Dennis Smith Jr. is finally a Piston. But we better hurry with this - his days in Motown are numbered before they even start.
After taking advantage of Pistons cap space to the fullest this summer – his first in charge – Troy Weaver again has some room to maneuver. And he doesn’t mess around with such opportunities. But if Smith Jr. is a desired return of the deal that sent Derrick Rose to Knicks, not only for some of the holdovers from pre-Troy front office (as was the case with Džanan Musa) but also by Troy himself, what intriguing potential do they see in the newest Piston?
Smith Jr. was a highly coveted prospect in a point-guard heavy 2017 draft class. In his sole season at North Carolina State he proved to be a dynamic playmaker capable of breaking down defenses time after time with dynamic drives inside, and shooting from outside. He was good as a scorer (18.1 points per game with 56.3 TS%) and facilitator (6.2 assists per game and 34.2 assist rate).
After being drafted 9th overall by the Dallas Mavericks, he had a solid rookie campaign averaging 15.2 PPG, but with a TS% of only 47.3, and 5.2 APG. In his second season, he upped his efficiency significantly to 52.7 TS% while trimming his usage (12.9 PPG, 4.3 APG, 23.2 Usage rate compared to 28.9 in previous season) due to playing next to Luka Dončić. If you don’t recall, it was a time when Blake was still throwing thunders.
However, at midseason he was traded to New York. The Knicks tried to make him the go-to guy of their depleted team, and at the beginning it looked promising. He scored 25 and a career-high 31 points on 40 shots combined in his second and third game with the new franchise, both games against Detroit. But then it went downhill, and he finished the Knicks part of his sophomore season averaging 14.7 PPG but on the same 47.3 TS% as in his rookie year.
The Knicks apparently weren’t interested in developing him after that, as his third year was a complete disaster: 34 games played, 15.8 minutes per game, 5.5 PPG on 39.9 TS%, 2.9 APG. His fourth year has been even worse: 3 games played, 9.3 minutes per game, 3 PPG on 35.6 TS, 1 APG.
The history of his fall teaches us one thing about DSJ: He needs to play within some structure and not be pushed to be “the man.” And the Detroit Pistons provide exactly that. He won’t be asked to lead the team, as it already has strong leaders in Blake Griffin and Jerami Grant. And Dwane Casey’s idea of freedom within broadly defined schemes already proved to be successful in allowing players like Blake and Jerami to reach their potential. So far, the same scheme is doing quite well by another reclamation project, Josh Jackson.
Also, the Pistons could benefit from utilizing what Smith Jr. brings to the table. His ability to break the defense down with dribble drive penetrations in half court schemes or isolations (in his sophomore season, he was in the 84.7 percentile in isolation scoring) is at a premium in Casey’s offense. In contrast to the departing Rose, who is inclined to take tough shots in those situations, Smith showed, when he was at his best, to take those shots which have the best chance to fall or get him to the line.
If there weren’t driving lanes available, or someone else was in even better position to score (from inside or outside), he wasn’t reluctant to pass the ball.
Like Rose has, Smith Jr. can diversify that offensive input with a promising-looking pullup game.
His ability to shoot shows some potential to be stretched to the three point line. On the film below, we can observe him exhibiting the capability to make not only catch and shoot triples, but also off movement ones, and he doesn’t look bad on those missed off the dribble.
To all this he adds great, diversified (in a sense of suiting the needs of different lineups) potential in open court.
And there are also some fundamentals that can develop into useful post-up game given his strong, 205 pound frame.
It’s not that all is fine and dandy… even if we turn a blind eye on the fact that at the moment he’s at bottom of his career. Sometimes he’s a little too schematic in his penetrations.
He made some exceptionally sloppy passes.
And this airmailed wide open triple try reminds us that his long ball needs a lot of work.
But the biggest problem is that on the other end, despite his youthfulness and athleticism, he doesn’t shows to be a much better defender then Rose. He has some hustle in him.
With a big frame, he can successfully disrupt posting bigs.
He’s active in passing lanes.
And when he steels himself, he can provide some solid on ball D.
But he tends to be passive on screens both in off- and on-ball defense.
His orientation is very disoriented.
He’s apt to rotate to the middle to do nothing helpful there while leaving too much space on perimeter.
And if all this wasn’t enough, even while being passive in on ball D, he still is somehow able to commit a foul.
The good thing is that all those things are amendable, and the examples of Josh Jackson, Sekou Doumbouya or Svi Mykhailiuk tell us that coach Casey is able to mobilize his young players to try harder on defense.
It seems that Dennis Smith Jr. finally finds himself in a place where he can put his career on the right track. And Detroit and its new GM could really find in him another young player with a high draft pick resume who “advances [its] goals in building for the future,” and therefore is of a great value for the rebuild. But both sides have long way to go. Whether they will manage to go through it will depend on their patient and persistent cooperation.