Revitalized with defense, Dennis Smith Jr. found perfect fit with Nets: “It was hand-in-glove fit”

16 July 2023

LAS VEGAS — Resurrected with a newfound reputation as a defensive stopper, Dennis Smith Jr. found the team that fit like a glove.

“It was communicated to me that I was a priority and the direction they were trying to go in was also on the same trajectory that I am in my career,” the 25-year-old said Sunday while watching the Summer League Nets trample the Knicks. “And I just thought it was hand-in-glove fit.”

Indeed, the Nets are in a phase similar to Smith’s style and career arc. They’re a reconstruction after the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving disaster, eager to establish an identity around youth and two-way adeptness.

Smith Jr. said he contemplated the fit a few days prior to free agency, and the Nets became his first call. He now envisions a strong defensive squad in Brooklyn, though he was wary of bold declarations after a couple seasons with the Knicks.

“I know how y’all do in NY,” Smith Jr. said with a smile. “But I think we could be a really, really good defensive team. We got all the pieces in place for it. I think coach (Jacque Vaughn) is on board with it as well.”

Still, minutes are hardly guaranteed. Some of Smith Jr.’s opportunities will be reliant on Brooklyn’s least reliable player, Ben Simmons. If Simmons can’t resuscitate his career as a guard, the backup spots are wide open. It wasn’t a good sign for Simmons — who hasn’t played a game since Feb. 15 — that he withdrew from the FIBA World Cup. People are skeptical Simmons will ever be consistently on a basketball court again.

That’s where Smith Jr. fits in.

He’s essentially replacing Patty Mills, who was traded to the Thunder during free agency, as a guard depth piece. Training camp and preseason will be important to sorting out Smith Jr.’s status and his spot in the rotation.

“I’m going to have to come in and earn my minutes like everybody else,” Smith Jr. said. “That’s on par with my brand. Ain’t nothing been given to me. So I’m looking forward to that.”

Smith Jr. had a rough go the last time he played in New York, although that was with the Manhattan team. He was drafted ninth overall in 2017 by the Mavericks, demonstrating elite athleticism as a rookie but fell out of Rick Carlisle’s favor.

He was traded to the Knicks in the package for Kristaps Porzingis, kicking off a rollercoaster two-year tenure that nearly ended Smith Jr.’s NBA career. He lost his confidence and shot with the Knicks, an unfortunate development that coincided with the death of his stepmother and fans booing him at MSG.

A year later, Smith Jr. was out of Tom Thibodeau’s rotation and took the unusual step of requesting to play in the G-League, as the Daily News reported. After injuries sabotaged stints with the Pistons and Blazers, Smith Jr. was out of the NBA and contemplating a career change.

“I told my previous agent, ‘I’m not going overseas,’” Smith Jr. told the Daily News last season. “If sh— 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.”

Instead, Smith Jr. rejuvenated his basketball career with the Hornets and signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Nets. He said the circumstances made his guaranteed contract sweeter.

“It’s the first time I actually got to be a free agent,” Smith Jr. said before listing the elbow and knee injuries that held him back. “So, I had consecutive training camp deals and now I get to actually be a free agent where somebody is calling me like, “We want you over here instead of just going there and having to force my way to be part of their plans. So I’m thankful.

Early in his career, Smith Jr. relied on his athleticism while accumulating impressive highlights and two Slam Dunk contest appearances. He averaged 15.2 points in the first season with the Mavericks, even drawing praise from LeBron James But the rest of Smith Jr.’s game didn’t catch up. His defense was subpar with the Knicks, and the jump shot remains inconsistent.

But the Charlotte stint showed growth in the areas required for being an effective role player. His defense took a huge leap. His turnovers were down. He averaged 8.8 points in 25.7 minutes over 54 games with 4.8 assists, but the most impressive development was defense.

He’s bringing that to Brooklyn.

“(The defensive transformation) started a little bit before Charlotte. It’s a lot of film study,” said Smith Jr., who added that he watched the defensive work of Jrue Holiday, Avery Bradley and Chris Paul. “And having my minutes taken away from me, I had to try to figure out different ways to get on the court and impact the game with my role decreased. So a lot of film study, check my ego at the door and it’s worked out for me.”


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