The Knicks put the team on display to the public for the first time — albeit a limited viewing with an open practice session crammed into Columbia University’s Levien Gymnasium. There were positive signs on display, an RJ Barrett dunk and a Mitchell Robinson blocked shot.
But as they made their debut for the fans there was one player missing. Dennis Smith Jr. sat out with a strained lower back, which the Knicks insisted was a minor issue. But in light of Smith’s troubles with his back last season, it was a cautionary moment for the franchise.
“It’s nothing. Light strain,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “Just wanted to rest him. Didn’t want to risk it getting worse. He’ll be back in a minute.”
There is plenty of time with the regular season still nearly three weeks away and the first preseason game coming Monday in Washington. But Smith is a key component on a team that is lacking star power this season.
Smith, who came to the Knicks in the trade for Kristaps Porzingis last season, is as close to anything the Knicks have to be the star that Porzingis once was. He finds himself now in a competition for minutes with Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina but figures to be the key to whatever hopes the team has this season.
“He’s had a great camp,” Fizdale said. “He’s had a great camp. He had a couple days so far where he literally took over and dominated the five on five. The biggest thing I’ve been really happy with him is the way he’s finding people and making other players better and defending.”
Smith has been renowned for his athleticism and after coming to the Knicks he spent the summer conditioning himself, losing 15 pounds. Smith said he cut out fast food — admitting as a child of the South he loves Bojangles, giving it up in favor of kale and fruit smoothies.
“I do exercises for everything because I’m realizing how important it is, how everything’s connected — my ankle, knee, back, shoulder, wrist, everything’s connected,” Smith said earlier this week. “So I’ve got to really be flexible everywhere I can.”
“Huge difference,” Fizdale said. “And just his ability to continue. When you’re that kind of athlete, what good is it if you can only go up and down four or five possessions without getting burned out. Now he can continuously make plays for us and put his athletic pressure on people.”
Notes & quotes: Kadeem Allen also sat out with a strained right foot and Amir Hilton was excused for personal reasons.