i saw the other DSJ thread was locked so i didn't know where else to put this. great article
Dennis Smith Jr. dunked for the first time in a game in eighth grade, a teenager still not quite six feet tall when he tossed the ball off the backboard at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh and threw it down.
“He threw the ball and caught it and dunked the crap out of it,” said Kevin Graves, his AAU coach at the time. “And we all went crazy.”
Two Junes ago, some 24 hours after the Mavericks picked him ninth in the NBA Draft and he made a quick trip into Dallas, Smith returned to Raleigh. Early in the morning, around a quarter to 3, he felt the need to play ball. More than three hours later, after a handful of pick-up games and the topic of breakfast was being broached as the sun neared, Smith jumped up, threw the ball in the air, then chased it down with a dunk so ferocious his trainer, Ja-Rell Bailey, insisted it put his face higher than the rim.
The witnesses to Smith’s athleticism speak about the moments with reverence. They sound so jarred that the stories could be apocryphal. The 48-inch vertical. The race in which Smith beat De’Aaron Fox in a sprint just a few weeks after a full recovery from a torn ACL — actually, there’s video of that.
“It was like a Ferrari,” Bailey gushes, “and a Honda Accord.”
But the question with Smith has never been about his talent, it’s about what he’d do with it. He’ll get to answer that in New York after a trade last month that sent Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas and Smith to the Knicks as the centerpiece of the return. Smith had once thought he’d be drafted by the Knicks, waiting to hear his name called only to be skipped over for one more pick.
Now, he gets a team all to himself in New York, albeit a 10-46 one he’ll try to find stability on after his short stint with the Mavericks ended unceremoniously. Still just 21, Smith, pushed aside for Luka Doncic in Dallas, has made Madison Square Garden his latest platform. While the Knicks are evaluating Smith to see if he can make himself a part of the organizational firmament, he believes he’s found a place to grow.
“A fresh start,” Smith told The Athletic of what the trade brought him. “Fresh start and just freedom and just being able to have fun and play basketball again. Things that I needed.”
His start with the Knicks, so far, has been strong. He scored 25 points and then 31 in back-to-back games last week, and got to the free throw line 19 times in Detroit on Friday. With few playmakers left on the roster, David Fizdale is giving Smith free rein to run the offense and to create.
He’s displayed a performative aspect to his play, too. There was the 360-degree dunk against the Pistons, then an alley-oop off the glass to DeAndre Jordan on Sunday. He intends to be a showman, and not just this Saturday night in the dunk contest during the NBA’s All-Star weekend.
“Just giving the fans something,” he said. “They pay good money to come to these games. Just giving them something to watch. That’s what that’s all about. If you get the fans involved — they respect good basketball, of course, and they respect the show. I feel with our team being so young and athletic, we can give them that.”
Smith honed his game at a young age in North Carolina, where they still call him “Junior,” not Dennis.
Though he grew up in Fayetteville, he spent weekends at his grandmother’s home in nearby Godwin. In Fayetteville, he’d sometimes struggle to find hoops, recalling that they were too frequently stolen, forcing him to shoot around on playgrounds, not courts.
But in Godwin, he always had a basket waiting on his grandmother’s two-and-a-half acre property and a large family to play around with. The games were physical, combative and played on a dirt and grass court.
“A whole bunch of country boys playing with each other,” Isaiah Worley, his cousin, said. “I think that had something to do with our competitive edge.”
Smith made his ambitions clear early. Rhonda Smith, his aunt, still has an elementary school assignment of his proclaiming that he’d be an NBA player one day. “I love basketball,” it reads. Dennis Smith Sr., his father, engaged him, teaching him left-handed layups at 6 years old, and then coaching his grade school and AAU teams. Smith Jr. played for the Karolina Diamonds, under Graves, and then for his dad with Team Loaded North Carolina, alongside Bam Adebayo on both.
Smith starred for Graves’ AAU team and soon started making national headlines. The summer after his freshman year of high school, he appeared on “SportsCenter” for the first time, a highlight of him dunking on an opposing player. By the time the team got back to its hotel in Pittsburgh, they were watching him on ESPN.
The year after he began working with Bailey, who was quickly floored by Smith’s athleticism. Smith only had a 40-inch vertical then, but Bailey put him through 32 different workout routines to build him up.
Even an ACL tear the August before his senior year of high school could not hold him back for long. He was despondent the day it happened, sounding distressed on a phone call to Worley. But the day after surgery, he moved into his grandmother’s house and began lifting weights, trying to stay in shape. He thrived in his first season back from the injury, playing well enough at North Carolina State to be a one-and-done and a lottery selection.
“I worked for it,” Smith said. “That was my way to make it out — it was basketball.”
He comes to New York now with some baggage, but a chance to restart his career once again. Smith thought that the Knicks might be his home when his NBA career began. On draft night nearly two years ago, he waited for his name to be called. He believed he’d go to the Orlando Magic, who had worked him out twice but passed on him at No. 6. The Knicks, he thought, would take him two picks later.
He had dinner with then-team president Phil Jackson before the draft, though he describes it as “awkward.” He was asked to eat octopus during the meal but seemed to come away scarred. It made for tabloid fodder.
The request was only more awkward because Smith had grown up using octopus to prank his friends and family. In Fayetteville, he’d buy the sea animal from a nearby store and leave raw octopus on car door handles and people’s heads, messing with whoever was unlucky enough to be a target.
When Jackson and the Knicks ordered octopus during their meeting, they unwittingly asked Smith to eat something he had only dared his friends to eat.
“I understood what’s disgusting,” Smith said. “That’s why it’s a good prank.”
(Smith has earned a reputation as a prankster with his family and friends. Aside from the octopus, his other go-to move was unleashing a fart spray during class in high school. He’s particularly proud of that one still.
“Yeah, called Liquid Ass,” he said. “A spray I got. It’s the worst smelling thing ever. I would spray it in my classroom or something and act like I didn’t do it. Everybody was clearing it out of there. I would spray it in a restaurant — this was when I was young — spray it in a restaurant counter or something like that, they’re checking the ice cream machines.”)
Maybe it’s appropriate then that he’s come to New York now that his food tastes have changed — “What’s crazy is I kinda like it now.” Jackson is gone. The point guard spot is his, not Frank Ntilikina’s, the guard the Knicks took one spot ahead of him.
His time in Dallas was short and rocky. Smith was the franchise’s pillar for only one season, when he shot 39.5 percent from the floor and made the kind of mistakes rookie point guards are prone to.
When the Mavericks landed the No. 5 pick in the draft last spring, he excitedly started watching tape of Doncic and other potential top-5 picks, readying himself for his next teammate. But the partnership with Doncic didn’t last. Doncic quickly became a budding star, while Smith was relegated to sidekick.
He left the Mavericks for six games last month, but doesn’t want to discuss it much. The reasons are murky. An ESPN report said Smith left the team out of unhappiness with his smaller role. Rick Carlisle, the Mavericks coach, told a Dallas radio station there was “business stuff going on, and he’s being told to stay away.”
Smith disputes the reported reasons. Officially, he missed time because of a back injury and then an illness, according to Dallas’ injury reports, and he says those are valid.
“My brother and them, they was helping me when I had my stomach virus,” Smith said. “I was in there at 3 in the morning. I woke up throwing up. Eating chicken noodle soup and crackers for a whole day. Stuff like that happens. It’s inevitable. One of my first times ever getting sick — probably second time I’ve ever been sick in my life. It’s unfortunate but it is what it is.”
He hasn’t shown much willingness to discuss his time playing under Carlisle either. Asked if he liked playing for Carlisle and the way he coached point guards, Smith was coy.
“I’m just focused on playing for the Knicks, man,” he said. “That’s all I can give you. I love playing for Fizdale, I can tell you that.”
The early returns have been positive so far for Smith. He’s already set a career high in points and Fizdale has given him the freedom to operate the Knicks’ offense.
Smith’s best traits have been on display. His dynamism is clear. He’s got a quick-twitch game created for social media. He can get to the rim and he’s a must-watch in transition.
But his shooting still needs work and Smith has taken steps to try to improve it. Brandon Payne, who trains Steph Curry, spent a month with Smith this summer, working with him and Curry together for a time in the Bay Area. They worked on shooting, creating space, picking the ball up off the ground efficiently and getting shots off cleanly. Eventually, he hopes to help Smith become a more energy-efficient player who can harness his speed and control his body.
While Smith’s shooting numbers have gone up this year from last, Payne believes true long-term improvement will be a three-year process. There will be stops and starts, but eventually, he thinks, it could all come together.
Bailey, his longtime trainer, also believes that finding a consistent shot is the key to unlocking Smith’s ceiling.
“Because he’s so athletic, so explosive, he’s always lived off getting by people,” Payne said. “He’s never really had to learn them. It was a process of trying to teach him how to create space, when to recognize you have space, and how to get a balanced shot off when you see it.”
The Knicks, at least for now, will give him the room to experiment and test his limits. Fizdales’ system, Smith believes, is a great fit for him. And he’ll certainly get the minutes to prove his value.
When he heard he was being traded, after weeks of rumors, Smith started texting friends and family in happiness. He had wanted a big stage, he told Bailey, and he wanted to bring New York what they had been waiting for.