NY Knicks Give Dennis Smith Jr. Room to Explore

It’s been pretty tough to be a New York Knicks fan for most of the last 15 years.

Failed draft picks, odd signings, poorly thought out trades, the Allan Houston contract (and Jerome James and Eddy Curry and… ad naseum). Mishaps—to put it nicely—involving NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas and former Knicks great Charles Oakley also rank highly on the Shame Meter.

This season hasn’t been much different.

The team has been objectively terrible, what with the league’s worst record (10-46) and losing a franchise record 17 games in a row. New head coach David Fizdale has managed the team with his rotation on “shuffle mode” all season, which led to some drama with now-released center Enes Kanter.

The most exciting part of the Knicks season came at the trade deadline. Seemingly out of nowhere, the franchise decided to trade cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks for, essentially, cap relief.

By moving Porzingis, the Knicks were able to get off of Tim Hardaway Jr’s contract, as well as Courtney Lee’s extra year in an effort to free up two max slots this summer. Dreams of landing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving couldn’t be any more obvious, nor could it be any riskier. Punting on at least four more years of Porzingis and missing out on multiple superstars would cap off the worst bet in franchise history, and that’s saying something.

For now, the Knicks can do nothing but wait and hope on that front. There’s still a season to complete and young pieces to evaluate. Chief among them is speedy point guard Dennis Smith Jr, the shiniest chip to return in the Porzingis deal.

The second-year guard has been tossed into a lead role since joining the team. That obviously isn’t optimal for his current talent level, but with the Knicks still in tank mode, getting a feel for what he can and can’t handle isn’t the worst idea.

strength: Warping Defenses

Smith Jr. was one of the most electrifying prospects in his draft class. His mix of speed and power made him a walking highlight. Not many college defenders could stay in front of Smith Jr., allowing him to put constant pressure on defenses. Once he got into the lane, he was able to explode vertically and convert at the rim, or make timely kick-out and dump-off passes when the defense helped.

Smith Jr. has still been able to get to his spots with relative ease in New York. His first step remains elite, and the fear of him getting deep into the paint has forced opponents into prevent defense.

The most encouraging part of his five-game stint has been the way he’s leveraged that fear. Take this play against the Memphis Grizzlies, for example:

Off the bat, you can see Smith Jr’s feel in pick-and-roll. He runs Mike Conley into the DeAndre Jordan screen, pauses slightly, then snakes to his right. That movement and timing forces the now-departed Marc Gasol to pick him up and also allows Jordan to get Conley on his hip. Grizzlies wing Julius Washburn (left corner) recognizes the mismatch Smith Jr. has created and decides to “tag” Jordan on the roll. As Smith Jr. goes into his euro-step, he sees Washburn rotate over, then makes the easy kick-out in the corner.

A little later, Smith Jr. picks up the pace to create a similar situation:

Seeing a speed demon like Smith Jr. think the game and manipulate defenses is a major positive. He’s averaging six assists per game as a Knick so far. He’s already proven adept at finding shooters, generating 1.07 points per passing possession to spot-up shooters out of pick-and-roll, via Synergy Sports technology.

weakness: decision making

Aside from Smith Jr., New York’s best shot creators are Kevin Knox, Mario Hezonja and Allonzo Trier. That trio has shot a combined 46-of-138 (33.3 percent) from the field since Smith Jr. joined the team.

The burden to create offense, for himself and for others, is a little larger than you’d want him to have. Pairing Smith Jr. with Luka Doncic in Dallas felt ideal because he was more of the secondary creator in that dynamic.

Smith Jr. has been guilty of forcing the issue in New York. He’s settled for some contested pull-up middies when driving lanes were available. He’s also found himself driving too deep into the paint, then looking for bailout options to save possessions:

The corner skip is the natural progression in those situations. But as a point guard, you have to sense when the pass isn’t there. It just wasn’t in that case, and the decision felt pre-determined after Detroit took away the drive and the roll-man.

Speaking of the roll-man, Smith Jr. has struggled to find them with much regularity.

Again, the context of the roster somewhat absolves him: He isn’t playing with the spaciest floor. On the flip side, you can’t force stuff like this:

Seasoned vets like Chris Paul can thread that needle. Young guys like Trae Young can thread that needle. But those guys are special as passers.

The decision itself isn’t a good one; it’s just that Paul and Young are abnormally good at fighting passes into tight spaces. Smith Jr. just … isn’t that kind of passer. You’re asking a lot of Jordan to try to corral that pass, so it should come as no surprise that it didn’t work there.

We’re dealing with a five-game sample of course, but Knick roll-men have scored just 15 points off passes from Smith Jr. thus far. That’s a bit problematic when you consider how deadly Jordan and fellow rookie Mitchell Robinson are as rim-runners.

With that said, a 2.5 assist-turnover ratio overall isn’t awful within the context of the roster. Allowing Smith Jr. to get these creation reps now should help in the long run when he’s around better talent. If he’s already manipulating defenses to generate corner looks with this team, it’s easy to get excited about what he may look like with a better supporting cast around him.

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