring rise to the question "Does Elfrid Payton’s contributions help facilitate winning basketball for the Knicks?". The answer to that question is up for debate, but I would much rather see the Knicks put more stock in the future of what Dennis Smith Jr can be over what Elfrid Payton currently is. For what it’s worth, Smith is projected to improve his RAPTOR rating on offense by 2 full points for the 2020 season while remaining a net positive on defense. His play is as polarizing as any on the team but there is still reason to believe Smith can have a successful future with the Knicks.
To me, the best-case scenario for Smith is he performs well and his improved play becomes important to the future for the Knicks like it was originally supposed to be and we keep him (a win in my book), or he ultimately can be traded to a better situation for him with increased value due to his better play. The worst-case scenario is he continues to play poorly, and we trade him for whoever is willing to take him and continue to move forward with whatever future point guard plans we have. When it’s all said in done, that might not even be the worst-case scenario and we’re already going to be adding one if not two points guards to the mix through the draft this year and potentially free agency (Fred Vanvleet anyone?). Despite that, I find it hard to give up on a young player who showed so much promise when he initially came into the league. The Knicks made the choice to trade for him, they owe it to themselves to find a way to get the maximum value out of him. To Dennis Smith Jr, I’m rooting for you and hope that you are able to come back stronger for the upcoming season in orange and blue. Thanks for reading!