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Dennis Smith Jr. was given a clean slate to start the 2020-21 season, but it’s already been muddied after two preseason games in Motown.
Though the Knicks tried to trade him all offseason, they went into this campaign with the idea of giving Smith a legitimate chance at proving he was worth being a key asset in the Kristaps Porzingis deal in January 2019.
The conspiracy theory is the Knicks need to raise Smith’s trade value that was at rock bottom after his sorry 2019-20 season that was wrecked by the death of his stepmother, injuries and sloppy play. He will be a restricted free agent after the season and the Knicks can’t possibly retain him if he doesn’t show major progress.
In the two games against the Pistons, the 2017 lottery pick has backed up Elfrid Payton, logged 37 minutes and shot just 33 percent.
Sunday the uber-athletic Smith looked particularly off his rhythm. He was 1-for-5 — bricking both of his 3-point attempts. Worse, he didn’t run the offense. Smith looked frazzled when the Pistons trapped him and he was a minus-15 in 16 minutes.
Coach Tom Thibodeau spent extra time with Smith after September’s OTAs, visiting him in North Carolina after the club worked out point-guard prospect Kira Lewis in Miami. (They passed on Lewis when power forward Obi Toppin fell to them at No. 8).
On Sunday, television cameras caught Thibodeau lecturing Smith after some of his misplays.
“When you’re the point guard, you’re running the team,” Thibodeau said after Sunday’s 99-91 loss in Detroit. “The responsibility is to make sure everybody gets to the right spots. When guys don’t do that, you don’t have the outlets that are necessary to take advantage of what the defense is doing. It really wasn’t just Dennis. It was the rest of his teammates also.”
If Smith isn’t able to become a knockdown shooter after spending this offseason working with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, then he’s got to be a floor general to stay on the court.
“Dennis Smith does not see the floor,” said one NBA scout who witnessed both games. “He’s probably not a true point guard.”
Another NBA scout who watched both games was unimpressed with both Smith and 2018 lottery pick Kevin Knox, who is struggling with his outside shot.
“Dennis just looks awful as a player and teammate,” the scout said. “He has zero feel. You question his vision.”
The Knicks didn’t make Smith available for comment on Zoom after Sunday’s game and the team took Monday off.
Throwing pressure at Smith seems a good strategy at this stage for Knicks opponents as it bogs down the offense.
“We have to understand how important that is — when a player is being trapped, to get to the right spots, so the outlets are easy,” Thibodeau said. “To get the ball out of the trap and then, usually, it’s the second pass out of the trap, where the rotation can’t keep up with it. We’re just trying to get that ironed out.”
The Knicks passed on a point guard with their lottery pick in the draft and didn’t dramatically upgrade the position in free agency.
That is unless Austin Rivers turns into a difference-maker. Smith is getting extra minutes because Rivers has missed training camp with a pulled groin and probably will miss all four preseason games. The Knicks will play host to Cleveland on Wednesday and Friday at the fan-less Garden.
Rivers is a 35 percent career 3-point shooter and a student of the game.
For now, the Knicks’ three healthy point guards — Payton, Smith and Frank Ntilikina, who is often playing off the ball — aren’t 3-point shooters.
The Knicks’ biggest weakness this season may be 3-point shooting (they shot 13 of 56 (23.2 percent in the two games). That’s where rookie combo guard Immanuel Quickley could help.
Their second first-round pick may get more turns as he was an excellent marksman at Kentucky (42 percent from 3). Quickley had a quiet 9-minute NBA debut Sunday, going 1 of 3, missing his lone 3-pointer.
Smith will still get more opportunities to distinguish himself, but time could be running out.