Pistons and Knicks fans might know that following the 2017 NBA Draft, many observers argued that the Dallas Mavericks had obtained the steal of the night with their selection of Dennis Smith Jr. with the ninth overall pick.
A freshman guard out of North Carolina State University, Dennis Smith was a highly regarded prospect owing to his prodigious athletic ability and willingness to attack off the dribble. While there remained concerns over his defensive prowess and lackadaisical effort, the point guard possessed the type of high-risk, high-reward talent that teams should reach for at the back of the lottery, where sure things rarely exist.
Combined with standout summer league performance by Dennis Smith, the Mavs entered the 2017-2018 season being sure they possessed at least one building block as they embarked on a rebuilding effort.
Three years later, not only has Dallas moved on from the Dennis Smith experiment, but the point guard finds himself on the precipice of falling out of the league entirely.
Traded from the New York Knicks to the Detroit Pistons, Dennis Smith will once again find himself in new surroundings attempting to make good on the talent that has tantalized front offices across the league.
While the guard has shored up his effort on the defensive end–grading out as an above-average defender against ball-handlers in which he is the primary defender, according to tracking-data from Synergy Sports–leaks have sprung elsewhere in his game that have combined to nearly sink his career.
Sporting a three-point field goal percentage below 30%, Dennis Smith has seen defenses aggressively drop below picks when guarding him, closing off driving lanes, and suffocating his attacks before he can gain a full head of steam.
Even when the guard has attempted to pivot and instead utilize the space in front of him to gain a clear view of the court and set up cutting teammates, Dennis Smith has seen his passes intercepted and turnover ratio skyrocket to nearly 15%.
With significant concerns over his court awareness and few viable ways to get him into the lane with efficient regularity, it’s no surprise that the Knicks chose to bail on the Dennis Smith experiment in the same way the Mavericks once did.
Yet, that isn’t to say there is no hope for Dennis Smith Jr in the NBA as we advance. While he is almost certainly not the lead guard many envisioned him becoming when he entered the league, Smith could still carve out a rotation role for himself if he is willing to move without the ball and increase his shooting by even a few percentage points.
As long as his progress on the defensive side of the court remains, it’s not difficult to imagine Dennis Smith serving in an off-guard position for years to come, harnessing the raw athleticism that remains under the grime of failed expectations.
It may not be what Dennis Smith imagined when he first became a pro, but succeeding in the NBA often requires adaptability for all but the most talented few.
This got us thinking about the other players that are currently languishing on benches around the association despite prodigious talent. To help break it all down, here are three other reclamation projects waiting to be resurrected.
From the moment Frankie Smokes was drafted by the New York Knicks one spot ahead of Dennis Smith Jr in the 2017 NBA Draft, the point guard has oscillated between fan favorite and team pariah. While draft experts viewed Ntilikina as a prospect that would require an ample amount of time to mature, the past four years have done little to assuage the fears that existed around his underdeveloped offensive game.
Though he exhibited an inability to hit outside shots during his tenure in the European league, Ntilikina did possess outstanding court-vision and a willingness to pass the ball that gave multiple teams hope he could become a key cog in a starting lineup when combined with his otherworldly defensive ability.
Four years later, however — as Dennis Smith knows — not only have his shooting woes failed to improve, but Ntilikina’s hesitancy behind the arc has infected the rest of his offensive game. While he can still get into the heart of the lane thanks to his quickness of the dribble, the guard has a maddening tendency to immediately dish the ball back out to the perimeter rather than using his positioning to get to the rim or draw a foul. Not only has this resulted in Ntilikina failing to average even a single free-throw per game, but it has also meant that his career-high in field-goals per game has topped out at under 2.5–a lack of production that won’t do for any player that hopes to have a meaningful rotation role.
If a team can find a way to round out his offensive limitations, there’s no denying that the guard has the means to be an impact player. With a 7’1 wingspan and a solid frame, Ntilikina has the means to guard four positions on the court, providing his squad a dose of versatility on the defensive end that can be crucial to success.
Even when opposing teams run his man through picks, Ntilikina not only possesses the lateral quickness to duck under but the length to still affect a shot when closing out. Dennis Smith saw how Ntilikina operated on the Knicks. Combined with his superb positioning–consistently maintaining a low-stance with his arms stretched out wide that seems to swallow a whole portion of the floor–it’s no surprise that the guard has been a net-positive on the defensive end according to his on/off numbers, per Cleaning the Glass.
While he seems unlikely to remain in New York (which is where Dennis Smith just left), Ntilikina shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a home. Though it may not turn into a bidding war, there will likely be multiple teams convinced that they could develop the guard far better than the Knicks were able to.
Another international player widely regarded as a “project” with tremendous upside, the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Maker in the 2016 draft, hoping to duplicate the magic they found with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Like the Greek Freak, Maker sported a rail-thin 7-foot frame, boosted by tremendous athleticism and a silky smooth outside shot. While the Canadian national had less experience than even Giannis did when entering the league (and also less than Dennis Smith), it’s easy to understand why the raw talent in front of him seduced Bucks’ GM Mike Hammond.
That Milwaukee could not find playing time for a player that seemed perpetually two years away from being two years away was not too concerning given that the Bucks were in contention. His performance, or lack thereof in Detroit, however, has worried multiple observers around the league.
Displaying a surprising amount of reluctance to shoot the ball despite a respectable 34% mark from behind the line, Maker instead tried to contribute on the offensive side of the ball by becoming an off-ball player. Compare that to Dennis Smith. Increasing the percentage of his possessions in which he served as an off-ball cutter to over 20%, Maker displayed a complete lack of feel and anticipation, routinely cutting right into rotations and turning the ball over 13% on flash cuts, according to Synergy Sports.
One wonders what Dennis Smith might think: While his lack of progress on the offensive end has relegated him to the bench in a crowded frontcourt with the Cavaliers, Maker still provides enough value on defense to make him a player worth investing in. Sporting a respectable 1.2 defensive plus/minus, Maker still possesses the frame and quickness to grade out as a rotation player if a team can improve his decision-making. While providing him playing time may be difficult in the short-term given his current limitations, there’s still potential waiting to be found in Thon Maker.