Smith ‘super excited’ to join Pistons – ‘I’m fully aware of what’s being built here’

Dennis Smith Jr.
Dennis Smith Jr. says Dwane Casey’s reputation as a ‘great coach, great person’ was a big part of his excitement at coming to the Pistons
Nathaniel S. Butler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

When Dennis Smith Jr. got to Detroit the other day – pulled from a G League practice in Orlando on the news that the Knicks had traded him in the Derrick Rose deal – he had a surprise for his girlfriend. They were about to watch the “30 for 30” documentary on the Bad Boys. She had yet to see it.

“My 10th time,” Smith said Wednesday after his first practice with the Pistons. “That’s about the culture, about the city. The city embraces tough basketball in Detroit. I can tell with the guys we have on the team, they’re about the same thing. I’m fully aware of what’s being built here.”

Smith has already experienced one NBA rebuilding project. Drafted to the Dallas Mavericks with the ninth pick in 2017, he averaged 15 points a game to make the All-Rookie second team. But when the Mavs drafted Luke Doncic and had the chance to trade for Kristaps Porzingis, Smith found himself sent to a Knicks franchise at a crossroads and, as befalls many careers, got caught amid organizational upheaval.

But Smith, a basketball junkie, was aware of what was taking root in Detroit in large measure because of the career revival being experienced by one of his draft classmates, Josh Jackson. Jackson, like Smith on his third NBA stop, has embraced the fresh start Troy Weaver and Dwane Casey promised him to become integral to the transition the Pistons have embarked upon.

And Smith, 23, intends to take full advantage of the opportunity as Jackson has.

“Even when he was catching buzz, I would hit him up, send him a message, ‘Man, keep going.’ Support him. I was super happy to see what he was doing. I think the people here, the Pistons organization, is a large part of that. Give him the opportunity, believed in him, always believed in him. Yes, I feel like I’m prepared for that opportunity.”

It’s not lost around the NBA how Casey has overseen the development of a host of young players. Jackson’s success this year is on the heels of Christian Wood finding traction last year after the even bumpier path he’d traveled. So when Smith heard he was joining the Pistons, his first reaction was, “super excited.”

“Couldn’t really sleep that night. I’m just looking at it as an opportunity, a fresh start, like me and coach Casey talked about. I was excited for the opportunity and I knew what kind of guy coach Casey was – great coach, great person. Being able to be with him, I was looking forward to that.”

Casey worked under Rick Carlisle in Dallas and has known Tom Thibodeau for years, but he’s not especially interested in Smith’s past, only in getting to work on unlocking the potential that tagged Smith as a five-star recruit and a lottery pick after one season at North Carolina State.

“Sometimes it just doesn’t work. Sometimes a change of scenery is good for everybody,” Casey said. “In that young man’s situation, hopefully this is the scenery to have. He was spirited in practice today. He’s starting off with a clean slate. Don’t care what happened in New York. Don’t care what happened in Dallas. Don’t care what happened at North Carolina State. Starting off fresh with the Pistons.”

Casey says the point guard picture will remain fluid, so how and when Smith will be used remains unknown. But Delon Wright has settled in as the starting point guard and it’s unlikely Casey is going to tinker with that at this point. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Smith makes his debut on Thursday against Indiana as the quarterback of the second unit alongside Jackson.

Because of Smith’s athleticism and his strengths in pick-and-roll sets, there would be little disruption in style of play for a second unit accustomed to having Rose as its centerpiece.

“He’s a versatile guard. He’s a lot like Derrick,” Casey said. “Derrick’s an accomplished player and this young man is trying to get there, but a lot of his skill sets – speed and quickness and athleticism – there’s a lot of things where we can use him within our offense.”

Smith lobbied the Knicks to be allowed to go to the G League bubble, eager to play basketball, and said he was “really feeling sharp.” Now he gets to shake off the rust in the NBA, taking advantage of the same springboard Jackson has used to resuscitate his career.

“I’m going to go out there with the chip on my shoulder I’ve always had,” he said. “In terms of trying to prove something, I think it’s definitely more important to prove things to myself. I believe in myself and I know I’ve got people here that believe in me. That’s the first step toward tapping into some greatness here.”

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