Let’s first acknowledge that Dennis Smith Jr. is not all the way back yet. He’s not even shooting 40 percent from the field this season. But even if he’s not back to where he was as a top-10 prospect coming from the 2017 NBA Draft Class, he’s far above where he stood toward the latter half of his New York Knicks tenure.
Smith Jr., 23, is quietly utilizing his time with the Detroit Pistons as a path to NBA rehabilitation, and has embarked on his most productive stretch in two years. Since being traded from the New York Knicks (along with a second-round pick) last month in exchange for Derrick Rose, Smith Jr. has played in 11 games, including six consecutive starts. Though the Pistons are just 4-7 during that stretch, and 2-4 in Smith Jr. starts, it’s par for the course in a season where the team is 10-25, last in the Eastern Conference, and 6.5 games out of the 10-seed and final play-in spot. In other words, it’s the perfect team for Smith Jr. — who is headed for restricted free agency this summer/fall — to showcase himself.
In his last five appearances, DSJ has averaged 11.8 points, 5.8 assists, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game in just 25 minutes per contest. He’s also shooting well for him at a nice 44 percent clip over his last five games. In last night’s blowout 129-105 victory over the Toronto Raptors alone, DSJ dished out 11 assists, the most he’s had since February 24, 2019 (a 130-118 Knicks win over the San Antonio Spurs, by the way).
It may not sound like much, but it’s a far cry from a once-promising-turned-dispiriting time with the Knicks. After arriving in New York as the tantalizing (re)building block at the center of the Kristaps Porzingis haul, DSJ averaged 14.7 points, and 5.4 assists, similar to what he had been doing in Dallas, providing Knick fans some hope and optimism through 21 games, if nothing else. But his 2019-20 unfolded with a collection of setbacks, and what emerged was by far the least productive season of his career, far less important than his experiences away from basketball. Last season, he put up 5.5 points and 2.9 assists per game in just 34 appearances averaging less than 16 minutes per outing. He only shot 34 percent from the floor and was inactive for three significant stretches (and not due to COVID protocols, since the Knicks weren’t invited to Orlando’s Bubble).
And as the Knicks entered this season, he was a lost man on a roster that, suddenly, is firmly within the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and looking poised to remain there throughout the 2020-21 campaign (barring a major misfortune — they are the Knicks, afterall). With New York this season, he only played three games, logging at least seven or more minutes in one appearance, and didn’t do anything of note. According to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, he even asked to play in the G League with the Westchester Knicks toward the end of January, shortly before being moved to Detroit.
But at least, for now, he’s figured it out. On a team that has no incentive not to play (and possibly keep?) DSJ — and has already reportedly been contacted about potentially moving their significant free-agent acquisition in Jerami Grant — the lowly Pistons provide the launchpad to rejuvenation DSJ desperately needeed.
Detroit, in some regards, has given him the keys. It’s the ambitious start-up company finding the multidimensional asset it’s needed in Smith Jr.