GREENBURGH, N.Y. — It’s time to trade that Big Mac for a kale smoothie.
That, in essence, was the message that Knicks coach David Fizdale gave Dennis Smith Jr. after benching him in the fourth quarter of Friday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The two met for a lengthy conversation Saturday morning that centered around the need to get in better shape. Smith apparently took the criticism in a proactive way, producing one of his best games of the season on Sunday before making a date to go grocery shopping with the team’s nutritionist on Monday afternoon.
“I challenged him to get in much better shape,” Fizdale said after practice Monday. “I felt like in the game [against the Timberwolves], he was making a lot of mistakes out of fatigue. So that was my big challenge to him.
“How we do things here, we really want to jump-start him on educating him about nutrition and what he’s putting in his body and how we go about getting in better shape at this time of year so we don’t crush his legs. And how’s his sleep? We had a good, long talk about that, and I spent a lot of time with him trying to educate him on the importance of all this stuff. He really took it to heart.”
Smith, 21, looked to be in pretty good condition Sunday night in the Knicks’ 130-118 win over the San Antonio Spurs. In his ninth game since joining the team, he had one of the better showings of his two-year career with 19 points, 13 assists and zero turnovers.
“He had 20 paint touches last night,” Fizdale said. “That’s an extremely high number no matter who you’re playing against. No matter what player is doing it. Twenty is a lot. I’ve had to really make sure we’re getting the proper spacing around him and trying to give him as much room as possible so he can operate and do what he does best.”
The performance was particularly promising for Knicks fans who have been pining for a young, dependable point guard. Smith, who was chosen by the Dallas Mavericks with the ninth pick in the 2017 draft, has averaged 16.1 points and 6.9 assists in nine games since coming over in the Kristaps Porzingis trade on Jan. 31.
When the Knicks made that deal, the major objective was to clear cap space that would allow them to give max contracts to two free agents this summer. If he can continue to play at this level, Smith would be a pretty big bonus — especially if the Knicks can’t get free-agent-to-be Kyrie Irving this summer.
Smith seems to like playing for the Knicks and clearly didn’t mind being told to brush up on his nutritional skills.
He said of his talk with Fizdale: “Just a general concern for things I have going on. It really shows that he believes in my ability. When you have a coach like that, you should go out and put max effort every time you get a chance. If I can get to the level they want me to be [at], I can consistently bring it night in and night out. I think I’m fully capable of that.”