When Dennis Smith Jr. was drafted ninth overall in the 2017 draft by the Dallas Mavericks it was the highest an NC State player had been taken since 1992 when Tom Gugliotta was taken sixth overall by the Washington Wizards. Analysts praised Smith’s vertical leap and his explosive speed, and when the Mavericks drafted him, they couldn’t believe he had fallen to them, as Smith had been projected throughout the season to be a potential top-five pick.
In Smith’s rookie season the Mavericks built the team around his style of play. The Mavs had shooters like guards Harrison Barnes, Seth Curry and Doug McDermott who could help space the floor and create driving lanes for him to penetrate. They also had 7-footers like power forward Dirk Nowitzki and center Salah Mejri to make up for lack of rebounding by Smith who is only 6-foot-3. These players the Mavericks surrounded Smith with combined with the fast-break style of play that the Mavs liked to play with allowed Smith to have his best season ever in the NBA. In the 69 games he played, Smith started all 69. He also averaged a career-high 29.7 minutes per game and a career-high 15.2 points per game.
The following season, Smith got off to a strong start once again for the Mavs, averaging a career-high 44 percent shooting from the field and started in all 32 games he played. However, upper management for the Dallas Mavericks, such as General Manager Donnie Nelson, didn’t think he fit in well with star rookie Luka Doncic, who they had drafted third overall. They wanted someone who could play in the forward position to complement Doncic’s game more than Smith did. They eventually worked out a trade and sent Smith to the New York Knicks along with DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews and two first-round draft picks in exchange for Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke. The main players in the trade were Smith and Porzingis. Dallas upgraded the forward position and New York got the upgrade they needed at point guard. Smith finished out the season strong for the Knicks starting in 18 of the 21 games he played in and averaging 14.7 points per game.
The 2019 NBA season so far has been frustrating for the former Wolfpack star. He is only averaging 15 minutes per game in a role where he is coming off the bench. His points-per-game average has dropped to only 5.6 per game so far this season, and he is shooting only 35.5 percent from the field. One of the reasons Smith is struggling is because the team is not built to suit his game like it was in Dallas. With the Mavericks he was surrounded by shooters to create spacing for him whereas the Knicks have a bigger team that has players like power forwards Taj Gibson and Julius Randle who like to post inside. This doesn’t allow Smith the space he needs to create explosive plays. Even worse, the Knicks drafted R.J. Barrett, an explosive, high-flying guard with a game style exactly like Smith’s. With the team the Knicks have assembled, it’s clear Smith isn’t going to get more playing time anytime soon.
The most concerning thing for Smith is his field goal percentage. With the big roster the Knicks have assembled and lack of shooters, Smith is forced to shoot more outside shots. Asking him to do something that isn’t his best strength isn’t good for his growth as a player. He needs to be put on a team that supports his strengths like the Mavs did for the first year and a half of his career. Smith is only in the third year of his NBA career and he is still in his athletic peak. Over the last year he has seen a decline in his numbers because the system the Knicks have in place does not support him. The Knicks are halting the incredible growth he had with the Mavericks.