Dennis Smith Jr., Russell Westbrook
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

Dennis Smith Jr. is trying to stay in the present as he looks to rewrite the narrative surrounding his New York Knicks tenure.

Danny Small

TARRYTOWN, NY—Dennis Smith Jr. could have a big opportunity on Monday night when the Houston Rockets host the New York Knicks. With Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina questionable, Smith is in line to start, or at the very least, play major minutes.

The Houston backcourt needs no introduction. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are former MVPs who are spearheading Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Slowing down Westbrook and Harden is often the key to knocking off the Rockets.

“They’re two of the best players in the league, especially at their positions,” Smith said to reporters after practice on Sunday. “I’m looking forward to it. Especially me and Russ, we’ve had some great battles in the past, so I’m looking forward to it.”

After spending the first year and a half of his career in the Western Conference, Smith has gone toe-to-toe with Westbrook a few times. Perhaps that matchup will ignite something inside the Knicks point guard.

New York will need the lift as they look to snap a three-game losing streak spanning more than a week because of the All-Star break. The last Knicks win came on Feb. 8.

For Smith, the challenge of facing Westbrook and Harden presents an opportunity to rewrite the narrative surrounding his season. Injuries, personal loss, and lackluster play have all contributed to Smith’s disappointing third season, but he’s not thinking about the past.

Following practice in Tarrytown, Smith consistently mentioned the need to stay in the present. This was something he took away after a conversation with his father before Friday’s game.

“We talked for about 30 minutes before my last game and that’s just what he was saying. Just being locked in on the moment,” Smith said. “I can’t dwell on the past, whether it’s good or bad. I can’t control the future.”

In the present, Smith is trying to figure out how to stay consistent with an inconsistent role. Even when he’s healthy this season, he can’t work his way past third on the third point guard depth chart. The former lottery pick spent his entire career as a starter leading up to this year and the adjustment to a brand new role hasn’t been easy.

“It’s definitely an adjustment,” Smith said. “I’m starting a game and then there are some games where I don’t play so it’s weird. But the big thing is being present-minded.”

Despite his struggle-filled year, Smith seems like he is in the right frame of mind to stage a late surge to salvage some of this year. The Fayetteville, NC native is completely confident in his ability to play at a high level.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that I belong in this league. That’s not even a question for me. It’s just about being present-minded.”

Of course, the NBA is a results-based business and he needs to prove it on the court. His new mindset could certainly help spur on a resurgence in the final leg of the season, but there are other factors involved.

Smith’s sub-par shooting is glaring. His paltry shooting splits (.335/.300/.478) are among the worst in the league, but much like his mindset, he’s trying to work on that too. At the tail end of practice, he was working with interim head coach Mike Miller on his shooting form.

Recently, the Knicks have had the benefit of practice time. New York has practiced four times in the last five days, with their one day “off” from practice being their Friday night game against the Indiana Pacers.

“During the time he came back, we were playing every other day,” Miller recalled. “There’s no real time to get real practices where he’s running up and down for four, five, six minutes like a game goes. I think that has helped him.”

Although he isn’t always playing big minutes, Smith has played in the team’s last nine games. Add in the consistent practice time and it’s possible we see a different version of Smith in the final 26 games.

Those who doubt Smith do so for good reason, but they do at their own peril. Although there’s no denying he’s taken a step back in year three, it’s important to remember he’s still a 22-year-old. It hasn’t clicked for Smith yet, but the Knicks are hoping it does soon.

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