Maybe all he needed was to come home. Smith is from Fayetteville, North Carolina, and is now playing with the Charlotte Hornets, just a mere three hours from his hometown. The Hornets are Smith’s fifth team in six seasons. Last year, he split time between three teams, including the Hornets. So why has the 9th pick in the 2017 Draft bounced so much in so little time?
In William C. Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, the Black intellectual speaks deeply and plainly on the “conveyor belt” system which exists, systemically, within professional sports. Smith was a victim of this system, which funneled him from first a five-star recruit to ACC Rookie of the Year with N.C. State to a much-herald lottery pick.
But Smith had the bad luck of playing with two of the most dysfunctional NBA franchises, the Dallas Mavericks, and the New York Knicks. Those four seasons with those two teams almost destroyed Smith’s career. He has hinted at the elite level of basketball malfeasance that existed in Dallas and any casual observer to see how much ex-Knicks head coach David Fizdale had no fucking idea what he was doing. This comeback makes his current season such an anomaly. Smith has been able to refurbish his image in the worst-run franchise in the league in Michael Jordan’s Hornets. He is currently averaging 12 PPG, 4 RPG, and 6 APG while shooting 54 percent from three, with a 53 percent effective field goal percentage.
No one is more surprised than Smith, who was prepared to try to make an NFL team if his basketball days appeared over. “I told my previous agent, ‘I’m not going overseas,’” Smith said to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “If shit don’t work out, I’m just going to the NFL. And I was dead-ass serious. I put on hella weight. I was gonna try.”
With the legal issues around Miles Bridges and James Bouknight, and the bloated contracts of broken players like Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier, Smith has found his role. Early-season injuries to LaMelo Ball and Rozier opened the door to Smith starting.
When he arrived in Dallas, he joined a franchise on the brink of poverty, well past Dirk Nowitzki’s prime years, but still deeply entrenched in GM Donnie Nelson’s incompetence and then head coach Rick Carlisle’s rigid arrogance. Carlisle famously feuded with former Maverick point guards Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo, and even Luka Dončić before resigning abruptly in 2021.
Smith was an anomaly in Dallas. He was the franchise’s first top-ten pick since Robert “Tractor” Traylor, who was traded on Draft night for Nowitzki. That it took this long for the Mavs to pick this high is a testament to the team’s continued winning around Dirk. But Smith was joining the roster dismantled from its 2011 championship. Then, the team consisted of bums and the 39-year-old Nowitzki. Smith had a great rookie season, 15.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 5.2 APG, and a steal per game. He was named to the All-Rookie Team.
His output led to little winning, as the Mavs finished 24-58. But all that losing helped the Mavericks acquire some draft positioning to trade up for the European prospect, Dončić, in a draft day deal with the Atlanta Hawks. According to an ESPN report by Tim MacMahon, Smith and Dončić lived in the same apartment building and played video games together. DSJ immediately took to Dončić, showing the Slovenian around the city, sharing the media day stage, and appearing side-by-side on local billboards.
MacMahon went on to describe the abuse Smith was dealt from Carlise: “Multiple players were shocked during one early-season team meeting when Carlisle accused Smith of being jealous of Dončić, sources said. The players considered it incredibly unfair to Smith, who wasn’t playing well but was making an honest effort to mesh with Dončić on the court. Dončić particularly resented what he perceived as Carlisle’s attempt to pit him against his friend and teammate, team sources said.”
Apparently, the treatment of Smith by Carlisle led to Smith being traded in a large package to the Knicks Kristaps Porzingis. It also led to the erosion of Dončić and Carlisle’s relationship and the coach eventually quitting the Mavs and heading for Indiana.
Once Smith arrived in New York, things only got worse. Under the misdirection of David Fizdale, Smith was buried within a mediocre rotation of poor point-guard play next to Alonzo Trier and Frank Ntilikina, who the Knicks picked one spot over Smith in 2017. In addition, Fizdale used Smith inconsistently, never fully committing to him as the consistent starter. As a result, Smith went from starting 18 out of the 21 games, averaging 14.7 ppg he played in his first season in N.Y., to just three out of the 34 games he played in his second season with the team, averaging 5.5 ppg.
To make matters worse, Smith’s productivity and stats plummeted, thanks to misguided tutelage under assistant coach Keith Smart, who reworked Smith’s shooting form into a broken mess, complete with a gnarly hitch in his release.
As a result, Smith only played in three games in the 2020-2021 season, outplayed by Elfrid Payton, who is no longer in the league. He would be traded early that season to Detroit, where he would finish the season but not be re-signed.
The short stops in Detroit and Portland provided glimpses of what made Smith a lottery pick in 2017. But by then, Smith had been chewed up through two more inept franchises in the NBA: The Knicks and the Mavs. At that time, neither franchise was known to be efficient in developing a player’s confidence or skill. Smith was cursed to play under the grueling expectations of Carlisle that bordered on abuse and the institutional ineptitude of Fizdale and the Knicks.
Smith caught both franchises at historic low points in their respective histories. If only one of them had invested in Smith as a man and a player, he might have been able to live up to his rookie expectations. Instead, he was run afoul as a scapegoat for two franchises’ internal corruption. It’s a testament to Smith’s resiliency that he survived not one but two character assassinations by two teams. It will be up to the Hornets to make room for Smith’s resurrection once Ball and Rozier return to the lineup. Smith not only has earned a second chance, he deserves it.