Dennis Smith Jr. making the most of Charlotte opportunity

Alder Almo - Philstar.com
Dennis Smith Jr. making the most of Charlotte opportunity
Dennis Smith Jr. of the Charlotte Hornets reacts after scoring against the New Orleans Pelicans during their game at the Spectrum Center on October 21, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images / AFP

NEW YORK – Dennis Smith Jr. was considered the steal of the 2017 NBA Draft. 

Despite being undersized, the 6-foot-2 guard’s athleticism was off the charts, so much so that LeBron James criticized the New York Knicks for passing up on him. 

“The Knicks passed on a really good one, and Dallas got the diamond in the rough,” James said at that time. “He should be a Knick. That’s going to make some headlines, but he should be a Knick. Dallas is definitely, I know they’re excited that he didn’t go there.”

The Knicks eventually got Smith as the headliner of the Kristaps Porzingis trade in 2019. 

Smith’s staying power in Dallas didn’t last long, as the Mavericks struck gold in the 2018 NBA Draft with Luka Doncic and had another steal in Jalen Brunson in the second round. 

Doncic and Brunson became the Mavericks’ 1-2 punch last season in their run to the Western Conference Finals. 

Meanwhile, Smith became a journeyman as injuries and personal tragedies (his stepmother passed away during his time with the Knicks) held him back. 

Brunson eventually landed a $104-million deal with the Knicks in the offseason to plug, once and for all, their most glaring hole, which a revolving door of point guards, Smith included, failed to fill. 

On the other hand, Smith was on the fringes after the Portland Trail Blazers, his fourth team in five years, waived him in February. 

He even contemplated switching sports. 

"I told my previous agent, 'I'm not going overseas. If s--t don't work out, I'm just going to the NFL. And I was dead-ass serious. I put on hella weight. I was gonna try,” Smith told a small group of reporters before he faced Brunson and the Knicks Wednesday night (Thursday, Manila time). 

Luckily for him, his home state team, the Charlotte Hornets, gave him one more shot. 

Signed to a one-year minimum deal, Smith is seizing the opportunity. 

He continued his strong start against his former team, collecting a double-double (14 points, 11 assists and two steals). Still, it was not enough to eclipse Brunson and the Knicks. 

Smith’s layup in the last 38.6 seconds of regulation sent the game into overtime. But Brunson outdueled him the rest of the way. 

Brunson scored six of his game-high 27 points and issued a no-look pass, the last of a career-high 13 assists, to Mitchell Robinson for an easy dunk in the overtime as the Knicks prevailed, 134-131, in front of a sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd of 19,812. 

Despite the tough overtime loss, the Hornets are one of the season's early surprises with a 2-2 record after a disastrous offseason — Miles Bridges was charged with domestic abuse violence, Golden State’s top assistant and former Brooklyn Nets’ coach Kenny Atkinson backed out from coaching the team, and Ball went down with ankle injury. Terry Rozier recently joined their stars on the sideline due to an ankle injury. 

Smith’s play is a big reason for the Hornets’ surprising performance. 

In his first start of the season, before the Knicks game, Smith helped the Hornets take down the Atlanta Hawks, 126-109, with 18 points, six assists and three steals. 

The former ninth overall pick is off to a hot start, averaging 13.5 points, 6.3 assists and 2.3 steals while shooting efficiently (52.2% from the field and 50 percent from the three-point range). 

“Some guys figure it out late. Some guys figure it out right away,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Smith before they faced the Knicks. “He’s a talented guy. Even though with the injuries, he’s not the athlete he was, he’s still a really good athlete, even for this league. I don’t see that he’s doing anything he can’t continue to do, frankly.”



Alder Almo is a former senior sportswriter for Philstar.com and NBA.com Philippines. He is now based in Jersey City, New Jersey, and writes for the New York-based sports website empiresportsmedia.com.

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