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Let’s Fly: The Reinvention Of Dennis Smith Jr.

Reel Access | Episode 3: 2022-23 Hornets Season Let's Fly

About two months ago, Dennis Smith Jr. was still without a team just days before training camps were set to begin around the NBA. Fast forward a few weeks later and he’s guarding the reigning NBA Finals MVP in Steph Curry on the final possession of regulation in what eventually became a 120-113 overtime victory for the Charlotte Hornets over Golden State.

My, how things can change quickly for the better when preparation and readiness meet opportunity. And right now, few players deserve some good fortune more than Smith.

“I had to work my butt off this summer,” he said, following his 13-point, nine-rebound, eight-assist performance against Golden State on Oct. 29. “A lot of people were trying to say, ‘Oh, he shouldn’t be in the league,’ this, that and the third. I had to tune all of that out and lock in. To be able to come in and execute and win a game against those guys, that means the world to me. It means a lot to my family to see me do that, and I’m thankful for the opportunity.”

Moments before his blanketing of Curry which extended the game to overtime, Smith had knotted the game at the other end after blowing past the Warriors’ superstar for a banked-in layup. He went on to score or assist on seven consecutive Charlotte points over a 75-second stretch late in the extra frame that effectively put the game out of Golden State’s reach.

Called upon almost immediately following early-season injuries to LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier and Cody Martin, Smith has been everything the Hornets had hoped for and more. Despite dealing with ankle injuries of his own, Smith is putting up 9.3 points on his best efficiency ever (46.3%), while recording career highs in assists (5.7), steals (1.8) and blocks (0.7). His steal average is currently fifth best in the NBA and he’s also eighth in deflections registered per contest (3.5).

Defensive impact isn’t the simplest thing to quantify in the NBA, but there are plentyof indicators to illustrate how good Smith has been on this end of the floor. Per CleaningtheGlass.com, he ranks in the 100th percentile for guards in steal rate (2.9%) and the 87th percentile in block rate (1.1%). The Hornets are +12.4 points per 100 possessions with Smith on the court this season, which is in the 89th percentile amongst all players.

Talent and athleticism have never been an issue for Smith, but his winding journey to Charlotte is a prime example of why environment, situation and sometimes luck matter in the NBA when it comes to player development. Following a one-and-done collegiate stint at NC State, Smith was drafted ninth overall by Dallas in 2017 and went to average 15.9 points and 5.2 assists as an explosive high-octane scorer his first year, leading to Second-Team All-Rookie accolades.

At the time, Dallas was phasing out of the Dirk Nowitzki era and into a rebuilding stage, with Smith expected to be a major part of the team’s up-and-coming young core. But a 24-58 record his rookie year put the Mavericks in prime position to trade up in the draft for EuroLeague phenom Luka Dončić in 2018. And just like that, Smith’s short tenure in Dallas – perhaps unbeknownst at the time – began winding down.

Smith and Dončić started together in the backcourt for the first couple months of the ensuing season, until a wrist injury sent Smith to the sidelines in early December. Dončić rapidly solidified himself as one of the league’s budding superstars during his absence, eventually winning Rookie of the Year honors. In mid-January, the Mavericks jumped at the chance to pair Dončić with the recently-made-available All-Star Knicks big man Kristaps Porziņģis. New York wanted Smith in exchange and he ultimately became the centerpiece of the blockbuster trade.

Although Smith had solid numbers to finish the year, the Knicks finished in last place in the Eastern Conference with a dismal 17-65 record. Things didn’t get much better to start the 2019-20 season, as Smith went in and out of the rotation because of injuries and disfunction in a crowded backcourt. Head Coach David Fizdale was fired following a 4-18 start and Team President Steve Mills – who traded for Smith one year earlier – was also soon gone.

After averaging career lows in points (5.5), assists (2.9) and field-goal percentage (34.1%) in only 34 appearances as a third-year player, Smith appeared in just three of New York’s opening 26 games of the 2020-21 campaign. The situation got so dire for Smith that he even requested to play in the NBA G League Bubble in Orlando, just to get live game reps in. While his wish was granted, Smith spent only a week of practice with the Westchester Knicks before getting traded again to Detroit for Derrick Rose.

Injuries and other organizational priorities continued to play a role in the stalling of Smith’s NBA career over the next year or so. He spent the 2021-22 season in Portland, but appeared in only 37 games before a torn UCL in his shooting elbow forced the Trail Blazers to waive him in February. Over the course of three NBA seasons with three different teams between 2019-20 and 2021-22, Smith averaged 5.8 points on 38.3% shooting – 29.5% from 3-point range – and 3.3 assists, while appearing in 94 out of a possible 199 team games. 

“We had a lot of tough days last year as a team,” recalled Portland Head Coach Chauncey Billups. “One of my toughest days was cutting Dennis. I was in love with Dennis all year long. He embodies what I believe in. The way he came to practice every day, his back was against the wall – he changed our team. We won a lot more games than we probably should have.”

Billups and Smith’s NBA careers share a lot of early parallels, which was something that bonded the two together in Portland. Drafted third overall in 1997 following a standout two-year collegiate career at Colorado, Billups was traded 51 games into his rookie season from Boston to Toronto. His stay with the Raptors lasted all of 29 game before he was dealt again to Denver before the start of the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign.   

After a year and a half in Denver, Billups was flipped to Orlando – although didn’t play a single game with the Magic because of a shoulder injury – and then spent two years in Minnesota. By the time he signed with Detroit in June of 2002, Billups was considered somewhat of a draft bust and just another in a long line of former lottery picks that couldn’t live up to lofty expectations coming out of college.

But it was in the Motor City where Billups finally found his niche. Within two seasons, he had led the Pistons to the 2004 NBA Championship over the heavily-favored, star-studded Los Angeles Lakers and was named Finals MVP. He made five consecutive NBA All-Star Games from 2006 to 2010, earned All-NBA honors three times and made the All-Defensive Team twice. Not too shabby for somebody that switched teams five times in his first six NBA seasons.

“Dennis certainly had his struggles when I was introduced to him,” said Billups. “I kind of mentored him along the way and shared some of my experiences. I was that guy many moons ago. I was also a former lottery pick and struggled my first four or five years. It’s really hard. On many levels, I’m just really proud of him. You come in with so many expectations and when you fall, it’s hard to get off that mat and establish yourself as a good player in this league. He’s on his way.”

Different teams, different injuries, different coaches, different organizational directions – it’s been different everything for Smith the past few years. He isn’t the only high draft pick that’s had to deal with these up’s and down’s and certainly won’t be the last. Life can move pretty fast in the NBA and often times, it’s left up to the player to figure things out. For Smith, that meant finding a way to impact games when the ball wasn’t in his hands or he got limited playing time. It meant becoming the best, most well-rounded defender he could possibly be. 

“This league is challenging,” said Indiana Pacers Head Coach Rick Carlisle, who coached Smith in Dallas. “Often times, you have to pivot quickly and make adjustments. You have to hope that you have great people around you all the time. Dennis played very well for us. He was a beast, and New York really wanted him. And you know what happens from there, a lot of it has been bad fortune, whether it’s bad luck with injuries and timing, but he’s still very young and he knows how to play, man. He can impact the game with his athleticism, his ability to get downhill. He sees the floor, he can score the ball and he can defend, too.”

Added Hornets Head Coach Steve Clifford, “I think you want to start over every year with every guy, almost like brand new. A guy like [Dennis] who was a top-10 pick, it was justifiable because he was a phenomenal college player with a lot of talent. It hasn’t gone well for him early [in his career], but still, he’s 25. He’s a fit here.”

Clifford added, “I’d love to take credit, but the bottom line is he’s hungry, smart and a phenomenal defender. His pick-and-roll and individual defense are exceptional, and his team defense is very good. His shot’s a lot better. He’s done it the old-fashioned way – he’s worked hard. I think the other thing he does – and there’s not many people who can do this in our league – is contain the ball and create steals. Scoring off your defense with the way we’re playing now is a big deal.”

From afar, many around the league probably wrote Smith off because he wasn’t playing a whole lot or when he did play, he wasn’t producing the same numbers in New York, Detroit or Portland that he had in Dallas. Things happen behind the scenes in the NBA and in this particular case, much of it was outside of Smith’s control. He’s taking advantage of a much-deserved, fresh opportunity in Charlotte and right now, Dennis Smith Jr. is finally showing the world that type of player he was always destined to be.