Detroit Pistons: Dennis Smith Jr. is probably not good; but worth a shot

New York Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. (5) drives in through the Charlotte Hornets defense and dunks at the Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports
New York Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. (5) drives in through the Charlotte Hornets defense and dunks at the Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pistons acquired Dennis Smith Jr from the Knicks in a trade that sent Derrick Rose to New York to be reunited with his former coach Tom Thibodeau.

Smith has not been a productive NBA player so far, but it’s possible he can find his stride  with the Detroit Pistons.

Dennis Smith Jr. brings a lot of hype to Pistons

Dennis Smith Jr is a headline-grabbing acquisition for the Detroit Pistons.

Smith was a highly-touted super-athletic point-guard prospect once upon a time, who was drafted 9th overall in 2017 by the Dallas Mavericks. He fell in the draft due to a ACL injury, and some questions as to his maturity, but his talent was largely unquestioned.

On the surface, this is exactly the sort of player that the Pistons should be taking a shot on.

A super-talented player who just hasn’t found the right situation, will get plenty of chances to show what he has in the bag. The Pistons have the worst record in the NBA and in fairly dire need of another athletic shot-creator, besides Jerami Grant.

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Smith Jr also marks a continuing trend for Pistons general manager Troy Weaver in going for this sort of player.

Detroit signed both Josh Jackson and Jahlil Okafor, both of similar profile to Smith, this past off-season. Taking players who were drafted high but had been given up on by other teams, and trying to flip them into assets is a luxury that rebuilding teams get to make. It’s good that the Pistons are taking full advantage.

Okafor has been mostly a flop, being soundly outplayed by other bigs on the roster, and now being hurt.  Jackson has made clear improvements to his game, although his revival is not as impressive as some have made it out to be. Many of the statistical issues remain with his inefficiency on offense.

The main issue here though, is that Smith seems like a particularly long-shot to make much of himself in Detroit.

Jackson had failed previously, due almost entirely to his own immaturity, and poor approach to being a professional basketball player.

Jackson seemed to have a come-to-Jesus moment last year with the Grizzlies organization, when he spent a lot of time in the G-League. Detroit coach Dwane Casey has a long and well-earned reputation of getting guys go buy-in and be good professionals.

Dennis Smith a different kind of Pistons project

For Smith, it isn’t so much off the court issues or a lack of the previous opportunity.

In Smith’s first two seasons he played nearly 30 minutes per game and had the ball in his hands a significant amount of the time. Other than a slight spat about how the Mavericks started to prioritize Luka Doncic over him, there has been very little indication that Smith has been unprofessional or not attacked the game with the fire needed to succeed.

In fact there have been several glowing reports about him requesting to go to the G-League bubble to get reps in, while he was out of the Knicks rotation.

The problem for Smith has largely been his own play on the court. Some of the issues are the types that you expect from young point guards. The defense was a mess, the turnovers were high, the decision-making was often poor.

The issue was that Smith was billed as an electric offensive player, an incredible athlete with a brilliant first-step and explosive leaping ability. His skills should’ve made him a killer slashing ball-handler, who could get into the lane at will, and finish effectively when he got there.

Instead, he’s settled for far too many long twos and has been a mediocre finisher in the lane. Combined with a brick-laying jumper, makes him a totally ineffective chucker on offense.

Smith’s inability to effectively get into the lane, or finish when he got there, is not something that players tend to be able to fix as they get more experienced.

Smith as a lot to prove in his game with Detroit Pistons

There are examples, but they are far and few between. It’s possible he fixes his shot and that propels him towards being a viable NBA player, but he’s shown no indication of shooting the ball better so far.

The main thing to remember in all of this, is to not dwell too much on the player he was predicted to be out of college. Do not think of him as the No. 9 overall player.

Smith’s play to this point is not the caliber of an NBA player, so he needs to not just get his head on right or just improve his shot a bit. He needs to make serious strides in just about every single area of his game. He isn’t even mediocre at any single NBA skill. He needs to make huge improvements to even be a worthwhile backup in this league.

Just to make the comparison to Josh Jackson again.

Jackson was clearly a plus-defender when he was engaged almost from Day One and a plus-passer for his position. There was a clear two-step path to him becoming a useful NBA player,:

  • Step one was getting his head right
  • Step two was finding some semblance of being scoring option.

Smith has nothing like that clear path.

Smith’s path probably requires a total reassessment of his defensive approach, a ton of work on his jumper, and some kind of total epiphany in terms of his driving (both in terms of how often he drives and how effective he is when he does).

All this isn’t to say that he isn’t worth a look.

There are exceptions to every rule, and Smith is talented enough that its possible he can be an exception to the rule of “Guys this bad don’t become viable NBA players”, but Pistons fans should be honest about his chances.

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By far the most likely situation is, that Smith has a couple of good games but is largely very bad before departing in the offseason for possibly one more flyer contract before being out of the league.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible he figures some things out, but it is the most likely outcome.