2020-21 Rewind: Pistons didn’t get all the evaluation time they wanted after trading for Dennis Smith Jr.

Dennis Smith Jr.
Assorted minor injuries limited Dennis Smith Jr. to 20 games with the Pistons after he was acquired via trade from the New York Knicks
Nic Antaya (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The Pistons signed Josh Jackson in free agency and picked up Frank Jackson off the waiver wire when he was a cut-down day casualty in Oklahoma City on the eve of the 2020-21 season opener. They went the trade route to try for a third reclamation project from the 2017 NBA draft in Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith was the ninth choice in the ’17 draft, taken by Dallas five spots after Phoenix selected Josh Jackson. Frank Jackson was the first pick of the second round, missed his rookie season due to injury and then spent the past two seasons in New Orleans. All spent just one season in college.

Here’s a look at Smith’s season with the Pistons and what comes next for him:

PROFILE: 6-foot-2 point guard/23 years old/4 NBA seasons
2020-21 STATS: 7.3 points, 3.7 assists in 20 games
STATUS: Smith will be a free agent in August

DID YOU KNOW?: Smith, North Carolina’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2015, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee while he was still in high school. He was dunking again within two months of the injury because doctors discovered, during surgery to repair the ligament, that Smith actually had a second ACL in the injured knee.

A LOOK BACK: Smith was a five-star recruit in the high school class of 2016 whose status was clouded by the August 2015 ACL tear that was supposed to cost him his senior season before Smith’s extra ACL was discovered to allow him a quick turnaround. Smith chose North Carolina State over Duke and Kentucky and averaged 18.1 points and 6.2 assists as a freshman, declaring for the 2017 NBA draft after the season. Smith wound up as the No. 9 pick of the Dallas Mavericks – the fifth point guard taken after Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox and Frank Ntilikina. Smith averaged career highs in points (15.2), assists (5.2) and minutes (30) per game as a rookie with Dallas, which went 24-58 in 2017-18 and wound up with the No. 5 pick in the 2018 draft. The Mavericks traded with Atlanta, sending the fifth pick and a 2019 first-rounder to the Hawks for the No. 3 pick used to take Luka Doncic. That ultimately led to the January 2019 trade to the Knicks that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks. Smith averaged 14.7 points and 5.4 assists for the Knicks in the season’s final 21 games, but his playing time diminished in 2019-20 after the Knicks brought in free agent Elfrid Payton to compete with Smith and Ntilikina.

THE SEASON THAT WAS: With the Knicks bringing in Tom Thibodeau as coach and the backcourt crowded further by the addition of first-round pick Immanuel Quickley, Smith’s 2020-21 season veered off course when a preseason injury pushed him to the periphery. Smith volunteered to play with New York’s G League affiliate, Westchester, and that’s where he was when the Pistons granted Derrick Rose’s desire to play for the contending Knicks and Thibodeau, his coach during his MVP days in Chicago, with the Feb. 8 trade that sent Charlotte’s 2021 second-round pick and Smith to the Pistons. Smith had some early success with the Pistons – 17 points and six assists in late February against Sacramento, a triple-double in early March against Toronto – but a series of injuries culminating with left knee soreness that kept Smith out for the final month-plus and 19 games limited the opportunity the Pistons had hoped they’d get to fully evaluate Smith ahead of this summer’s pending free agency. The 35.2 percent Smith shot from the 3-point arc with the Pistons on 5.0 attempts per 36 minutes was a career high.

A LOOK AHEAD: As a former lottery pick, Smith will have a significant cap hold of $7.7 million. That makes it a long shot that the Pistons would extend a qualifying offer to Smith. Doing so would make Smith a restricted free agent and give the Pistons the right to match any offer sheet another team might extend. Declining to extend a qualifying offer will make Smith an unrestricted free agent. Given the presence of rookie point guards Killian Hayes and Saben Lee, the expected scarcity of roster spots available and an anticipated desire to have a more senior veteran on the roster – Cory Joseph would be one possibility – a reunion with Smith seems uncertain to unlikely. But it won’t be an easy call to risk unrestricted free agency on a 23-year-old with Smith’s level of athleticism.

MONEY QUOTE: “It’s been tough because this was the time for him to go out and show and be evaluated and get extended playing time. It’s unfortunate he’s been hurt, but injury is something you have to deal with. We just have to figure out another way where we can evaluate him.” – Dwane Casey in April as Smith’s knee injury prevented him from getting back in the mix with the Pistons

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