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Exit Interview: Dennis Smith Jr. tried his best to reclaim his NBA future

The young guard was once known for offensive explosiveness. In Motown, he was determined to earn recognition on the defensive end

Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Yes, I’ve already said this couple of times, but I will say it again: Dennis Smith Jr. wasn’t known for his defense before he arrived in Detroit. He came to the NBA with a reputation of being an explosive scoring guard who averaged 18.1 PPG in his lone season at North Carolina State. He was doing OK in his first year as a pro, but his efficiency was lackluster and his offensive potential dimmed in Dallas once Luka Doncic arrived before it darkened altogether in an ill-fated stint with the Knicks.

Smith Jr. got a second (third?) chance when the Detroit Pistons obtained him in a trade for Derrick Rose. Apparently, he was very appreciative for a chance to play for the young, promising team Troy Weaver assembled. With the help of talent developer and mentor Dwane Casey, Smith Jr. started a redemption tour by focusing much more of his energy on defense.

The Good

A surprisingly impactful defender

Dennis doesn’t have astonishing physical traits. Standing at pedestrian 6-foot-2 with an equally meh 6-foot-3 wingspan. But playing in Motown, he was able to evoke the memories of Lindsey Hunter’s pit bull defense. DSJ took his signature athleticism, previously known exclusively from his offense, on the defensive side of the ball.

It turned out that Smith Jr. was able to deliver impassable footwork and ability to navigate thorough screens which, with his strength and active hands, produced a very intriguing defensive mixture.

He was able to be extremely disruptive of opposing point guards.

He also showed an elite ability to defend ball-handlers in P&Rs, where his 0.72 PPP allowed put him in the 88th percentile of the entire NBA.

Those attributes allowed him also to become a force in help defense, in off ball defense and in transition defense.

DSJ’s help defense

DSJ’s off-ball defense

DSJ’s transition defense

In addition to his on-ball D, his activity in those areas has contributed to his top position in STL% (Basketball Reference) – a 2.5 figure would be eighth best in the league if not for the limited number of games played; in deflections – a 4.5 figure per 36 minutes makes him 11th best; and in BLK% (Basketball Reference) – he’d be the 26th with a 3.1 figure.

Altogether, this contributed to a 108.1 DEFRTG that placed him in the first third of the entire league.

This was all the more remarkable because he came to the Pistons with a reputation for plenty of defensive flaws that we reported on the occasion of his trade to the Motor City, as well as to his rough start as a Piston in which he had to shake off the rust after being buried on the Knicks’ bench.

Now he looks like a potent defensive weapon that could be able to shoot down opposing PGs, provide winning plays while helping and defending off-ball and break fast-breaks. In addition, with his athleticism and strength he can defend his ground against bigger players too.

The Bad

The one thing he could work on is spot-up D. OK, defending shooters isn’t something you’d expect from your usual point guard. Yet, with Dwane Casey’s inclination to play multiple PGs rotations, some above-average (and Dennis is in the 46th percentile with 1.05 PPP allowed) contribution here would be welcomed. And DSJ showed some flashes allowing to expect such a contribution from him.

More Good Signs on Offense

A seemingly tailor-made point guard on offense

After establishing his position on the defensive end of the floor, DSJ started redeeming his offensive potential to the point of resembling his own athletic self.

In his third week with the team, he began a six-game stretch when he averaged 11.8 PPG (on 46/41.7/75 shooting splits) and 5.2 APG (against 1 TPG).

On the one hand, he displayed the ability to play the role of primary initiator breaking down defenses with the ball in his hands. He can penetrate the arc, patiently probing the defense to generate some collapse that will yield open driving or passing lane.

DSJ driving

... and passing

And he can slash to the basket instantly whenever the opening presents itself as well.

On the other hand, he was a very good contributor playing off the ball.

In that same stretch, 35.5% of his FGM was assisted.

With a usage rate of 21.2, 5/1 AST/TO ratio and the ability to play off-ball, Smith Jr. showed to be a great fit for Dwane Casey’s motion offense with as many points of attack as possible.

The Bad

However, he still could do a better job choosing when to attack the rack and when to keep probing the defense. His below-average FG% of 54.1 from the restricted area with the Pistons seems to be a result of him gambling too much on his athleticism and finding himself stacked in a traffic.

He’d also be better served with more efficient midrange game. A 36 FG% there won’t cut it. He has a shorter way to improve with his long gun as his 35.2 3P% is close to NBA average number of 36.7.

But some improvement in this area is needed nevertheless. The lower shooting percentages in those areas keeps dragging his overall efficiency down. He didn’t help his case with much lower than usual FTr (.148 this year with the Pistons compared to .214 before). No wonder that his TS% of 50.4 looks in need of much improvement.

Should He Stay or Should He Go?

I wouldn’t mind DSJ staying going forward. In Detroit, he showed intriguing potential to be Kyle Lowry-type of offensively and defensively pesky guard with surplus athleticism. But there are three questions. Can he stay healthy? Will he be cheap? Can he consistently play the role of reliable veteran PG in the mold of at least last year Delon Wright or Cory Joseph like he did during that six-game stretch?

The team will (probably) had two intriguing young ones, Killian Hayes and Saben Lee. But (also probably) it will seek for some veteran presence on that spot. It’d be great if Smith Jr. could walk in those shoes because, in contrast to Delon and Cory, he’s still young, which, with his athleticism could mean some untapped potential that may allow him to outgrow those two and exalt into a role in the magnitude of someone like Lowry.

But for this to happen, he needs to improve his scoring efficiency sharply – Lory had almost 10 percentage points better TS% than Dennis. It might be tough. But if the plan is to develop and not win too much again next season, DSJ might be given a chance.

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