DSJ on the Hornets Sounds Good, but Does It Make Sense?

CHARLOTTE, NC - FEBRUARY 16: Dennis Smith Jr. (L) and J. Cole hug at the AT&T Slam Dunk during the 2019 State Farm All-Star Saturday Night at Spectrum Center on February 16, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NC - FEBRUARY 16: Dennis Smith Jr. (L) and J. Cole hug at the AT&T Slam Dunk during the 2019 State Farm All-Star Saturday Night at Spectrum Center on February 16, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images) /

With the Charlotte Hornets having a clear need for point guard depth, former lottery pick Dennis Smith Jr. could be a name to watch.

Coming out of North Carolina State University, Smith Jr. was a highly-touted point guard prospect who drew comparisons to Russell Westbrook and John Wall. Expectations were high when Smith Jr. was selected 9th overall by the Dallas Mavericks in the 2017 NBA draft. However, his career averages of 10.7 points, 4.2 assists, and 2.9 rebounds so far show that that things have not exactly panned out.

That said, his talent was never in question and his rookie campaign showed his potential.

Smith was drafted to a very bad Dallas team whose most effective offensive weapons were Harrison Barnes and an aging Dirk Nowitzki. Smith Jr. showed flashes of his athletic ability, but to only see him as a highlight machine would be a mistake. As a rookie, Smith Jr. could absolutely fill up the stat sheet, as he averaged 15.2 points, 5.2 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game as a rookie.

Smith Jr. even drew praise from LeBron James:

However, when Dallas traded for Luka Doncic’s draft rights during the 2018 NBA draft, there was at least an inkling that the end was near.

The on-court chemistry of Smith Jr. and Doncic felt unsteady. Both players were at their best with the ball in their hands, and while there were brief moments of brilliance, the rhythm often felt stilted.

Advanced metrics pointed to the pair not working long-term; the two-man lineup of Smith Jr. and Doncic had a negative net rating, and their 102.5 offensive rating would have made Dallas a bottom-three offense in the league. Trade rumors began and made for a toxic setting that overshadowed Smith’s play. His usage rate had dropped and so did his raw numbers, but he was now a much more efficient scorer; his three-point percentage was at 37% and his overall efficiency had gotten much better.

One week before the 2019 trade deadline and just one day after registering a triple-double against the New York Knicks, Smith was traded as part of a deal that sent Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas and sent Smith Jr. to New York. The move confirmed Dallas’ commitment to Doncic as the cornerstone of their franchise.

Smith Jr. had a solid conclusion to the 2019 season, averaging 14.7 points, 5.4 assists, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game in 21 contests. In just his third game with the Knicks, Smith Jr. set a career-high, scoring 31 points against the Detroit Pistons.

New York’s never-ending point guard dilemma seemed to finally be coming to an end. Fans were excited to finally have a stable point guard after multiple seasons of uncertainty at the position. However, just as things were starting to come together for Smith Jr., it all came crashing down.

Smith Jr. entered his third season with expectations of a third-year improvement, yet he did exactly the opposite. He would start the season scoring a total of three points across four games on 1/14 shooting. He looked hesitant to shoot the ball even when defenses left him open, and he was not attacking the rim with the same aggression.

Working through a slump amidst the scrutiny of Knicks fans is no simple task. During a zero-point performance in the Knicks’ home opener, chants of “We want Frank” rained down from the rafters. Fans had seen enough of Smith Jr. and wanted to see Frank Ntilikina on the floor.

At this point, however, New York could not afford to cut Smith Jr. from the rotation.

New York’s return for the Porzingis trade had materialized into Smith Jr., salary cap space, and draft picks. The plan to use that cap space to sign two superstars did not materialize as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving instead joined Knicks’ cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Nets. The two first-round draft picks turned out to be late first-round selections as the Mavericks improved rapidly due to Doncic’s stellar play. This left Smith Jr. as the most viable part of the return, so it was in the Knicks’ best interest for him to become a part of the team’s long-term future.

Smith Jr.’s struggles continued. He eventually requested to play in the G-League bubble, seeking to prove himself worthy of reconsideration. This showed maturity and humility from Smith Jr., and it seems to have impressed teams around the league; just eight days later, the Detroit Pistons decided to trade for him.

In Detroit, Smith would again struggle and was released after 20 games. His averages of 7.3 points, 3.7 assists, and 2.7 rebounds per game were unspectacular, and it began to feel as if his upside had waned.

After his short stint in Detroit, Smith received a training-camp contract with the Portland Trail Blazers. After some impressive practices, he was rewarded with a two-way contract. While Smith Jr. was mostly unspectacular in Portland, he did start in four games while Damian Lillard was injured. In those games, Smith averaged 15.8 points, 6.5 assists, and 4.5 rebounds while shooting 54.3%. Later that season, however, a partial tear of the UCL in his shooting elbow would mark the end of his stint in Portland, as he was soon waived and has remained unsigned since that time.

Dennis Smith Jr. is an ideal buy-low reclamation project

This offseason, in search of a new opportunity, Smith Jr. hosted a private workout in front of approximately ten NBA teams. The highlights from that workout show that he still has some impressive physical gifts which may explain the continued reported interest in him at the NBA level.

Perhaps a return to his home state could be exactly what the Fayetteville, North Carolina native needs to begin to rehabilitate his professional basketball career. On a minimum contract, Smith Jr. would not be a risky investment for Charlotte. In and a clearly defined role, Smith Jr. could enter a situation with no pressure to live up to his long-ago lofty draft status.