Dennis Smith Jr.
ESNY Graphic, Bruno Rouby

In an era where the scoring point guard rules the NBA, New York Knicks’ Dennis Smith Jr. needs to take a big step in 2019-20.

Today’s NBA could have Dennis Smith Jr. feeling like a kid in a candy store.

Players like Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook’s fast-paced scoring style has taken over. Gone are the slower paces of Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce. Here are the speed and barrages of three-pointers we used to only see in endless rounds of NBA Jam. 

And yet, the New York Knicks point guard is something of an anomaly. He played his college ball at North Carolina State, an ACC school then defined by tough defense instead of the conference’s signature run-and-gun offense. He averaged 18.1 points and 6.2 assists per game as a five-star recruit.

Smith played well enough to be drafted ninth overall by the Dallas Mavericks in 2017. He proved he can score, but struggled with his shot selection.

Fast forward to today, and Smith is still a Knick after being acquired in last year’s Kristaps Porzingis trade. He is in a position to have a breakout year, especially after Kyrie Irving signed with the Brooklyn Nets in free agency.

And Smith had better, or else he could prove himself to be a square peg in a round hole.

Underwhelming numbers

Dennis Smith Jr.’s numbers already showed some regression before coming to the Knicks. His scoring dropped from 15.2 points per game as a rookie to 12.9, but it really wasn’t his fault. The drop can be attributed more to Luka Doncic’s emergence, and there was no reason to favor Smith over him.

Coming to New York should have been a fresh start for Smith, but he instead took a step back. He posted 14.7 points per game, but his field goal percentage dropped to 41.3% compared to 44% in Dallas. His three-point shooting, which stood at 34.4% with the Mavericks, dropped to 28.9% in New York.

Granted, a lot of this may have to do with Smith joining a tanking team midseason. Still, the deeper numbers show his third NBA season could be a turning point in his young career.

Seize the moment

Dennis Smith Jr. may be penciled in as the Knicks’ starting point guard, but he could be on a short leash. He posted absolutely no win shares last season and his Offensive Box Plus/Minus (OBPM) dropped to -1.7 from -1.5. It may not seem like much of a difference, but it’s significant enough with the NBA becoming a scoring guard’s league.

Not only that but 51.3% of the points Smith scored as a Knick were in the paint. By comparison, Curry averaged 27.3 points last season and only 20.5% of them came in the paint.

This isn’t to say Smith has to put up Curry-like numbers. Knicks coach David Fizdale doesn’t run the same offense as the Golden State Warriors. He favors a balanced attack with three-pointers getting as much love as driving the lane.

The problem is Smith, high as his ceiling is, drives the lane too much. He’s only 6-foot-3, 195 pounds. If he’s going to be an effective scoring point guard, he needs to mix things up a bit.

Goals for camp

And how would Dennis Smith Jr. take a step forward in his third season? Well, there are several routes he can take. 23.4% of his points as a Knick came via the three-pointer, but he didn’t shoot very well from downtown. By comparison, only 11.7% of those points were in the mid-range.

All Smith really has to do is stop relying so much on driving the lane and trust his shot more. The Knicks also don’t have a lot of competition behind him, so the starting point guard’s job is arguably his to lose.

Elfrid Payton is better suited as a spark off the bench, as is Kadeem Allen. Frank Ntilikina has a long road back himself after being injured most of last year. Meanwhile, though, he has Team France in the World Cup semifinals and he himself looks ready to prove something.

The point is Smith may be the favorite going in, but he still has a lot of work to do to set himself apart from the rest.

Final thoughts

All in all, Dennis Smith Jr.’s third year in the NBA should be his best. The Knicks may have drafted RJ Barrett as the latest potential franchise cornerstone, but Smith’s role in his development will still be important.

Smith doesn’t need to prioritize scoring over playmaking. His priorities for improvement in both might as well be items 1 and 1A on a to-do list. This isn’t a situation like Dallas when he was drafted to be the top youngster one year, only to be cast aside the next.

No, the New York Knicks are giving Dennis Smith Jr. a key opportunity to be a success in professional basketball.

Now, all he has to do is seize it.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.