Will a rusty preseason performance by Dennis Smith Jr. thwart a year of maturity for the third-year point guard?

The Knicks’ reputation is going to be closely tied to the growth and career trajectory of Dennis Smith Jr.

After taking a lot of heat for trading a generational talent who shall not be named, the Knicks front office was left with Dennis Smith and two future draft picks to sell the fanbase on as the future. It was sort of a “fine, HERE,” to all the people who were livid about the selection of Frank Ntilikina over Smith two years prior. But since Smith was the crown jewel of the trade, both him and the big guy in Dallas will be watched closely by the NBA at large, if for no other reason than people love it when the Knicks do something wrong. That’s a lot of pressure on Smith, especially when Luka Doncic’s partner starts the season hot, which he usually does.

First things first, though—Smith is just 21. Point guard is the hardest position in the NBA to learn; there’s a lot of room for growth. That being said, he wasn’t very good last season and isn’t likely to be great this season. It takes time to learn the intricacies of the position, like how every eye or shoulder movement can affect a play, or how help defenses rotate in reaction to a single step. It takes a while to recognize those things, but even longer to start thinking ahead of them in real time. So Smith has time to figure it out, even if it doesn’t feel like it, since NBA fans are going to spend the whole season shitting on the Knicks every time he misses a shot.

Getting Over the Shooting Hump

The first major hurdle for his development is shooting. Unless you’re a physical monster like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ben Simmons, you have to be able to shoot to be an effective lead guard in this league. Here are Smith’s shooting splits over the first two seasons of his career

That’s a lot of cold shooting. Having a respected jumper opens up new angles of attack, and it’ll be much harder to keep progressing in the rest of his game if he can’t get his shooting at least up to par. It’s encouraging that Smith spent the summer honing in on that specific component of his game, though. He worked with Knicks assistant coach and supposed “shot doctor” Keith Smart to reconstruct his form from the bottom up. They isolated very specific motions within the shot to reshape his form, starting with Smith sitting in a chair and working on his shoulder motions for a full week to start the summer. Smart said his main goal was to get Smith more balance on his shot. Re-learning fundamentals like that is a long and tedious process, and you often get worse before you get better while trying to become comfortable.

My high school tennis coach was trying to reconstruct my backhand as a junior, and he told me a story about John McEnroe that’s stuck with me for a long time. He said that McEnroe was hovering in the area of 10th to 15th best player in the world, and he wasn’t making much progress in breaking in to the higher tier. His coach realized that in order for him to reach his full potential, he needed to switch to a one-handed backhand for more touch and control. So they began working on it, and while they were in the process, poor John went more than a full year without winning a single professional tennis match. But if he never had switched to the one-hander, he wouldn’t have become the tennis player he did. This is all to say that, even if Smith struggles with shooting this year, it’s a good thing that he was willing to put in the time and make the commitment to restructuring his jumper.

Vision and Passing

Like McEnroe, Smith needs more control of the game. It feels like Knicks games happen around him and he’s just a participant responding to actions—rather than the forcing action to which others respond. When De’Aaron Fox takes off running down the court, all eyes are on him and he sends defenses in to panic mode. When it looks like Curry might slip open for a three, four defenders get out of position to respond, which opens space up for everyone else.

The game still needs to slow down for Smith. He has crazy quick twitch muscles, but it’s almost like his body is moving ahead of his mind right now. That control doesn’t necessarily come for everyone, and it’ll take patience on the part of the front office to see if guys like him and Ntilikina will ever get there. And for someone considered to be a “fast guard,” he doesn’t push the pace all that much, though it was encouraging to see him try in the preseason.

Managing the Point Guard Competition

Elfrid Payton’s presence on the team is just eating in to our other guards’ development. He was a foolish signing, and it’d be even worse if David Fizdale gives him serious rotation minutes just because he can put up an occasional 12-10-10 line. Those smelling another Emmanuel Mudiay situation are probably correct.

While Payton possesses more natural vision than Smith (or Mudiay), Smith is an underrated passer. Last year as a Knick, he assisted on 33% of all buckets while he was on the floor. That could be due to a lack of other options who could create anything, but it was still good enough to put him in the 89th percentile among guards, per Cleaning the Glass.

He typically makes the right reads, but you never see him make overly complex ones, or manipulating defenses to open someone up a pass like Trae Young does. He’s not preternaturally gifted with that type of vision, but you don’t have to be to end up a solid passer in the floor general role. Plus, he’s more in the mold of a scoring guard anyway.

While there will be lots of hammer emoji dunks this season, there’s sure to be a lot of off-the-dribble threes bricked and blown defensive assignments, too. That roller coaster is part of the fun of being a fan of rebuilding teams. Progress means watching the good reads and made threes become more frequent while the lapses become fewer and further between.

I could be wrong; Smith could make a major leap this year in which the game slows down for him. I didn’t expect it to happen for Fox in his second year, but it did. More likely, Smith going to struggle, so we’ll just have to enjoy the progression and tweet through the 2020 offseason that the jump is coming next season.



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