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Dennis Smith Jr. accepts challenge of being a leader for the Knicks

David Fizdale has asked the young guard to make sure his teammates are playing hard.

Suns guard Devin Booker shoots over Knicks guard

Suns guard Devin Booker shoots over Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. during the second half of a game Wednesday in Phoenix. Photo Credit: AP/Matt York

PHOENIX - After the Knicks latest loss Wednesday night, the door remained closed for a long time before David Fizdale finally emerged. He spoke of the team mentally caving in of late, with the Knicks effort having been a problem against the Clippers and their focus having waned in a loss to the Suns that concluded a three-game trip.

There was, however, one player willing to take it on his shoulders and say it is his responsibility to make sure he is ready each night and that all of his teammates are playing with full effort. Whats odd is that that Knick is Dennis Smith Jr., 21, who is not only a neophyte in the league but has been with the Knicks just over a month.

Yeah, Id be lying if I said it wasnt challenging, Smith said of being a leader. But it is what it is. Ive got to take the challenge head on. Ive just got to deal with it. I cant complain. It is what it is. Ive got to be better with that.

Ive got to do a better job of making sure everybody stays up out there. I have no problem going out and competing. But something that Fiz is challenging me to do is to make sure that everybody else is trying to match the teams intensity, if not beat it. Ive got to do a better job of making sure that everybody is on board with that . . . Im a young guy like everybody else, but its just something that hes challenged me to do. Im making strides, but I can be better.

For Smith, that means being a leader and imploring his teammates veterans as well as young players to push aside where the Knicks are in the standings and play harder.

Smiths numbers -15 points and six assists- looked fine in the boxscore Wednesday, but he was as much to blame for the loss to the Suns as anyone on the team. Before padding his statistics late, he shot 2-for-8 through the first three quarters as the Knicks saw the Suns begin to blow by them en route to a 107-96 victory that put Phoenix 1 12 games ahead of the NBA-worst Knicks (13-52).

Smiths numbers have been good as his responsibilities have risen. He is averaging 14.9 points and 7.0 assists in his last 15 games, beginning with his final game with the Mavericks a triple-double against the Knicks on Jan. 30 just before the Mavs and Knicks swung a trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas.

Even if the Knicks portray the trade as a move they had to make and point to the salary-cap space the deal created as the end goal, Smith is the young piece in the deal who is seen as at least a possible starter down the road.

With that, he wants to be a leader, lessons he took earlier Wednesday from Jason Kidd, who spoke with him for a long time, telling him in the end to be sure to stay in touch.

Its humbling to hear that, Smith said. Hes one of the greatest point guards to play this game regardless of position, one of the greatest minds to ever be involved with basketball. He sees that talent in me. He has a lot of pointers to help me unlock it. Its about me listening. Im a pretty good listener, so whenever hes speaking, Im all ears.

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