It was just over two weeks ago when Dennis Smith Jr. missed his sixth straight game for the Dallas Mavericks, the team listing various ailments as the reason, but neither side hiding the reality that he had separated himself from the team for two weeks to try to force his way out of Dallas.
All of which makes it hard to imagine that Smith arrived in New York to make his debut Sunday afternoon in the starting lineup and by Tuesday night, with one practice under his belt, was being described this way by David Fizdale, his new coach.
“He took total command of the team tonight,” Fizdale said after Smith put up 25 points, six assists and five rebounds in 39 minutes and 46 seconds - the most minutes he’s played in a game this season. “It was really fun to watch. I didn’t have to call every play. He was really directing traffic out there while staying aggressive for himself. I think the more he gets comfortable with his teammates and they understand who he is, the better and better he’s going to get.”
Smith is the one tangible long-term piece acquired by the Knicks in the trade that sent away Kristaps Porzingis, joining two players on expiring contracts that has provided the value of salary cap space and a pair of future draft picks. In giving up on Porzingis, who was the centerpiece of the franchise, the Knicks are betting on their ability to use the cap space to transform the team, but in the meantime are hoping that Smith can provide a hint of the potential the second-year point guard has teased with his athleticism.
To get there, the Knicks have handed him the ball and provided him with the freedom afforded by a 10-43 record to start recording a highlight reel of acrobatic offensive moves.
“It’s crazy how that worked out,” Smith said after the Knicks lost their 14th straight game Tuesday. “That was my last game with Dallas, was playing against the Knicks [last Wednesday]. And then they traded me. I just wish they would’ve did it before we got to play them the last time of the season.
“But coming in and being a leader, that’s just kind of how I am. That’s just kind of how I am. I’ve been like that my whole life. Being able to lead vocally, you’ve got to do the right things on and off the court in terms of putting your work in, and that’s what I’m all about. My teammates, I come in, I’ve got to earn their respect. The same way I did with the Mavericks, I’ve got to earn everybody’s respect regardless of the age. I think I’m doing a solid job of that.”
Smith thought he would be here earlier, confident the Knicks would take him with the No. 8 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft after he dined with Phil Jackson (octopus, which he wasn’t ready for). But the Knicks, in Jackson’s last days as team president, opted for Frank Ntilikina and Smith was taken one pick later by the Mavericks.
After facing him for the first time last season, LeBron James declared that Smith should have been a Knick. Smith said he and Ntilikina were in the gym together Monday night working together, but he said he he heard James’ words at the time and appreciated it.
“When he said that I was just like, man, that’s one of the greatest to ever play this game showing love,” Smith said. “That’s big bro. I appreciate it. I took that as a compliment because that was a higher draft pick, obviously. But everything comes full circle. It was written, it must have been meant for me to be here, huh?"
While the Knicks are right now in free fall, owners of the worst record in the NBA, Smith is happy to be here and a building block in what he sees as a brighter future. In Dallas, there was a better record and some pieces already in place - particularly in rookie Luka Doncic, who needed the ball and that meant taking it from Smith.
“I’m never one to compare. I don’t really like to compare,” Smith said. “I’m super excited to be a Knick. I’ve been telling everybody here, they’re gonna get tired of hearing me say it, but I’m so happy to be here and be a part of this organization. You’ve just got to look at everything, the grand scheme of things. We’ve got Fizdale, Scottie P [Perry], Steve Mills, and I think they’re building something great here. There’s a beauty in the ugliness and the success. You’ve got to take it day by day, and I think we’re going to get there.”