Through nine games with the New York Knicks following an uninspired, if not altogether disappointing, season and change with the Dallas Mavericks, plenty of people think Dennis Smith Jr. is roughly what they expected from him coming out of North Carolina State, but on a grander stage — an explosive, borderline-reckless athlete with as much a propensity for highlights as for aimlessness. To their credit, these people aren’t totally incorrect.
But nine games with one franchise, nevermind the 101 with the first, cannot responsibly make an assessment of potential. While Mavericks fans are basking in the glow of one franchise player, Luka Doncic, and adjusting to the stunning acquisition of a would-be co-star, Knicks fans have resigned themselves to glowering at away scoreboards whenever the Cavs or Suns lose another game.
Meanwhile, those very same, incomprehensibly irrational people are gesturing toward their phones, telling you that people sold out on Dennis Smith Jr. too early. To their credit, these people aren’t totally incorrect.
With all the standard allowances of “small sample size” and “forthcoming cap space additions adversely youth development due to media exposure,” Smith’s showings in New York have been, with extreme caution, rather promising. At the risk of alienating Frank Ntilikina, my beloved French Press defensive dynamo/Andre Roberson proxy with better hair, Smith has done his best to inspire a unique brand of hope among Knicks intelligentsia, and it isn’t just because of his brushes with the limits of gravity.
Two things can be true: Smith can have forced Dario Saric into a business decision with a coast-to-coast number that probably had Nique wailing somewhere, and Smith needs to improve his jump shot. The latter is, charitably, a problem with Knicks point guards, and with Smith having just turned 21 in November, one should think he has the basketball wherewithal to figure something close to a fix out, hopefully, sooner rather than later.
A third thing, however, is also true: Smith is demonstrably better at distributing the ball. Not only are his assists up – from 4.3 per game to 6.9 just between his Mavs and Knicks stints this season, respectively – but his assist percentage is eye-popping: according to NBA.com, among players averaging 30 minutes per game, Smith’s assist percentage is 41.9 percent, which ranks sixth in that time period and would rank second in the league over the course of the season, only behind Russell Westbrook’s 44.1 percent.
In other words: there is hope that Smith can be as much a distributor as a demolisher. Among players meeting the aforementioned qualifications, Smith’s assist-to-turnover ratio ranks seventh, at 2.95. Among others, he is ahead of Westbrook, Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James. In the words of Clyde Frazier, this is elite dishing-to-swishing.
Smith remains a project, and one on whom expectations play an uncommonly massive role given his place in a trade for a frustrated, would-be superstar. But Dennis Smith Jr. is his own player, his own Knick, and he is already carving out his legacy in New York. If only we would stand back and let him.