A few points on Dennis Smith Jr.

by Jonathan Macri

On Friday’s pod, speaking about an anonymous Knick from last year who “had doubts that he’d be back with the team this season,” Moke Hamilton noted something that probably held true for a few guys in New York’s locker room: “Every single day his contract is what was on his mind.” 

There’s two reasons this shouldn’t come as a shocker to anyone. First, humans have eyes, and if you used yours to watch the Knicks last season, you’d have seen more than a bit of selfish stat-hunting on the regular. Second, this is the nature of the beast that is the NBA. Unless you’re one a few dozen guys who know they’ll never have to worry about money, the cheddar is never far from your mind.

The generic LOL Knicks takes that have dominated the summer are mostly ridiculous, but this right here is a legitimate critique of Scott Perry’s offseason: will a roster filled with guys who know they could be hitting free agency again next July be able to embody the spirit of unselfishness needed to win in the NBA?

Perhaps more importantly, will they bring the mindset necessary to not only foster the development of the young core players, but to lead them by example as well?

It’s a fair question, and one that I’ve routinely brushed aside by proclaiming David Fizdale’s job is as tough as any head coach in basketball for the year ahead (while secretly holding undying confidence in his ability to work said wonders). Last season, coaching a team of scrap-heap acquisitions and players who most certainly knew they’d be gone in short order, he got a pass. Norman Dale wasn’t getting that motley crew to resemble a cohesive unit.

This year is different. The summer’s acquisitions may be on short-term contracts, but they’re players the organization sought out, (theoretically) in part because they have the character to make the right play, even if the result doesn’t show up in the box score. Even so, fostering an environment where selfishness is tolerated – or worse, encouraged - risks instilling even the most well-meaning player with tunnel vision.

Enter Dennis Smith Jr. Perhaps not since the heyday of the dominant big man has one position been as important in the NBA as the lead ball-handler is right now. For Fizdale - whose whiteboard message on day one of camp should be “There’s no ‘I’ in TEAM” - making sure his starting point guard is someone who sets an unselfish tone might be his most important job.

Analyses of DSJ entering his third year in the league have focused on what you’d expect: shooting and defensive consistency (Tommy Beer’s recent write-up to this effect was an excellent primer). However, I’d argue that more than any other aspect of his game, if Smith is going to transform into the dude who puts up the only numbers that count – W’s – how and when he dishes the rock will be the determining factor. 

If he goes out of his way to find open teammates, it should cause a trickle-down effect felt throughout this very young roster. At the very least, it would give Coach Fiz the levity to yank those who don’t follow suit.

On the surface, through two years, Smith seems like he’s on the right track. According to Cleaning the Glass, Smith’s assist percentage as a rookie was in the 88th percentile for his position, which was fantastic. After he spent the beginning of last season in Dallas without the ball in his hands, as much thanks to Luka’s arrival, he fell to the 47th percentile, but bounced back up to the 85th percentile with the Knicks.

Assist percentage is a deceiving statistic though, as it simply measures the percentage of teammates’ made shots a given player assists on. If a guy handles the ball a lot and isn’t a complete and total gunner, he’s going to do well here (just take a look at last year’s leaderboard for proof). 

Assist ratio gives a little better feel for who the league’s true distributors are by measuring the percentage of a player’s possessions that end in an assist. Here, DSJ clocked in at 22.4 percent, good for 116th in the NBA. Put in context, other players in the 93 to 123 range included Mike Conley (93rd), LeBron James (97th), Kyrie Irving (98th), D’Angelo Russell (102nd), Damian Lillard (121st) and DeMar DeRozan (123rd). Translation: Smith Jr. distributed at the rate of an All-Star-level ball-handler when he was most decidedly, umm…not one of those sorts of folk.

And hey, that’s totally fine! Young guards take time, often several years, to figure out the balance between dishing and switching. Taking bad shots at the expense of potentially open teammates is part of that growth process, especially for guards like Smith Jr. whose ceiling outcome is as a scoring one.

It’s also not a process that the Knicks can afford to let continue ad nauseam if there aren’t steady signs of progress. They have too much riding on guys like RJ, Mitch and Knox to afford such a luxury.

Here’s where it’s interesting to note that the point guard Scott Perry brought aboard this summer – Elfrid Payton – finished 8th in the entire league in assist ratio last season at 36.5 percent. It’s almost as if Perry wanted to make sure that, should DSJ not be the selfless tone-setter this team needs, there’s someone waiting in the wings who certainly will be.

This, of course, is not what any Knick fan wants to see. Nor, I’d wager, does Scott Perry. This may seem like hopeless optimism to those outside of New York who’ve already written DSJ off as a careless slanger of le bois, but we’ve already seen ample evidence that he’s exactly the type of point guard David Fizdale needs: one who gets the defense on its heels at the point of attack.

It didn’t take long for us to see his passing potential in action last season. Just a few plays into his Knicks career, he perfectly timed this dime to Kevin Knox in the corner, waiting just long enough to get the defender to bite:

Smith’s ability to break down a defense is enough to open up these sorts of plays all the time. Similarly, he has the touch to become a dangerous pick & roll partner with New York’s resident Übermensch, Mitchell Robinson, like we saw against the Kings in March:

As a pick & roll ball handler, Smith started slowly but has been making steady progress. He went from 0.71 points per possession on 6.1 such plays per game as a rookie, then up to 0.76 with Dallas last year, and finally up to 0.81 with the Knicks on 7.9 possessions a night. The game’s elite lead guards are around 10 possessions per game and average somewhere north of 0.9 points on those plays. Dennis ain’t quite there yet. 

Part of the challenge for him will be knowing what to do in situations like this, when Nikola Vucevic plays a full five feet off of him as he comes around a well-set Noah Vonleh screen:

It’s interesting to note that earlier in the same game, Vooch blocked a driving layup attempt by Smith, something he probably had in the back of his mind on this play. DSJ has consistently shot between 56 and 57 percent around the rim since coming out of NC State, which puts him slightly below the median for point guards. 

Part of getting that number higher is simply converting more of these looks. The good news is that he’s close. His more ballyhooed classmates Donovan Mitchell (61%) and De’Aaron Fox (63%) aren’t that far above him, but that handful of percentage points can make all the difference between being elite and just “meh.” Nobody needs more “meh” in their life, least of all Knick fans.

One thing he’ll need to improve is his decision making on drives, and that speaks to the overall theme of unselfishness he needs to embrace.

On this next play, Smith uses a split second of hesitation by DJ Augustin to put Aaron Gordon into an impossible position: either tag a rolling Mitchell Robinson or stay on Kevin Knox in the corner. But Smith immediately bails Gordon out, putting up a bleh (meh’s uglier, plumper cousin) double pump attempt in a very close game:

Unfortunately, attempts of this nature weren’t out of the ordinary. Here’s him pulling up for a contested layup instead of Steve Nashing his way under the basket and hitting a wide open Luke Kornet in the corner:

…and going two on one later in the same game rather than finding any one of three open men around the arc:

There were several more examples like this, all within the same game. The Knicks lost to the Kings by seven points that night that despite Allonzo Trier getting to the line 15 times and scoring 29 off the bench. Smith Jr. finished with 18 points on 17 shots, just five dimes, and perhaps most notably, zero free throws. Was he forcing the issue on these drives as part of some silly pissing match with his rookie teammate (who happened to be wide open on that last attempt)? I have no earthly cue, but the fact that I’m even tempted to ask this question is discouraging.

These are the type of questions no Knick fan should ever have to ask about their starting point guard. The only way we won’t have to is if Dennis Smith Jr. cleans up his shot chart, uses his God-given quickness, athleticism and passing ability to find open teammates more consistently, and dispenses with the half-dozen head-scratchers he seems to put up on many nights.

One final bit of good news: he has so much that he can still improve on (this stuff, his shooting, the finishing, more defensive consistency, etc.) that even incremental development across the board could turn him from a flashy, losing player to someone that could be part of the Knicks core for a long time.

The signs are there. In his short time in New York, not only did he get better in the pick and roll, but he drew shooting fouls at a much higher clip (10.3% of the time according to CTG, in the 81st percentile among point guards), he hardly ever turned it over (the Knicks gave it away 3.5% less with him running the show, in the 98th percentile) and he actually defended like he gave a damn more often than not (the team’s defensive rating improved by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court).

I’ve said it several times already, but there is no greater “swing” player that figures to alter New York’s fortunes this season than Smith. Improving his skill level is step one, but that won’t matter if he doesn’t become a more aware, willing distributor. The fate of the universemy liver the franchise may depend on it.

He has all the tools to make it happen. Let’s hope he can finally use them.

Thanks for reading, talk to you next week!