Dennis Smith Jr. found perspective in his second-chance stint with the Charlotte Hornets in 2022-23, a season that may have resurrected his career. He’s continuing his newfound opportunity with the Brooklyn Nets after signing for the minimum. And the former lottery pick is bullish on his fit with Brooklyn’s new-look roster.
“I just thought it was hand and glove fit,” Smith Jr. said Sunday while watching the Nets play at Summer League. “As soon as free agency opened, the Nets were the first call I got. It was communicated to me that I was a priority.”
“The direction they were trying to go in was also on the same trajectory that I am in my career. Being able to play with this staff and the players they put out there, I could maximize my game.”
Spencer Dinwiddie will lead the Nets' backcourt after re-joining the team at last year's trade deadline. Edmond Sumner’s 2023-24 outlook is in question after Brooklyn pushed back the guarantee date of his contract to July 15. And despite their glaring need for scoring following Kevin Durant's and Kyrie Irving's departures last season, Cam Thomas could not crack the rotation post-trade deadline.
Dennis Smith Jr. and the Nets
That opportunity caught Smith Jr.’s eye ahead of free agency.
“I had thought about (the opportunity in the backcourt) a couple of weeks before I had a call with them. So my excitement was matching theirs whenever they were on a call with me,” he said. “It was a place I could see myself at and it worked out perfectly.”
“I’m going to have to come in and earn my minutes like everybody else. That’s on par with my brand. Ain’t nothing been given to me. So I’m looking forward to that.”
Smith Jr., the ninth overall pick by the Mavericks in 2017, entered the league as a high-flying offensive talent. Things didn’t work out in Dallas, and he was traded to the Knicks in a package for Kristaps Porzingis. His shooting struggles and injuries continued in New York, nearly ending his career.
However, a second chance in Charlotte last year saw the 25-year-old focus his athletic prowess on impacting the game defensively, a development that opened a new role for him in the NBA.
“It actually started a little bit before Charlotte. It's a lot of film study. And actually just having my minutes taken away from me, just trying to figure out different ways to get on the court, impact the game whenever my role decreased.”
“So a lot of film study, studying those guys that are really good at it; Jrue Holliday, Avery Bradley, just to name a few. Chris Paul in his prime, like, he was really, really good defensively. I started studying those guys and picking up little things from each one of them and added them to my game… I checked my ego at the door and it's worked out for me.”
Dennis Smith Jr.'s disruptive defense has gotten the Hornets back into this one. pic.twitter.com/OcrxQ7ZnPi
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) November 1, 2022
The top Point of Attack Defenders in our defensive impact metric D-LEBRON this season:
+2.31: Alex Caruso
+1.60: Jevon Carter
+1.35: De'Anthony Melton
+1.32: Dennis Smith Jr.
+1.32: Derrick White
+1.12: Jaden McDaniels
+1.10: Josh Hart
+1.09: Dillon Brooks
POA Role Explainer ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/OeTlQjyBv7
— BBall Index (@The_BBall_Index) January 15, 2023
Smith Jr. joins a Nets roster full of versatile defenders in Nic Claxton, Mikal Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith, Royce O’Neale and Cam Johnson. That squad's defensive capabilities were a draw, although Smith Jr. was cautious of bold predictions given his familiarity with New York.
“I’m not going to make bold claims because I know how y’all do in NY,” he said with a laugh. “I think we could be a really, really good defensive team. We got all the pieces in place for it. I think coach is on board with it as well. So I’m looking forward to getting there.”
“Just a whole bunch of guys that can play both ways… That’s why the choice was kind of easy for me. Like I said, everything that they have going on with the guys they have was just on brand with how I see the game and how I want to play.”
Offensively, Smith Jr. averaged 8.8 points and 4.8 assists on 41 percent shooting in 25.7 minutes per game last season. He continued to struggle as a shooter, converting at a 21.6 percent clip on 2.1 three-point attempts per game last season. However, he is an aggressive slasher who can provide some much-needed rim pressure for the Nets, who attempted the second-fewest shots at the rim in the league last season, per NBA.com.
That aggression attacking the paint, along with Smith Jr.'s defensive prowess, are qualities that general manager Sean Marks emphasized when speaking about his newest signing.
“You look at Dennis and you look at the course of his career, and he's had a couple of setbacks here and there, and he's a fighter. You've seen him come back, you've seen the competitive spirit. I love seeing that there's a chip on his shoulder, a very clear chip on his shoulder. And we've talked over the years about finding guys who have something to prove, and continually want to build on themselves and Dennis is exactly that,” Marks said.
“You know what he brings on the court, his defensive prowess, you see how he's never shied away from anything. I mean, he's an elite defender. He can touch the paint offensively, he's a great athlete. So you know, we're bringing another person in there that fits our timeline. He's young, chip on his shoulder and something to prove, which would be great for this group.”