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Dennis Smith Jr. joins Josh Jackson on Pistons path from reclamation to restoration

The rarefied talent that Josh Jackson and Dennis Smith Jr. possessed at a tender age is both blessing and curse. It identified them before they could drive a car as future NBA players. That’s a wonderful gift with the potential to become an onerous weight.

Think about this: In another time, Jackson and Smith would be NBA rookies this season, fresh off All-American careers played out before two of college basketball’s more rabid fan bases, Kansas and North Carolina State.

It would be too soon, if they were rookies, for them to have been labeled disappointments.

Instead, they’ve both been through the cycle of can’t-miss stars to can’t-play flops. When you’re identified as a McDonald’s All-American and a five-star recruit as a 17-year-old, the full expectation is that you will go from shaking the hand of your high school principal at graduation one spring to shaking the hand of NBA commissioner Adam Silver as a lottery pick the next.

Against that backdrop, the Pistons on Monday announced they’d acquired Smith from the Knicks – along with a 2021 second-round pick with a chance to be in the top 10 of the round – for former MVP Derrick Rose.

The same general manager who identified Jerami Grant as a player prepared to make the rare leap from role player to star, Troy Weaver, is the guy who saw in Jackson a reclamation project worth undertaking. Jackson is coming off a four-game road trip where he averaged 19.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, a block and a steal per game on 45 percent shooting and 43 percent 3-point shooting.

Now the Pistons provide Smith the same environment that’s nurtured Grant to stardom and has shown clear evidence of putting Jackson on a similar path.

“No question. Josh should be on that path – will be on that path for us,” Dwane Casey said just last week. “He’s a talented young man learning how to play with the ball with a lot of responsibility. With that freedom comes accountability. That’s his next step.”

The next night, Jackson scored 28 points and led a comeback that saw the undermanned Pistons push the Lakers to double overtime.

Smith was a similarly ranked prospect coming out of high school and went ninth, five spots after Jackson, in the 2017 draft. Like Jackson, Smith is joining his third NBA franchise. He averaged 15.2 points as a 20-year-old rookie for Dallas – making the All-Rookie second team, along with Jackson – and then was part of the package shipped to the Knicks in the Kristaps Porzingis deal.

He’s played for four coaches and endured a few injuries and those are the pitfalls they never tell the kids about when they’re projecting them to the NBA after a year in college. As quickly as future stardom is conferred on phenoms, they’re fast discarded when instant gratification isn’t realized.

With Killian Hayes sidelined by injury and Rose now traded, it must be clear to Smith – on the last year of his rookie contract – that he’s been presented a great opportunity to plant his flag on the NBA landscape in Detroit. Playing time is available and he’s surrounded by members of an organization invested in the futures of all the young players Weaver has put in the pipeline since November.

Smith becomes the 10th player 23 or younger on the roster now. Jackson is two days from phasing out of that club, turning 24 on Wednesday. That seems fitting, Smith assuming Jackson’s place in the 23-and-under club. Just as Jackson is on a path to emulate Grant’s transition from role player to star someday, Smith is now a step behind Jackson on the path from reclamation project to valued member of the Pistons restoration.