SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The 2017 NBA Draft was point guard-heavy, and as the top players began to come off the board — Markelle Fultz was the No. 1 pick, followed by Lonzo Ball to the Lakers at No. 2 and De’Aaron Fox to the Kings at No. 5 — Dennis Smith Jr. listened to the hype from the enthusiastic analysts.
The talk about Fox involved his speed, and it has proved true. Fox’s celebrated end-to-end speed has helped turn the Kings into a contender for a Western Conference playoff spot, a chase that continued with Sacramento’s 115-108 victory over the Knicks on Monday night at Golden1 Center.
But talking about Fox’s speed left out what Smith knew: He is faster. “I am,” he said again Sunday afternoon.
While Smith acknowledged that Fox is very fast, he said there is no debate about who is the fastest. He said there is evidence somewhere on the internet, a head-to-head race between the two, with no ball involved, when they were in high school. “We raced,” he said. “That was at a camp we were together at, CP3 Camp.”
If there is some debate between them about who is faster — Fox has said he is the fastest player in the NBA — there is no controversy about the respect they hold for each other.
Smith said the two met in their freshman year of high school at a Nike camp in St. Louis. “He’s a competitor, super-fast,” he said. “He knows how to play the game. He’s a really good player. But it’s Knicks versus Kings, so hopefully we can get a win, get our first one of the road trip.”
That didn’t happen, although the two played to a draw. Smith had 18 points and five assists for the Knicks — who fell to 13-51, the worst record in the NBA, and will play the 14-51 Suns in Phoenix on Wednesday — and Fox had 16 points and three assists for the Kings.
The wins have been easier for Fox to come by. The Kings moved to 32-31, three games behind the Spurs in the battle for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference.
Neither player seemed able to get going on the court against the other on this night. Smith’s most notable highlight came in the third quarter when he stole the ball from Buddy Hield and soared in for an uncontested dunk. Later in the quarter, Fox matched that, bolting in front of a pass by Damyean Dotson on the perimeter and windmilling in a breakaway dunk.
Allonzo Trier had 29 points and eight rebounds off the bench for the Knicks and Hield had 28 points for the Kings.
The Mavericks, who drafted Smith at No. 9 (one spot after the Knicks took point guard Frank Ntilikina off the board), went 24-58 in Smith’s rookie season. When the Mavs struggled to find a way to get him to play alongside rookie Luka Doncic this season, he left the team for a period and then was dealt to the Knicks.
“I wouldn’t say it’s tough to stay focused because you know, I had to deal with this same situation last year in Dallas with everything that was going on,” said Smith, who has found a home in New York, claiming the starting point guard job on his arrival. “I wouldn’t say it’s hard to stay focused. I think it’s easy for guys to get shortsighted in the grand scheme of things. Like I said, I dealt with this kind of situation last year. You can’t get lost in the process of everything. You’ve got to embrace it and still go out and do what you’re supposed to do and always look forward to making progress.”
Fox entered the game averaging 17.2 points and 7.3 assists. “I mean, he’s just a lightning bolt,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “And he seems to be the only one that’s calm out there. He’s got total control of the ball. He’s made great strides in a year. You can tell who’s commanding that team. He’s done a great job of growing and developing.”